REVIEW by Daniel Leeman

NWR Issue r8

From the Horse’s Mouth

by Tina Carr and Annemarie Schöne

Tina Carr and Annemarie Schöne are award-winning artists who have worked together for more than thirty years, with some of their most well-known works focusing on video and photography. Among these works can be counted Coal Faces, a collection of photographs which document life in former coal communities throughout Wales; Tynescapes and photographs taken while walking the length of the River Tyne; and Once We Were Birds, an exhibition at the Open Society Institute, Brussels, Belgium. Under review is the duo’s most recent projects, From the Horse’s Mouth, a book focused on Gypsy, Traveller and Roma (GRT) communities and their experiences throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The book is a patchwork project, with contributions from numerous figures within GRT circles, and support from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust.

It has to be said that the appeal of From the Horse’s Mouth does not come from any of the text within, but instead from the detailed and often touching photographs taken by Carr and Schöne. There are several portraits of parents and grandparents holding small children, such as ‘Marianne and Tibi’ and ‘Sandor and his Grandson’, and these serve to present a picture of GRT culture outside its stereotypical associations with crime. This image, of course, is not without some justification, with the caption beneath ‘Petöfi Family’, a photograph of a mother with her four children, reading: ‘Their father is in prison for the so called “gypsy crime” of stealing electricity.’

Perhaps the weakest part of the work is its lack of polish. Some of the contributors have written in an overly conversational tone attributable in places to the failure to edit literal transcription. Professor Ian Hancock’s piece, for example, came from a 2011 lecture. Nevertheless, much of the writing’s aim does appear to be rather to make an emotional as opposed to a finely phrased intellectual argument:

Well, what it is: we are going through a terrible eviction where we are staying at the moment. It’s affecting a great deal of people, especially women, because there is more women than what there is men, where we are living…. It was never Green Belt land as the Government is saying and the council are saying it is.

While I wasn’t expecting From the Horse’s Mouth to adhere to any academic standards, I did find the quotation below, in particular, to be reminiscent of the BBC Bitesize revision I was given while studying History in secondary school – packaged for kids, out to make learning fun. Ultimately, the reader is simply made to feel patronised:

Up until recently, many theories of old from the great Gypsy scholars, such as George Borrow, Charles Leland and the famous Gypsy Scholar Boro Rai John Sampson, have been based on linguistic research, all carried out ‘old school’, in the hard way – there were no telephones, let alone the internet in those early days!

Returning once again to the photographic elements, which really are its heart and soul, two surprising highlights are ‘Judit and her Husband’, a couple in what appears to be a respectable but failing family restaurant, and ‘Ernö Kallaï’, a student at the Julliard Conservatory, New York. What these two photographs represent are the hardworking ambitions of many within GRT communities, and I feel that they do a far better service in helping people outside them to sympathise with their cause than any of the textual contributions, which to some extent risk alienating readers.

From the Horse’s Mouth is a valuable collection of photographs which range from the everyday to the extraordinary. The textual contributions are at times interesting and informative but would have benefitted from being expanded upon and having received editorial input. Carr and Schöne have undoubtedly proven their talent as artists, but I feel that the GRT community would have benefitted from being written about in a more objective manner, leaving the photographs to carry the powerful function of creating sympathy in readers.

Daniel Leeman edits books for Gwasg Carreg Gwalch.


previous review: Sitting Ducks
next review: And She Was: A Verse-Novel


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