I scrolled through the list of Student.Go internships, searching for something that might fulfill the requirements needed for my major in journalism. While sifting through positions from Miami to Louisville, Kampala and Bali, a paragraph about a photojournalism internship in Slovakia stood out on the screen.
- Student must have an eye for seeing beauty in people and places you may not associate with beauty.
- The ideal candidate should be able to work alone with no supervision or direction.
- There will be extensive travel alone by rail and regional buses.
- The lighter the candidate is able to travel, the better.
Skills required: Photography, ability to get along with anyone- a free spirit who is looking for an adventure of backpacking through Slovakia, willing to try what food is put in front of you. No picky eaters should apply!
Despite my lack of knowledge about Eastern Europe or even basic DSLR photography, I decided to send in my resume. I had interned with Student.Go the previous summer, living with refugees in Fort Worth, and I was eager to work with CBF again. I would be learning from the Roma, a minority group who migrated to Europe from India some eight centuries earlier. My job was to show the beauty and culture of the Roma through photography and writing while living with CBF field personnel Dianne and Shane McNary.
Before leaving I knew little about the ethnic tension between the Roma people and white Slovak community. Discrimination and poverty among the Roma has been described as Europe’s largest social problem and much of the population is living in substandard shacks on the fringes of villages and towns.
“All across Europe the economic situation [for Roma] is hard,” says Jarmila Vaňová , a Slovak-Romani journalist.
I watched men dig for food and scrap metal in the dumpsters outside the apartment and saw the propaganda from Slovak politicians promising to deal with the “Gypsies.” Some of the same words used to describe the Roma were heard at an earlier time in this part of the world: in the 1930s and 40s before and during the Porajmos, the Devouring, also known as the Holocaust. Today, a neo-Nazi serves as a regional governor in Slovakia, and the Roma still live in shacks without plumbing. Things have developed, but deeply rooted racial attitudes are hard to change.
During my travels, I met Jarmila Vaňová, a journalist with the Roma Press Agency, an independent media outlet directed by the Roma people. When the organization began in 1999, it became the first network producing bilingual programming for the Roma community. According to Vaňová, it is the single Roma organization in Slovakia that has existed consistently without divisions or improper use of funds. The agency broadcasts across a wide range of mediums including radio, TV and film and prominent Slovak politicians use it to gain information. The RPA focuses on reporting that portrays Roma in an unbiased light but does not blame the majority Slovak community for their issues. They highlight injustices in political and social spheres, but they do so accurately and without prejudice.
“We are not activists,” Vaňová clarifies. “We are not screaming or blaming the Slovaks [for our problems]… These things may happen but they are not our focus.”
Instead the RPA works to highlight stories that the media doesn’t cover, showing successful leaders in the community that most people would overlook.
“We describe both sides, “Vaňová says. “We give a perspective they might not otherwise see.”
Although the RPA still deals with casual racism and lack of funding, Vaňová maintains that the work they do is important. They have a limited amount of time to get their message out.
“We have 26 minutes… we can’t put stupid stuff. We don’t have time. This is the only program we have,” Vaňová explains. “We’re going to make it worthwhile.”
At minimum, Vaňová hopes people will start to see the Roma as more than objects of anger or pity, but as human beings with cultures and identity. Although her staff is underpaid and overworked, Vaňová knows she can’t stop now.
“I can’t leave it yet. It’s about responsibility. We live by money like everyone else,” She says. “We have families. But I can’t leave it yet.”
At the end of the internship, I created an interactive presentation and a short video using my photographs that can used by churches and other organizations interested in helping the Roma. Shane and Dianne also made a glass photography exhibit that is currently on display at the University of Georgia for a few months before going on to Vestavia Hills Baptist Church in Alabama.
When talking with the McNarys about where the donations from my project should go, we decided on helping the Roma Press Agency fund a film about human trafficking. The RPA produced a documentary about this topic a few years earlier with success. The film brought awareness and freedom for Roma who were previously unaware of slavery in their own backyards.
When thinking about how best to help the community, the McNarys and I agreed that working with the RPA hit all our checkpoints.
- The project directly addresses a felt need in the Roma community expressed by the Roma themselves.
- The project will have a wide reaching effect on viewers and government officials from over 30 different countries.
- The project will be directed by a small, grassroots organization that comes from the community.
- The RPA have made over 20 films like this in the past with proven results. They have the experience and know what they’re doing.
- The project will deepen relationships and assist the McNary’s long term work with Roma in Slovakia.
- If the film cannot be made, all proceeds will go to Roma schools to help cover education costs.
Although the costs of a film like this seem insurmountable (producing a documentary is around $20,000), I’ve been told that we are in the business of moving mountains and that God, as always, will provide. Despite the odds, the RPA emphasizes the positive.
“We focus on people working to change their situations, and humanity,” Vaňová says. “We focus on the possibilities.”
To help the RPA prevent human trafficking visit here:
Interactive Map of Roma culture: