Growing up, photographer Tom Roche learned about his Romani Gypsy heritage only through fragmentary stories and speculation. “My great, great uncle was stabbed in the heart with a wooden stake because he owed money for land,” says Roche, a recent University of the West of England graduate. “Then my great grandmother, grandmother Liz, used to pick hops; and I had one aunt who made baskets, and another who sold pegs – or so I’m told, I don’t have any images, records, or concrete facts of my ancestors.”
Black Blood traces the 24-year-old’s family history, dealing with the folkloric feeling of being a distant Romani. Roche says that he’s “always felt quite lost in the world” and wanted to gain a deeper understanding of his identity. “The process started as a formal documentary project,” he says. “I visited Cheltenham [in Gloucestershire, where his family used to live] and went through the local library records.” But after struggling to find information, he was forced to re-evaluate his approach.
The series is now less focused on historical facts, and more on Roche’s newfound understanding of Romani Gypsy culture, featuring contemporary portraits of family members, alongside Gypsy specialist Robert Dawson and palm reader Romani-Rose. Dawson, who has spent 63 years researching the field, reassured the photographer that he should be proud of his heritage – which essentially created a basis for the photographs.
“I’ve tried to show Gypsies in a positive, respectful light,” he says. “I’ve learnt that Romanies were known for being quiet and respectful, and valuing the simple life. There’s a bigger picture beyond the bad press.” I ask if he hopes to change people’s negative perceptions. He tells me “of course”, though says he is actually more concerned about how Gypsies themselves perceive it. “As a result of the project, I feel a connection with my heritage,” he says. “I just hope I have done it justice.”
Black Blood, which takes its name from the expression for those of “purest” Romani heritage, was the young artist’s final university project, and was created over a year-and-half long period. Inspirations include Anne Golaz’s photo-book, Corbeau, a narrative collage tracing life and death in the rural farm on which the Swiss artist grew up; as well as photographers such as Katrin Koenning, Tereza Zelenkova, Jason Fulford, and Christian Patterson. But despite receiving positive feedback, Roche says its still a work in progress. “I feel like there’s something missing,” he says. “I’m just not quite sure what yet.”
Black Blood was on exhibition at Free Range, as part of a group University of West of England final show. It has also been made into a photo-book, but is yet to be published. https://tomroche.info/.