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IMMIGRATION

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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IMMIGRATION

INTERVIEW: ‘It’s a way to jokingly show that Sweden is very segregated’

Michael Lindgren, the comedian and producer behind the new Swedish TV quiz show Invandrare för Svenskar, or "Immigrants for Swedes', tells The Local how the seemingly superficial game show is actually very serious indeed.

INTERVIEW: 'It's a way to jokingly show that Sweden is very segregated'

SVT’s new gameshow Invandrare för Svenskar (IFS) began with a simple image on a computer. 

“I wanted to do something to show the simple fact that the category of invandrare [immigrant] is a really stupid category,” says Michael Lindgren, the co-founder of the Swedish comedy group Grotesco, and creator of Invandare för Svenskar

“I was just playing around with pictures of people with different values and professions and personalities to like, show the multitude of humanity, and then I placed an ethnic Swede in the middle and I built a block of people with different backgrounds around that blonde person. and I was thinking it would be fun to put a Swede in the minority.” 

It was only when a friend pointed out that the image he had made looked like the famous quiz game Hollywood Squares, a big 1980s hit in Sweden as Prat i kvadrat, that the idea to turn the image into a game show came about. 

Shortly afterwards, he contacted the show’s host, the comedian Ahmed Berhan, and began working with him and some of the other celebrities with immigrant backgrounds on the concept. 

The panelists on Invandrare för Svenskar.
 

Critics in Sweden are divided over the new gameshow, in which ordinary Swedes have to guess whether celebrity immigrants are lying or telling the truth about their home cultures. 

Karolina Fjellborg, at Aftonbladet, called it a “potential flop”, which was “forced and painfully shallow”. 

“And yet her paper, Aftonbladet, has written about it several times!” Lindgren exclaims when I mention this.  “Some people think it’s too stupid and glossy. It’s had rave reviews and very critical reviews, which I think is perfect.” 

He rejects the charge that the show treats a serious subject in too frivolous a way. 

“I’m an entertainer. I work in comedy. Of course, it’s superficial,” he says. “It’s a glossy game show on the surface, but underneath it’s a way to jokingly address the fact that we still think in these categories, that Sweden is a very segregated society, and we need to address that with more honesty.”

“The other point is that the idea of ‘immigrants’ as a group is absurd. It’s not a homogenous group. I think Swedes need to be faced with that, that the category is false. ‘Immigrants’ is useful as a statistical category, meaning people who actually migrated here. Most panelists in the show are born in Sweden, but Swedes tend to see them as immigrants anyway. For how many generations?”

He says his favourite moments in the show come when the contestants are nervous that they might give an answer that reveals them as prejudiced, and you can feel a slight tension, or the few moments when they do make an embarrassing mistake. 

Even though the atmosphere is deliberately kept as warm and light-hearted as possible, it’s these flashes of awkwardness, he feels, that reveal how uncomfortable many people in Sweden are about ethnic and cultural differences. 

It’s clearly something he thinks about a lot. Unlike immigration to countries like the UK or France, which are the result of long histories of empire, he argues, the immigration to Sweden, at least since the 1970s, has been driven by a sense of Lutheran guilt at the wealth the country amassed as a result of remaining neutral in the Second World War. 

Immigration, he argues, happened too quickly for the ordinary Swedish population to really understand the cultures of those arriving. 

Michael Lindgren, founder of ”IFS-invandrare för svenskar”. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT
 
“I like to see Sweden as a little bit like The Shire in The Lord of the Rings,” he says. “It is located up in the corner of the map, peaceful and quite, with a very homogenous, old, peasant population. Historically shielded from the big world outside. Immigration is fairly new to Sweden, from outside Europe basically from the seventies onward, that is just fifty years ago. In what was in large part a political project from above.”
 
“And there is a discrepancy, because the majority population is still that old peasant population, and we didn’t learn a lot about the people coming here. We’re polite and friendly, but culturally very reserved, and I think that’s also about the climate, we don’t intermingle a lot. We don’t invite people into our homes easily.” 

According to Lindgren, the reception of the show has been great. Some of the show’s panel have a big following among Swedes with immigrant backgrounds, meaning it is drawing a demographic to Sweden’s public broadcaster that it normally struggles to reach. 

“The ambition is that the primary audience for this show is Swedes with mixed backgrounds, Swedes with a background in another country,” he says. “It’s a very tough demographic to reach. It’s a demographic that simply doesn’t watch public service, because it’s usually not made for them, and they seem to really enjoy it.” 

He has plans for the next series to include short factual segments. 

“I’m not saying I’m gonna make it serious. It’s supposed to be fun and jokey and entertaining and light, and I’m not going to change it in its core,” he says. “But I think it would add to the entertainment and variety to pause maybe twice in the show and say ‘this is actually true’, just stay at a point of discussion for 30 seconds, and maybe have a graphic to back it up.” 

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