Roma Christmas, by Nigel Dickinson
In 2003, Stern photo director Harald Menk commissioned a number of photojournalists for a special issue on how Christmas is celebrated in different communities across the world. As I was well known for my Roma work, Harald asked me for a reportage about ‘a Roma Christmas’. Stern had guaranteed my work across the Balkans, during the Kosovo war. I chose to go to Romania. I brought a couple of expensive bottles of wine with me as gifts, and was slightly surprised later to find myself drinking them with bubbles, until I found they had been mixed with coca-cola.
It was a crisp early Christmas morning in Alexandria, photographing the Christmas pig being wrestled to the ground and slaughtered in the backyard, then children sitting on it for good luck. We were snowed in for a few days and drunk a lot of hot vodka grog. The shoot went as well as could be expected.
That in the bag, continuing my longterm work on Roma, I went via Timisoara to Belgrade, visiting a Roma patriarch friend, who works as a radio journalist. It was in Belgrade that I got to know David, who drove me around the city, playing Roma drum beats on the dashboard of his van and who wanted me to photograph his tattoos. We became friends and I was invited to his home, on the 7th of January, for a traditional Orthodox Christmas. I arrived at 4am, to be his first visitor, and symbolically light the fire with an oak branch.
We sat drinking vodka for several hours until first light. Eventually, his family woke up, and then his parents and relatives arrived. David said, he had been in all sorts of trouble as an adolescent, but had grown out of it, adding ‘don’t worry about my brother but be careful of my brother-in-law’. At 10am we all sat down for Christmas dinner; the table was smothered with sweetmeats, peppers, traditional roast pig for the Orthodox and roast chicken for the David’s Muslim parents. In true Roma tradition, the patriarch and matriarch, the visitor and the men, we were seated at the main table, whilst the women and kids sat at another table, behind, near the wood burning stove. I sat with my back to against a huge window, with a snowy blizzard howling outside, David’s parents sat on each side of me, David sat opposite me between his brother and brother-in-law.
David looked at me and somewhat accusingly said ‘so when are you going to take the f*****g picture of me and my tattoos then?’. To which I replied ‘what about right now?’ In a trice their shirts were ripped off, David asked me how they should pose. I replied, ‘just be normal!’. At some point David’s younger kids joined us at the table and I squeezed back against the window as far away from the scene as I could, and I shot it on chrome with my trusty Leica M6 and a 35mm 1.4 Summilux lens. I knew I’d got something special.
By midday, I was drunk twice over, and absolutely stuffed, when Milos, who had left me at David’s at 4am, arrived to take me back home. All I could think of, was going to bed and sleeping it off, but we arrived home, to find the whole family waiting at the grand dining room table, for the visitor (me) to join them for Christmas lunch. It took me a few days to recover.
I stayed in Belgrade until Orthodox New Year, and then returned to Paris, and developed the E6 films. I scanned the selection on my Nikon Coolscan 500, and sent the Romania Christmas set to Stern who were delighted. I mentioned to Harald, that I’d shot another set for Orthodox Christmas, but he said not to bother sending them, it was a job well done. I sent him the picture of David’s tattoos, in any case - I had a feeling he would like it. Harald telephoned me right back, to say that it was the best picture they’d received, and offered me a nice bonus. |t made a double page for the Christmas edition. Harald added ‘it is the salt in the soup, nobody was smiling’.
Belgrade, Serbia. January 7th, 2004 © Nigel Dickinson
Nigel Dickinson is a British documentary photographer and photojournalist. His work focuses on the environment, human condition, resistance, identity and culture. ‘Demonstrate’ on public protest, was exhibited at Camerawork Gallery, London 1983. “Hanging On By Your Fingernails”, about the Miners strike, published by Spokesman Press 1987. Documenting indigenous peoples and deforestation in South East Asia won UNEP bronze award at the Rio Earth Summit 1992.
‘Road’ about the UK Road Protest movement was exhibited in 1994. In the early 1990s Dickinson began his longterm project about Roma beyond borders, he worked across the Balkans wars and the aftermath of the Guatemalan civil war. In 1997 Dickinson was awarded a World Press for BSE and Mad Cows, since then he has worked on the Meat industry across the world. Sharia Islamic law in Kano Nigeria, shot 2003, was published worldwide, and shown at Visa Pour l’Image.
Dickinson was Runner up for the Eugene Smith Award in 2000, for the Roma’s exodus from Kosovo. ‘Sara. Le pelerinage des gitans’ was published by Actes Sud and exhibited at the Arles Rencontres 2003. The Roma work was published in National Geographic and exhibited at the Venice Biennale. Smokey Mountain Rubbish Dump won Critical Mass in 2011 and was shown at Houston Fotofest in 2016.
Dickinson is also published by D Republicca, Mare, La Vanguardia, Figaro, Stern, Geo, New York Times, The Sunday Times, Figaro Magazine and We Demain. He has revisited, photographed and filmed inside the Borneo rainforest and its indigenous peoples regularly since the 1980s. His longterm work on Roma is due for publication. More recent reportage work includes China Big Brother, Brexit Britain, and the HS2 resistance. Dickinson lives and works between the UK, Paris, and rest of the world.
FORTHCOMING EXHIBITIONS, and PUBLICATION
'Radical Landscapes’, group exhibition by TATE Gallery. Road Protest and HS2, 2022
‘Roma Beyond Borders’ 25 years documentary project across the world (with a French editor)
A couple of documentary films, shot over many years, one about the Roma in southern France, the other about the Borneo Rainforest, are in various states of post-production.
See more work by Nigel Dickinson