Michael Damanti Interview

Kickstarter - https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1671763999/in-plain-sight-the-story-of-madrids-romani-community?ref=user_menu
Michael Damanti's new photography book details Romani culture in Madrid during his time there as an artist. Please feel free to support his Kickstarter, above. 

Aloka: Can you tell our audience what your upcoming book is all about? 
M.D: ​I documented the lives of about 30 Romani people living on the streets of Madrid between 2015-2020. The book not only covers their story in pictures but also provides detailed insight into many of their personal backgrounds, everyday lives and unique character. 

Aloka: What drew you initially to the Romani community in Madrid? ​
M.D: In 2015 I was simply intending to cover Central Madrid’s street photography scene and had no intention of concentrating of this group of people from Eastern Romania. However we got to know each other very well since we met on a daily basis. I would ask to take their photo and they would ask me questions about my camera. One thing led to another and I became friends with them. It was not unlike any relationship… little by little we developed a friendship similar to one you might see at an office or perhaps with your neighbors. In the course of a year or so, it went from these scary people who were going to stab me and rob me to, ‘Let’s sit down and have an impromptu birthday party on the floor.’  

Aloka: How important do you find the medium of photography is in its abilities to tell stories? Why do you think it’s important that this particular story is told?  ​
M.D: “Of all the means of expression, photography is the only one that fixes a precise moment in time. Photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson. We have all been attracted to photos, be that Instagram, the pictures in a history book or the shoebox of photos your grandparents would let you look through as a child. If you’ve ever wished you could stare at something for longer than a second, or to hold onto a precise memory in time, photography allows you to do so. The story is important because so many of us have a tremendous misconception of people. I feel if we all said hello to the people we see every day and not just the ones in our tax bracket we would be significantly kinder to one another.   

Aloka: You say you felt very welcomed into the Romani family. Can you tell us more about that? Who was perhaps the most fascinating character you met in your time in Madrid? ​
M.D: This took about 2 years as they were not in any rush to allow a stranger into their lives. Understandably, they were quite skeptical of an American photographer asking them questions about their story. But somewhere in 2017 they invited me to dinner under a bridge in Plaza de España. They made a stew with boiled meat and potatoes (I brought a bag of McDonald’s so I wouldn’t show up empty handed). There were about 6 women who were quite memorable because they would open up to me each day with problems pertaining to the kids or any day to day family issues. One such woman was rushed to the hospital while 8 months pregnant for an emergency C-section. Upon arriving at the hospital I was told the young mother could not keep her newborn baby girl. I helped her reunite with the child after some legal red-tape and quick thinking. You can read about this story in greater detail in the book.  

Aloka: Why do you believe there is so much prejudice directed at the Romani community in Spain (amongst other countries)? Do you feel your project may be able to help open minds?
M.D: ​I must admit, I was also guilty of prejudice towards the Romani community before I began this project.  Please don’t misinterpret this…. I never wanted any harm to come to them but I originally thought they were all dangerous thieves or worse. I had no evidence to back up of this ignorant way of thinking, I just believed the nonsense people told me. At first, I simply approached this project from a purely photographic standpoint from a distance. My attitude was, “I don’t know them, they don’t know me. I’m just taking photos”. But this experience has changed me and I’m sure reading about them will change other minds as well. Like any group of people, there are some good, some bad and the vast majority lies in the middle somewhere. The point is, I was lucky enough to get to know each one as I formed a more definitive opinion. The danger lies when we make assumptions based on the group itself. “A photographer must always work with the greatest respect for his subject and in terms of his own point of view.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson 

Aloka: ‘Culture Shock’ as a concept is something of a cliché, but as an American living in Spain, did you find any particular striking cultural difference? ​
M.D: Yes, for the most part we don’t have a Romani community in the United States so I had never seen anyone who looked like them before. Their long skirts and beautiful head scarves captivated me. The juxtaposition in opposite skills they possessed fascinated me as well, such as how they spoke 3 languages but were completely illiterate in all of them.  As we got to know each other better certain cultural differences arose; for example, they had no idea of their birthdays, ages or even what to do during a birthday party. I bought one of the girls a birthday cake once and lit a small candle I took from the office. I watched in astonishment as the birthday girl did not know why she should blow out a candle. On the other end of the spectrum, they would laugh at me, like when I didn’t know I was supposed to take the first bight as a guest at their table. It was altogether beautiful and confusing but brilliant.

Aloka: Did you find that the impact of poverty and racism had any particular bearing on your project?  
M.D: ​Yes, I saw the racism and poverty aspect on a daily basis.  There is an accepted amount of racism toward the Romani right here in a capital city in Europe that nobody disputes. The sort of comments no one would dream of saying to another human being is quite acceptable to say to the Roma. People would constantly make passing remarks at them (everything from calling them parasites to splashing drinks in their faces). Many older men would make sexual remarks or even offer them cash for sex. I can even recall one older woman spitting on them… but the worst I can remember was a black eye sustained by one of the girls named Sevda.  She was sleeping as 2 young men dared each other to punch her in the face.  She happened to be 7 months pregnant at the time.  Needless to say there is no money to hire lawyers or pursue any sort of compensation. The attitude shared by police is, “All bets are off when it’s a Gypsy”. 

Aloka: What can donators to the Kickstarter campaign expect to see from the photography book when it is published? ​
M.D: First and foremost, they’ll see beautiful moments rarely captured at eye level into their fascinating lives.  The photos themselves are not only an intimate look into the Romani world but also the homeless struggle as well. The photographs provide a window into their conversations, arguments and tragedy. The stories cover the daily battles with police, giving birth on the street as well as the lighter sides into learning how to sing “Happy Birthday” and embracing our birthday party rituals. It’s life, misery and joy and everything in between. At the very least, the Romani community in Madrid has found an unlikely friend and ally in myself. I am the lucky one, as they are the best thing to have happened to me in Spain and I would love to share what I’ve learned with you. 

Michael Damanti is an American Street Photography living in Madrid. https://mcxd19.wixsite.com/damanti

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