By Christoph Twickel
The narrow alleyways criss-cross between pre-war buildings; laundry hangs out to dry overhead. Children barrel barefoot around the corners while elderly men talk animatedly in front of their apartment buildings. A preacher stands on one corner with a Bible in his hand and urges people to go to church.
German photographer Jesco Denzel was amazed when he first walked through the St. Jacques quarter in the French town of Perpignan, just across the border from Barcelona. "There were fighting cocks sitting in the windows and children were constantly running in all directions," Denzel says. "I had never seen that kind of street life."
Perpignan, population 120,000, is hardly a must-see on the European tourist circuit. At most, travellers might change trains here on the way from Paris to Barcelona. But the town is home to one of the few quarters in France where Gitans -- as Roma are called in French -- have found a permanent home.
They have been there for almost two centuries. In the 15th century, Gypsies arrived on the Iberian peninsula from India via a part of Greece known at the time as "little Egypt." The Spanish referred to the newcomers as "Egiptanos," which eventually became shortened to "Gitanos" -- and in France to "Gitans." Following the French Revolution, Roma began settling on the Mediterranean coast including, in around 1920, in the St. Jacques quarter of Perpignan.
Although the Gitans in St. Jacques are not directly connected to the Roma who are currently being deported from the country by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, discrimination and integration have long been defining issues in their lives. They are all citizens of France, but poverty and illiteracy have been their constant companions. Photographer Denzel noted that the Gitans in St. Jacques prefer to stay among themselves, in part because of the rejection with which they have been confronted by French society.
Denzel stumbled across the St. Jacques quarter in 2004 when he was attending the Visa Pour L'Image, the world's most important trade fair for photojournalists, which takes place in Perpignan every year. He was fascinated by the colorful activity on the streets, but initially didn't consider doing a photo-essay. "Because of the trade fair," he says, "hundreds of photographers pass through the city every year. I couldn't imagine that this quarter hadn't already been covered in several publications."
A Lust for Life
But as it turned out, that wasn't the case. Denzel, now 38, returned to the quarter several times between 2004 and 2009 -- his unique photos are now on display in Hamburg. He says it took quite some time before the residents of St. Jacques opened up to him. "At first, I just stood for a week at a kiosk where people buy cigarettes and beer," Denzel says. "Eventually, one of them invited me home to meet his family."
The black-and-white photos -- some perfectly composed, others fleeting, all in the style of street photography -- provide an intimate look at a world that feels precarious and is rigidly patriarchal. "The men allow themselves to be served, the women keep things going," Denzel says. The genders tend to be strictly separated in the photos: The men play boules while the women take care of the children. On New Year's Eve, the men meet in the bar and only come home once the women have finished preparing the feast.
Still, the life of the Gitans appears to be marked by a lust for life -- and by a taste for the melodramatic. The photos show women praying fervently, a bride and groom dressed in outfits that could have been designed by Liberace himself, and young men with wide neckties and expansive gestures. They are timeless images of a community that has lived in the narrow alleyways for almost 200 years. Only when a shiny new BMW chauffeurs the groom to the church past crumbling facades can one see that the pictures were taken in the present day.
The exhibition "Les Gitans de St. Jacques," featuring photographs from Jesco Denzel, is on display in the FREELENS Gallery in Hamburg until Oct. 8, 2010.
Stay informed with our free news services:
|All news from SPIEGEL International||Twitter | RSS|
|All news from Zeitgeist section||RSS|
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2010
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH