April - June, 2016
Once Serdjan, our translator, finished saying, “We are going to learn why storytelling is important, why YOUR story is important,” I saw a few smiles slowly appear on the students’ faces. Their community and their people, the Roma (often referred to as ‘Gypsies’), have been subjects of international news photographers over the years. “I think it’s time Roma documented the stories of the Roma people,” I said.
In 1999, thousands of Roma were forced to flee the war in Kosovo and relocated to the Konik Refugee Camp outside of Podgorica, Montenegro, in Eastern Europe. They were housed in make-shift shelters, separated from the Montenegrin society and, because they lack legal status, are still severely limited in the areas of education, health, employment, and government representation. Only in recent years have improvements come with construction of permanent housing for some of the families and the integration of Roma and non-Roma children in Podgorica’s schools.
Despite the progression of time and public policy, discrimination still creates a rift between the Roma and non-Roma Montenegrins, resulting in economic disparity and little to no opportunity for social advancement. When we learned of the Roma in Konik, we knew that if Picture Change could provide Roma high school students with education, equipment and experience in documentary photography, they could begin to see new possibilities for themselves and their Roma community.
In April, 2016, Picture Change partnered with the Roma Education Fund. REF has worked to advance educational reform for the Roma since 2005 and welcomed Picture Change to Montenegro. For two months, we instructed ten Roma high school students in digital storytelling techniques to discover their innate creativity, their ability to positively impact society, and the worth of their individual story. In class we held powerful discussions about how documentary photography can perpetuate or demolish stereotypes, the power of an individual image, and how digital storytelling allows us to communicate with the rest of the world without being hindered by language.
At the end of the course, we hosted two gallery shows, featuring over 60 student photos, behind the scenes photos, and a biography panel written by the students. The exhibit, which the students titled "I Mi Znamo" (We Also Know), was a personal perspective of Roma life, putting what was familiar to our students on display. This instilled pride in the Konik residents and allowed the non-Roma in Podgorica to see so much more than the typical refugee camp photos. The students chose this title to emphasize that the Roma people are capable, eager to learn and to become productive citizens of Montenegro.
The first exhibition was in Bozidar Vukovic Podgoricanin, a school in the students’ community of Konik. Producing the show was a group effort by the whole team and quite a few teachers and local mediators. A representative from the Ministry of Education opened the exhibit and musical entertainment and event photography were provided by the students. It was an extraordinary evening in which the students were celebrated by their family and friends as they presented their photos for the first time.
Our second gallery was a more formal affair at the European Union Info Centar in downtown Podgorica. This was a unique opportunity for our students and the Roma community. Speaking to a multi-cultural audience (with translation in English and Montenegrin), were representatives of the European Union, Roma Education Fund (Dragana Radoman), our own Kate Gazaway of Picture Change and students, Rabija and Edin. All spoke so highly of the impact of this project and the prospects for the students’ future.
The EU Info Centar allotted us five days to display the photos but after seeing them, they asked to keep the photos up for two additional weeks. The students were honored as artists and received as professional photographers. One of our students, Albijon, photographed the event and was asked to submit his photos for posting on the EU Info Centar’s online presence.
This Picture Change project has had and will have many positive outcomes:
- Non-Roma Montenegrins were able to see more intimate look into Roma culture and the talent, capabilities, and dedication of the Roma youth.
- Students who did not know each other have formed strong bonds over the course of our two month class.
- Students are able to skillfully document their own story and share it via social media.
- Affordable photography services can be provided to the Roma community via the donated gear which remained with Roma Education Fund and our student photographers.
- Connections have been built with other photographers, organizations, and professionals in Podgorica.
We are very excited to see what the future holds for these capable, passionate, and talented students.