The Roma Project, by Kieran Kesner
An Interview with Kieran Kesner on his amazing photo documentary “The Roma Project“.
2HeadS: Kieran, by what I saw on your webpage, you’re still studying photography at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and you already have a fantastic body of work, almost a sociological treat, from Israel to Jamaica and more recently the Roma’s culture, with a very mature approach. Which came first in your life: the passion for photography or for sociology? How did all this came out?
KieranK: Thank you for saying such. My dad gave me his Canon film camera when I was 16. He is a writer and filmmaker and my mom is an interdisciplinary and expressive arts educator and they are both great storytellers in their respective mediums. However, my ability to capture through my camera, what I saw through my own personal viewfinder, really came alive in my junior year of high school. This paired with a desire to explore the world, meet new people, and general curiosity for different cultures, brought me to do what I do now.
2HeadS: It seems that you’re managing 2 different lives at this moment, living half time in Czech Republic and other half in NY?… and if there was any other half, travelling around? Which other culture would you like to shot?
KieranK: I have a keen interest in exploring cultures and communities that remain relatively unknown and hidden to the public. I feel it is both a privilege and a responsibility to share cultures most will never know first hand in hopes of bringing the world a little closer together. I choose subjects and cultures based upon a deep sense of curiosity and interest. I try to avoid closing myself off to anything and leave my expectations open so I can experience cultures, communities and individuals without preconceived notions. While I don’t have a short list of subjects I hope to shoot, I always keep my eyes open, usually through personal connections, for future subjects and stories that are meaningful to me.
KieranK: I started photographing and working with the Roma (Gypsy) communities of Eastern Europe this past winter and spring when I was studying abroad in the Czech Republic. My interest in Roma society and culture stemmed first from misguided prejudice and stereotypes, and then an interest to further explore the truth about these people.
In an effort to learn more about the Roma people, I approached many professors, local students and Czech citizens to ask what their feelings were on the Roma in their country. Most of the people I approached have liberal views similar to myself in terms of equality and social justice. However, when the subject of Roma came up, most quickly dismissed the question, expressed prejudices of their own and were clearly turned off by my interest in the subject matter.
On the one hand is the stereotype of Gypsies as beggars who steal for a living and encroach on neighboring communities. On the other, is a mysterious romanticism of Gypsy culture often featured in literature, song and film. I decided that the best way to learn more was to travel to Roma communities on my own, spend time with them and capture their culture through my photography. I spent weekends photographing their lives, listening to their stories, and discussing the misperceived public perception of their people.
2HeadS: Will the Roma’s project end as exhibition and book? Anything booked already? Any other plans for this project?
KieranK: I will be graduating from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in December. My senior thesis on Roma communities will culminate in a gallery showing in NYC in January 2014 as well as plans to have this published as a book. I have also been in touch with a number of galleries throughout the Eastern European about showcasing the work and speaking about my experiences. I already have a show planned in Prague and plan to bring this gallery to other parts of the US and Europe after the gallery showing in NYC.
2HeadS: Some of these projects can be seen as not so altruistic by some people, but a way of getting exposure, etc using minorities, disabled or excluded people for example. How are you helping the Roma’s culture with this photographic project?
KieranK: I believe this is the unfortunate truth with many projects. My interest in continuing to work with the Roma communities stemmed from my goal to launch a new non-profit that would engage viewers on a first hand basis with Roma individuals in both photographs and short video segments. If audiences can see Roma as real people with hopes, dreams and challenges, rather than negative stereotypes, and then use this work as a platform to build connections and promote pressing issues faced by Roma communities, I believe it can be a powerful vehicle to motivate change. Through the many connections I have made and through my skills in Social Media, PR and a growing knowledge of non-profits; I hope to use the work I am creating to shine a spotlight on the issues faced by Roma communities and deepen my relationship with those offering humanitarian support to Roma communities throughout Europe.
2HeadS: What are you finding more difficult in this entire project? I read that you don’t speak Czech and they don’t speak English… yet, by the final result, language seems not to be an obstacle…
KieranK: Gaining access to Roma communities requires patience, dedication and a purpose. Although I have met some wonderful people to help in some locations, language and the barrier it presents is one of the most challenging obstacles. The other challenge is navigating rules and customs far different from my own, both in Roma communities and the countries in which they live.
Though I make significant preparations and take as many precautions as possible to preserve my safety, I generally enter completely on my own, or with limited guidance from someone connected to a specific Roma community.
There are many potential dangers due to language barriers, cultural differences and attracting suspicion by being different from everyone else around you. I use respect, sincerity and interest in the world around me as my primary method of seamlessly integrating myself into everyday life of others.
Being on my own certainly has its risks, but as a photographer, it also allows me to get a much more personal and honest, ‘in the moment’ view of how people really are without additional strangers or outsiders to distract from how people really are.
One of the most difficult physical and logistical challenges is that I need to keep all of my possessions on me at all times and am always concerned about loss of my gear or data before backing it up properly.
2HeadS: With my project B Shot by a Stranger, I realised lately that the camera could really be a voyeuristic tool, even if the photographer is not a voyeur. How do you feel about this relation voyeur/exhibitionist or spectator of what is different for you?
KieranK: I guess some photographers are drawn to the medium from a voyeuristic perspective, but I’ve never been one to hide behind my camera. I know others who only ‘live’ behind their camera, but that’s never been of interest to me. I try to live in the moment whether I’m photographing or not. I don’t hide with a telephoto lens, but rather get close with most of my subjects, photographing mostly in the 28mm-35mm focal range. There are certainly times when I do capture moments discretely and without my subject knowing it. This often happens if I’m traveling in a car, subway or walking through the streets of a city. However, I do so, because I want to capture the moment honestly, rather than voyueristically, without my camera, or their reaction to it, getting in the way. Even then, I always feel a great responsibility to treat every person with respect and dignity.
2HeadS: You already have some experience, and as I said before you have an amazing body of work. 2HeadS started to guide university students and teachers specially the ones studying in the universities that are lecturing my work of photography. But you have not only a different approach also a unique way to show it, also by what I understood you’re almost “living” with them.
Do you have any tips that you can share to other students who might want to follow documentary and social photography?
– a must read: Le Voyeur Social and A World’s Voodoo Trance
KieranK: My biggest piece of advice is just to have a passion for what you are doing and to push yourself beyond your comfort zones. You can ask for the support of your friends and family but at the end of the day, you will find that you are often alone, in unfamiliar places and situations and if you dont love new experiences, meeting new people, and telling stories through photography and video, it probably won’t yield the results you hope for. I am not an extroverted person by nature, but I have to constantly push myself beyond my comfort zone in order to build connections both professionally and with my camera. Another piece of advice I give to young photographers is to not get overly focused on what gear you have. The tools we have today are amazing and very affordable, and most anyone can take a well exposed photo. However, its what you do with your gear, that’s really important. I am just as proud of photos I take with my phone (instagram.com/kierankesner) as I am of photos I take with my Canon or Nikon cameras (kierankesner.com). It’s not what you have, it’s what you see and how you learn to capture it that truly makes the difference between a good photo and a great photo. Once you have photos you are proud of, start to grow an audience by sharing them via social media, personal website and other platforms. The improvements in affordable technology, and the ever increasing platforms that allow photographers to instantly tell the worlds’ stories as they happen, have redefined what it means to be a ‘successful’ photographer today.
2HeadS: I was going to say “sell yourself”, but better say “sell your project!”. If I were in doubt to help you backing your KickStarter project how would you convince me in less than 5 lines?
I’m not sure I can do that in five sentences, but I’ll do it in less than ten. Having grown up hearing stories of persecution of my own ancestors in Eastern Europe, I was shocked that Europe in the 21st century could still harbor such collective prejudice against any ethnic group. The reasons are complicated and the results negatively affect Roma and non-Roma citizens throughout Europe. I am sensitive to both communities and the extreme challenges they face. However the solutions are clear. Roma communities must have an opportunity to rise above extreme poverty, lack of education, limited opportunities and limited political representation within their respective communities. We have a duty as citizens of the world to give everyone an equal opportunity to live their life to the fullest. I hope my Kickstarter Initiative and Roma project will play a small role in making the world a better place by shining an even brighter light on this situation to help motivate change. I am grateful to anyone who can donate whatever they can afford to support this project and do good in the world wherever they can.
> Sponsor Kieran Kesner with his Roma Project now at KickStarter <
links to Kieran Kesner:
Related essays you should read:
The Awakening of the Self
An Interview With The Incredible Photographer Gonzalo Benard for MutantSpace
Pain should never be an excuse, but a tool for you to create with
Small Town Inertia
Le Voyeur Social
The Hard Softness (NSFW)
Pain should never be an excuse, but a tool for you to create with
Feel free to comment, ask or share any article on 2HeadS everytime you feel that you can add something interesting and positive to the articles.