Danish photographer Joakim Eskildsen spent seven years shooting Romany tribes, or Roma — Gypsies, as they are usually called by Anglophones who don’t know that it’s considered by many to be a racial slur. The name derives from the misconception that they came from Egypt, when in fact they originated in the Rajasthan region of India. The Roma began migrating throughout Europe about 1,000 years ago, and today they are spread across 30 countries, roughly a million of them in the US. Though often persecuted as wily thieves and swindlers (and worse, by Hitler), the Roma are street-smart survivors who have elaborate codes of behavior, an inviolable sense of family loyalty, and a keen respect for the natural world. Eskildsen captures their various worlds — each with its own sartorial flair, dialect, and mode of lodging — with the tenacity and curiosity of an anthropologist.
The project began in a village in Hungary, where Eskildsen met an elderly Roma woman named Magda who reminded him of his grandmother. He persuaded her to let him stay on, working odd pastoral chores (fetching well water, etc.), and he thus embedded himself in a rural Roma habitat, becoming familiar to and with her people. This immersive approach would allow him, over a seven-year period, to unveil the cloistered lives of several such tribes with his camera. Eskildsen’s portraits in particular (there are also quite a few landscapes) comprise what he calls “a goldmine” of pictorial documentation of a ubiquitous social stratum in Europe. But this prodigious series is no mere typology; the images are those of a practiced artistic eye, inspiring empathy for a people whose lives are robust and full. Although the pictures bear witness to many in impoverished conditions, the Roma’s ingenuity, joie de vivre, and dignity remain intact — though a biased viewer might wonder if their children would fare better if assimilated into their local society rather than molded for a marginal, nomadic existence.
Born in a small Danish village, Eskildsen started in photography when he was 13. His father had been a police photographer in the 1960s, documenting accidents, and had an old enlarger and chemicals in the attic. His older brother set up a darkroom in the garage with their father’s equipment, and while they were clumsily developing “grayish” images, Joakim decided on the spot that it would be his life’s vocation. “I was amazed by the idea that you could choose what kind of weather you have, what kind of people you could introduce into your world … It was like storytelling; it felt real, but it was all from your reality. It was a feeling of eternal realities speaking to me.” He devoured the local library’s photography magazines. In 1986, he saw an exhibition of Kirsten Klein, Denmark’s most famous photographer, whose grainy black-and-white landscapes were shot regionally and in other rugged Nordic realms like Iceland — an elegiac and some might say mystically toned body of work that made a big impression on Eskildsen. At age 15, in order to secure an apprenticeship, obligatory at his school level, he brazenly called the Queen’s photographer and cajoled her into allowing him to work there for a week, to avoid being assigned to a farming school. It turned into a five-year apprenticeship as a portrait photographer, which included shooting all the theaters in Copenhagen. To a country lad, under the wing of his well-connected mentor, this became a twofold education — not just technical and artistic, but also a chance to become acquainted with the cultural and political elite of a bustling capital. Meanwhile, she imparted a honed sense for natural light that came of having learned the intricacies of studio lighting. She had, he says, 100 names for different light settings, such as “the Marlene Dietrich light.” “Even in proverbs of language, we say I didn’t see it in the right light. They’re not just clichés; it’s kind of true that without the right light you don’t see the right things.”
Eskildsen’s increasingly celebrated work would win him a solo exhibition at Denmark’s national art museum. From the start, Eskildsen regarded photography as a craft to learn not as a trade but as a visual skill that he would one day deploy for personal expression. He uses the word “holy” to suggest he sees it as a spiritual calling of sorts, so it’s no surprise that he has never had a commercial client. For Eskildsen, it’s a profound way of seeing the world.
I never noticed a pregnant woman before my wife got pregnant. And when my wife was pregnant I saw pregnant women everywhere. I think it’s the same with photography. You have certain things that you become conscious about, and you see it everywhere. It exists everywhere, you just need the consciousness to see it.
After years of living among the Roma, and other itinerant projects that have taken him to Portugal, Africa, and Cuba, Eskildsen was admonished by his friends that he should create his own family and “make his own tea.” With his first child born, he was nudged into settling down, ending his Roma odyssey. True to his vow of only focusing on that which he identified with personally, he began shooting entirely within the walking perimeter of his home, now in Berlin. The resulting series, Home Works, would become a 10-year project, and the one he says he is most proud of, not least for being the most difficult. “It’s my own family. It’s what you know best, but it’s very hard to get it into sync with your vision and dreams, because reality is not always how you think about it. When I started the series, I thought, I want my life to be like my pictures, otherwise I’m lying. I may not always be achieving that, but I think the result has been very good.” Eskildsen’s wandering isn’t quite over yet, though. About to be published is his series American Realities (Steidl).
More from the Photographer Spotlight Series: