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In pictures: Meet the American street photographer documenting Madrid’s invisible population

When Michael Damanti, a photographer from the United States, moved to Madrid five years ago with his Spanish wife and two children he expected to make a bunch of new friends in the new city.

In pictures: Meet the American street photographer documenting Madrid's invisible population
A Romani girl begging in central Madrid. All photos: Michael Damanti

But what he didn’t count on was that he would meet a group of people that would have such a profound influence on his everyday life and work.


The man behind the lens: Damanti taking a selfie with his new friends.

“In 2015 I was an outsider in this country, trying to learn the language and find work. A chance encounter soon changed that, forming the beginnings of a long-term photographic series about Romani population in Europe, he told The Local.

“Walking home one day from another disappointing day of cliche photos, I came across a Roma Girl sleeping on the ground holding an old change cup. Her name was Sibella. I knelt down to take her photograph and as I stood up I noticed another Roma-girl walking right towards me saying, “What are you doing? That is my sister!” That was the day I met the “Cobadin-Girls of Sol”.

“Over the next four years I met with them every day, carefully documenting their story and gradually becoming absorbed into their lives. We have been through births, deaths, arrests, fights and the day to day struggles we all endure.”

What he has produced is a remarkable set of photographs of a group of people who are at best invisible to society and at worst, the frequent targets of abuse.

At first, he approached them with handmade signs with witty slogans, such as 'freewifi' and '#Brexit: Keep calm and give me money' to replace the ineffectual ones they had written themselves.

“This was the way into their lives, I noticed their signs were incredibly long (5-6 lines) and 100 percent trite and boring.  No one was reading them. So I offerend alternatives, lighthearted signs with quick simple messages in English for the tourists. This began the friendship.”

But it soon developed into a deeper friendship, one in which they invited him to dine with the family group as they cooked up stews in cardboard shelters under the roadside bridges where they sleep at night.

He even introduced them to the concept of birthday parties, after realising that for the most part, they didn’t even know how old they were, let alone celebrate the occasion.

“I happened to ask one of the girls when her birthday was and she didn't know.  I couldn't believe it so I asked all of them….. one by one they each shook their heads and asked me why it mattered to know that,” he explained.  

“I read their ID's and realized one of the girl's birthdays was in a week.  So I bought a cupcake and a candle and introduced them to the concept of birthday parties.  They had no idea what to do. I lit the candle, sang happy birthday and then stood their as they all stared at me.  

“I had to tell the girls to blow out the candle. Little by little they embraced the birthday ritual and now they all want a party on their special day.”

What has consistently surprised him is the level of racism they endure on a daily basis.

“Some men make sexual advances on the girls. That's the worst. I've seen old women spit at them.  I've seen shop owners throw drinks in a pregnant girl's face just for begging near his shop. But the one that stands out most was the black eye on Sevda's face given to her by two drunk teenagers as she slept under a bridge while seven month's pregnant,” he recounts.  

“The nastiest comments always come from elderly people or football fans.”

But sometimes he has witnessed people showing them kindness too. “However, there are a fair share of delightful gestures and comments from others.  People bring them clothes and food or buy them ice cream.  That’s a breath of fresh air.”

As a result, Damanti has become an advocate for Romani rights, and will be talking about the issue at an event organised by Madrid For Refugees.

“Originally I got involved simply to take an interesting photograph but it has taken on a life of its own. I expected to photograph the people in Sol, but I did not expect to like them so much.   So I'd like to help them if I can… be that bringing awareness to their marginalized existance or just bringing them clothes. But most importantly, treating them as friends and giving them the same respect I would to you or anyone else.”

To see more of Michael Damanti's photographs visit his website and for tickets for the Madrid For Refugees event on Saturday February 22 click HERE.

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Reader question: How do you meet the requirements for a sambo visa?

In Sweden, a sambo is domestic partner – someone you’re in a relationship with and live with, but to whom you aren’t married. If you, as a non-EU citizen, are in a sambo relationship with a Swedish citizen, you can apply for a residence permit on the basis of that relationship. But meeting the requirements of that permit is not always straightforward.

Reader question: How do you meet the requirements for a sambo visa?

An American reader, whose son lives with his Swedish partner, wrote to The Local with questions about the maintenance requirement her son and his partner must meet in order to qualify for a sambo resident permit.

“Their specific issue is that they meet the requirements for a stable relationship and stable housing, but have been told that qualifying for a sambo visa based on savings is unlikely,” she wrote, asking for suggestions on how to approach this issue. Her son’s partner is a student with no income, but whose savings meet maintenance requirements. But, they have been told by lawyers that Migrationsverket will likely deny the application based on the absence of the Swedish partner’s income.

How do relationships qualify for sambo status?

In order to apply for a residence permit on the basis of a sambo relationship, you and your partner must either be living together, or plan to live together as soon as the non-Swedish partner can come to Sweden. Because this reader’s son is already in Sweden as a graduate student, he can apply for a sambo permit without having to leave the country, provided that his student permit is still valid at the time the new application is submitted.

The Migration Agency notes that “you can not receive a residence permit for the reason that you want to live with a family member in Sweden before your current permit expires”. So once your valid permit is close to expiration, you can apply for a new sambo permit.

What are the maintenance requirements for a sambo permit?

The maintenance requirements for someone applying for a sambo permit fall on the Swedish partner, who must prove that they are able to support both themselves and their partner for the duration of the permit. This includes both housing and financial requirements.

In terms of residential standards that applicants must meet, they must show that they live in a home of adequate size – for two adult applicants without children, that means at least one room with a kitchen. If rented, the lease must be for at least one year.

The financial requirements are more complicated. The Swedish partner must be able to document a stable income that can support the applicant and themselves – for a sambo couple, the 2022 standard is an income of 8,520 kronor per month. This burden falls on the Swedish partner.

While the Migration Agency’s website does say that you may “fulfil the maintenance requirement (be considered able to support yourself) if you have enough money/taxable assets to support yourself, other persons in your household and the family members who are applying for a residence permit for at least two years”, it is unclear how proof of this would be documented. On a separate page detailing the various documents that can be used to prove that maintenance requirements are met, there is nothing about how to document savings that will be used to support the couple.

Can you apply on the basis of savings instead of income?

Well, this is unclear. The Migration Agency’s website does suggest that having enough money saved up to support both members of the sambo relationship is an option, but it gives no details on how to document this. It is also unclear whether applying on the basis of savings will disadvantage applicants, with preference given to applicants who can show proof of income from work.

The Local has reached out to an immigration lawyer to answer this question. 

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