For ten years journalist and author Kimmo Oksanen and photographer Heidi Piiroinen followed and recorded the everyday life of a Romanian Roma woman Mihaela Stoica. The project provided material for a book and a photo exhibition. Next week Oksanen will share their insights from the project at University College in London. Oksanen told us what to expect.
How did the idea for this project come about?
“The first Roma beggars from Romania had just arrived in Finland in Autumn 2007, so our boss at Helsingin Sanomat told us to go and ask them who they are. We met the Roma beggars and came to be more acquainted with them and their lives. We started following their stories and went back to them every time something happened, like when they were evicted from their camps or ‘assisted out of the country’. It took until autumn 2014 when we started thinking, we should make a book out of the project. We already had abundance of material and knowledge, we wanted to share with others.”
How did Mihaela Stoica become a protagonist in your project?
“Mihaela caught our attention right from when we first met in 2007. At that time, she was 16-years-old and pregnant. We learnt that the tour operators had swindled Mihaela and his relatives who had arrived in Finland in the hope of getting jobs. After learning this would not happen Mihaela and her relatives decided to stay in Finland for a few more months nevertheless. We then started to follow her and her family members’ lives.”
What did you learn over the course of the project?
“I was extremely surprised to find out that there is nothing romantic or mysterious about the lives of the beggars. Instead they are beggars because of the fact that they are the poorest people in Europe: Just ordinary people who would rather stay in their home country with their family and friends if they had the chance.”
What do you think Mihaela got from this a decade long project?
“I think it was Heidi who once said, that a human being has an inbuilt need to be heard and seen. It may be, that due to the project, Mihaela and her family felt a little more valuable and thus started seeking alternative ways to make a living. Nowadays they are doing fine. Mihaela’s husband Suras has a degree in property management, a driver’s license and a job. The two eldest of the three children go to school in Finland.”
How should people see street beggars?
“When referring to beggars, the word flock is often used: they ‘are flocking in towns’. People talk about them as if they were animals. Yet, each and every one of them is an individual. Furthermore, criminals, Roma people and beggars are often thought to be the same thing, which obviously has no reasonable grounds. Some are criminals and some are beggars. We’ve tried to portrait them as individuals avoiding any labels.”
What do you want to say or achieve by this?
“For an example, there are seminars where a group of people talk about a group of people while this group people in question they are talking about, Roma in this case, is excluded from the conversation. In Finland, city officials only discuss with other officials about Roma issues without speaking to Roma themselves. In this project we tried to make them visible. We don’t look up or down on these people. We’ve been realists, telling their stories and giving it to people to make up their minds about them.”
Heidi Piiroinen and Kimmo Oksanen’s lecture: ´The Invisibles – Story of a beggar family’
6th of September 2018 at 16–16.45.
Location: University College London, School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES), 16 Taviton Street, London WC1H 0BW.
Free entry, no registration needed.
Text: Nirosha Pöyhölä, photo: Heidi Piiroinen