The British media love a good bogeyman and, among their many pet hates, Roma Gypsies come close to the top. If they also happen to be Eastern European immigrants – as opposed to indigenous Romanies – then all the better. Scapegoat bingo.

The Roma news stories have come thick and fast over recent months: setting up squalid camps in posh corners of London; potential abductors or vendors of blonde babies; beggars and benefit fraudsters are about to descend on us in droves when Romanians and Bulgarians get full employment rights in January.

Almost without exception the tales are highly negative and sensationalist in tone and many draw on the kind of myths which have plagued these communities since they first arrived in Europe from the Indian subcontinent more than 1,000 years ago.

Consequently, many people have opinions on the Roma – these are displayed in all their shouty and often misinformed glory under any online story.

All too few are based on any kind of understanding, empathy or genuine experience, and the debate rarely moves on from anecdote, hearsay and dehumanising racial stereotypes. We never hear of the Roma who are doing okay and trying to get ahead – and Romani voices are exceptionally rare. We rarely consider the wider impact of generations of stifling institutionalised racism, ethnic cleansing, crippling poverty and demonisation.

RomaIt’s quite timely then that Newcastle’s Side Gallery is currently exhibiting Stay Where There Are Songs, a body of documentary work that I have produced in collaboration with an extended family of Czech Roma, now living and working in Middlesbrough. Over the past 18 months I have documented the everyday lives of Zaneta, Jiri, their four children and other relatives, trying to capture the quiet domestic moments, the relationships between family members and the story of their migration from Czech and their integration into British life. They have had full control of their representation in the final show, and all the words are theirs.

This collaboration – which has turned into a friendship and will endure beyond the show – was made possible thanks to a commission from Side, aimed at encouraging emerging photographers to document the migrant communities of the North East. It also forms part of a far broader independent long-term documentary project in which I’m working with Roma who are now embracing the opportunities offered to them by a fresh start in Britain. Also on show is commissioned work by Paul Alexander Knox, which tells the stories of Sunderland’s Bangladeshi community. This too touches on very timely political themes such as Islam, multiculturalism and integration.

I’m neither romanticising Gypsy culture nor denying the great challenges which face Roma people across Europe. But I think we desperately need a more nuanced and realistic media representation of their lives and experiences. The dull reality is, of course, that Romani culture is as diverse as any other, as are the individuals and families within it. Only by looking past the Roma label and stereotypes and focusing on the human stories can we begin to understand and integrate these new arrivals into British society.

By Ciara Leeming


Ciara picStay Where There Are Songs by Ciara Leeming and We Are All Brothers Here by Paul Alexander Knox are on show at Side Gallery in Newcastle until December 21, 2013. 

Stay Where There Are Songs and other stories from Ciara’s project can be viewed on her Roma Britain website