When We Were Young, an exhibition of photographs of childhood from the collection, includes many striking images by photographers working in the documentary tradition. In this blog one of those photographers, Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert, reflects on his work photographing children in the Roma camp of Sintesti in Romania and on the influence of some of the other photographers featured in the exhibition.
It’s hard to start out as a photographer in Glasgow and not be aware of the work of those that have gone before, especially the photographic works of Oscar Marzaroli and Joseph McKenzie. Their iconic, sometimes gritty, black and white images that we know, and that we love so well we could draw them, still burn bright on the walls of photography in Scotland. How great the defiant faces of Marzaroli’s Castlemilk Lads, or the subtle style and beauty of Joseph McKenzie’s Beatles-dress girl capturing the look of the era.
When I started out in my fledgling career I’d head down to the Gorbals to roam the streets and aim to emulate those works. With no project to build on, those early photos were purely my way of finding my feet, finding my way to see the world through a lens.
It wasn’t until I went to Romania in the early 1990s, setting out on my career of photojournalism, that I finally began to find my own way, and importantly to find my own images.
From 1990 to 1997 I pitched up every so often in the Roma camp of Sintesti in Romania, a settlement of a few hundred once-nomadic Roma. Although now sedentary, they still used the Roma-language word ‘satra’, meaning ‘moveable camp’, to describe their settlement. It was within Sintesti camp that I crafted my first big project, documenting the lifestyle, traditions, births, deaths and marriages as the country, and the Roma, emerged from the Ceaucescu years of Communism into the bright lights of a westernised Europe.
Each day I’d hang out in the camp, walk the lanes, wangle invites into houses and gardens, looking to make images and shoot portraits. Inevitably I had an entourage of kids with me at all times, the kind of kids you could imagine being on spare land playing on mattresses, or building dens and castles, in the Gorbals of Marzaroli and McKenzie.
These kids would follow me, incessantly asking ‘make me a photo!’ I’d run a production line some days, “all those that want photographed stand on my right”, and once they’d been photographed, “stand on my left”. Order was the only way to control it. One young boy, Bulache, learned how to load my Rolliecord camera, he carried my bag, and became my assistant. With his help I tried to capture the look of the camp, to make order in the photos out of situations that sometimes verged on chaos.
People ask me what the secret is to photographing children, and I’ve pondered the question, but find no real answer other than shooting with children is as it should be: simple, innocent, honest and most of all fun. Just as I try to keep it with all those I encounter with my camera. It doesn’t matter what equipment you own, what lens you have, how many or how few megapixels, if you can’t relate to people. It’s the person that takes the photo, not the camera. Photographing children, as it is with adults, is about being honest, about treating them with respect, being mannerly, engaging with them, explaining who you are and what you’re doing. These portraits, such as my image of the two Roma girls that hangs in the ‘When We Were Young’ exhibition, are fruits of collaboration. I can only get the image if the children allow me, if they participate. It’s a two-way process.
I never met Oscar Marzaroli (only seeing him from afar at an exhibition of his work in the Third Eye Centre in Glasgow), and only once briefly met Joseph McKenzie, but I can imagine they would have had such thoughts of the children they engaged with, similar attitudes to photographing the people they met and to the resulting images they created.
It’s photography as it should be: honest.