Artur Conka is one of the few Roma to have documented his community from behind the lens. Originally from Lunik IX, one of the largest and poorest Roma communities in Slovakia, his family travelled across Europe before finally settling in Britain when Artur was eight. Years later, and equipped with a degree in photography, Artur revisited his old home to see how life had changed for those who had stayed behind.
Turns out a lot has changed. Instead of the joyous place that was the backdrop of his childhood years, Artur found a racially segregated community of 10,000 people that suffers from 99 percent unemployment, widespread disease and pervasive drug abuse. While there, he filmed a short documentary about daily life in Lunik IX, which you should definitely watch.
I called him up for a chat.
VICE: Hi Artur. Tell me a little bit about yourself.
Artur Conka: I was born in Lunik IX in Slovakia, but my family left when I was about two or three years old. We travelled across Europe for a while and finally got to England when I was eight. Even though I was really young, I remember a lot about the place where I was born. I think this allowed me to clearly see the ways in which it's changed when I went back for the first time in 2009.
A lot. I can remember there being a lot of racial tension, but at the time we left – which was in the early 90s – there was still some sort of integration between the Roma and the Slovaks in Lunik IX. Slovakians have now moved out of Lunik IX and the situation between the Roma community and other minorities has slowly deteriorated with time. This is because of the economic crisis, the fall of Communism and the Velvet Revolution that took place after the split of Czechoslovakia.
The segregation seems to have driven Roma to a situation where they can’t afford food, housing and other basic needs. Which is what happens when you stigmatise people, when you cut them off from society. Without proper education and other necessities, people don’t develop the skills they need to survive in today's world, which only fuels the prejudice and the racial hatred among Slovakians. Going back was definitely a shock.
Your case is unique, because you're one of the few Roma photographers who engage with their communities in their work. Did working behind the lens change your perspective of the Roma in any way?
Yes, definitely. When you’re brought up within a certain educational system, working in another country – no matter if it's the one you come from – will inadvertedly change your viewpoint. Everything changes once you look behind the lens. Some people will look at my work and say that it’s very biased, propagandist or too sympathetic towards the Roma community. But that is reality to me – you can’t hide it or push it under the carpet.
You captured some pretty intimate moments on film. How did the residents of Lunik IX respond to you filming?
It was difficult when I first arrived there because people didn’t recognise me. When I mentioned who I was related to, they showed me respect, especially because I was born there. And the older generations knew my mum and dad. The film also includes some members of my family. I can guarantee you that if you were non-Roma you wouldn’t get the access I did. In fact, you would probably get chased out of the community.
What was a typical day like for you in Lunik IX?
I got there in March and it was freezing. There’s no central heating or gas in Lunik IX, and water is only switched on twice a day. That means that in the morning you have to take a bunch of plastic containers to a friend's house that has working water pipes. People go out and try to find wood or anything they can burn to use as heating. We’d also use that wood to cook. That's pretty much it. People try to find jobs, but the segregation makes that hard.
If you go to the closest city, Kosice (the second biggest city in Slovakia), you'll see upmarket high-street stores. Then you take the bus to Lunik IX and in 20 minutes you're in a different world. The smell of sewage and raw waste hits you immediately.
In terms of state provisions, what’s available?
It’s difficult to say; families do get state provisions, such as income support. On the other hand, because of the economy and the recession, prices have risen. It’s hard for a family with four children to survive on state provisions for a whole month because the food is very expensive. Education-wise, schools are segregated. Slovakians and Roma won’t share the same classrooms or playgrounds. It’s like going back to the time of the racial segregation in America. The non-Roma are raised with this fear and the idea that Roma are horrible human beings, and vice-versa.
So given the huge amount of unemployment in the community and the fact that state provisions aren't enough, how do people survive?
People make money by selling scrap metal, stealing and begging. Or they get benefits from the government. They literally live off the bare minimum.
Is there a drug problem?
Yes, there’s a big problem with drugs. Living in such horrible conditions can only lead humans to drugs in an attempt to cope. A lot of the drug takers are young kids; literally five and six-year-olds. I’ve seen kids and men drunk together.
I guess those conditions can also lead to a lot of domestic tension. Is domestic abuse a prevalent issue?
Yes, it is. I was filming in this house once and the woman’s husband came back really drunk and had a go at her. He started hitting her and slapping her in front of me. There’s also, apparently, a lot of sex trafficking across Slovakia and in Lunik IX, in particular.
Sex traffickers come to Lunik IX?
Yes. And some have persuaded young Roma to go abroad under the illusion that life will be better, then they end up being forced into slavery.
What are you hoping to achieve with this project?
I need to give something back and that’s why I’m working on it. The thing is, when you’re brought up in poverty, you just think that's what life is like. I didn’t know that there was a booming middle class on the outside. I have some very happy early childhood memories, but I also remember the bad parts. I remember my mum being racially attacked. I remember how we were once denied service at a restaurant because of the colour of our skin. It's because of these experiences that I feel I need to give Roma a voice. And the only way for me to do that is through photography and filmmaking.
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