Why should I care?
Last year will live long in the minds of many as a year of tumult, crisis and change. I’m a British citizen, living in Spain with an American wife, and as such the political events of this year may have unavoidable consequences. As my wife and I look forward to welcoming our first child into the world in early 2017, I’ve occasionally felt a real sense of futility. How will our small family unit navigate our way through the challenges ahead?
I decided a couple of weeks ago that I wanted to write a blog post that would effectively be a “Review of my year in assignments”. My wife, ever willing to act as an arbiter, asked me the dreaded question – ‘who cares?’.
I’d not heard that one since I was a student, sitting alongside my peers as we showed our work to Aaron Schuman who would occasionally use a slight variant on that question to inquire – ‘why should I care?’. In this instance, my wife and Aaron were of course on point – why should anyone care about looking at ‘The Best of Ben Roberts Photo Shoots of 2016’?
I’m fortunate that my work takes me away from my comfort zone. I meet people from backgrounds different to my own, both on my doorstep and in locations far from my home.
For my review of 2016, I’ve decided to reflect on the journeys that introduced me to people and places that will leave a lasting impression. Why should you care? Maybe because if as a global community we are going to tackle the challenges ahead of us, then we will need to rebuild trust between cultures that are currently being cast as opposing forces. In the grand scale of things, my experiences are just tiny moments, but the more people who practise tolerance and acceptance, the better.
In March 2016, I headed out to Romania on assignment for British Airways ‘High Life’ Magazine. Alongside writer Kim Willis, I met some of the musicians responsible for bringing Gypsy music to a world audience. Upon arriving into Bucharest, we drove deep into the Romanian countryside. As we travelled further away from the capital, the rain turned to snow as night fell. The road eventually ran out of tarmac as we approached the remote village of Zece Prajini, and the minibus bounced over potholes and through puddles. I was welcomed from the cold into the home of Monel Trifan, tuba player in the renowned Gypsy band Fanfare Ciocarlia.
We stayed in Zece Prajini for two days, during which we were privileged to receive amazing hospitality from the Romani people. The cold weather was kept at bay by homemade plum brandy, soup and fantastic music.
This hospitality was repeated in each of the three villages that we visited on this trip, as we were welcomed into peoples homes to partake in dancing, drinking and eating.
Prior to this trip my only experience with Roma people had been on the streets of major European cities. Traditionally a semi-nomadic people, the Roma have been consistently marginalised throughout recent history. In Madrid, the Roma people live in shanty towns on the edge of the city and are most often seen begging and cleaning car windows at major traffic junctions. In Romania, the Roma people often live in communities that are segregated from the local Romanians. This trip was the first time that I have had the opportunity to socialise and spend time with Roma people, and I was blown away by the generosity and kindness of my hosts.
While my trip to Romania involved being welcomed with warmth into the homes of strangers, earlier in 2016 I made a journey of a different nature to the island of Lesbos, a Greek outpost off the coast of Turkey. I was sent to Lesbos to cover the arrival of refugees into Europe. The island is one of the main arrival points for refugees escaping conflict and poverty in their home countries.
I travelled from Madrid with my friend Phillip Wozny, who had assisted me on a couple of assignments in the winter of 2015. A talented musician, Phillip’s laid back Texan attitude and his skill in making field recordings helped him to adjust to his new role as a field journalist with aplomb. Over 7 days, we interviewed and photographed 40 refugees from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan. In retrospect, neither of us were psychologically prepared for this assignment as many of the stories that we heard were harrowing.
Prior to visiting Lesbos, I considered myself to be relatively well informed about the refugee crisis. However what I have learnt from spending ten days covering this movement of people is that the mainstream media struggles to communicate how the vast majority of people attempting to find their way into Europe are ‘normal’ – educated, hopeful, brave and ambitious. Not one person that we spoke to was happy to have left their homeland. We met students, a hotelier, a composer, a wrestler, an aviation engineer and a film maker, all of whom left family, businesses and their homes to escape violence and persecution.
Phillip moved to Utrecht in September 2016 to pursue a Masters in Artificial Intelligence, but he visited Madrid in December and we met up for lunch. We discussed our experience in Lesbos at length. We both agreed that it was profoundly moving, and both of us still think about it on a daily basis. One of my aims for 2017 is to volunteer my time and skills to improve the lives of refugees on a more local level here in Madrid.
On the subject of working locally, in September I received a wonderful little assignment here in Madrid. For the past 55 years, Don Justo Gallego, a 91-year-old former monk, has been building a cathedral from recycled materials in the suburban town of Mejorada del Campo. I visited him with local writer Andreas Klinger to make a feature for Air Berlin’s in-flight magazine.
I’m not a follower of religion, but I couldn’t fail to be moved by Don Justo’s commitment to his vision. The cathedral itself, while haphazard and incomplete, is astonishing in its scale and ambition.
As for Don Justo himself, the energy and passion exuded by a 91-year-old man was nothing short of inspirational. When I discovered him attacking a wall with a heavy-duty hammer drill, I couldn’t believe my eyes!
Down in the crypt of the cathedral, Don Justo showed us the spot that he had marked out for his own burial. He seemed at ease with the fact that his passing away was an ever-nearing inevitability. Andreas asked him whether he thought he had earned his place in heaven; Don Justo responded:
“Yes, I think I’ll go to heaven. I’m satisfied with what I’ve done.”
In my later years, I hope that I am able to show the poise and calm to stare at death unflinchingly, at ease with what I have achieved. At the very least, Don Justo has inspired me to bring more focus and commitment to my work in 2017.
In November 2016, I realised an ambition by visiting the Dominican Republic for the first time. My wife is part Dominican, so while I was sad not to be travelling to the Caribbean accompanied by Francheska, it was a unique opportunity to get an insight into the culture that shaped her.
My job was to document daily life in the capital, Santo Domingo, for Iberia Ronda magazine. I arrived onto the island at 7pm on a Sunday night, and as soon as I checked in I made my way to the Monasterio de San Francisco, meeting up with writer Maria Escudero to document the weekly merengue session with Grupo Bonye. People of all ages and colours danced, drank rum and just had a good time. Afterwards, those in the know drifted down to the El Sarten bar for serious dancing into the small hours.
In spite of the stifling humidity, I was struck by the vibrancy of the street life. Bachata and merengue tunes seemed to be ever present from soundsytems in shops, cafes and cars. The late evening sunlight brought a golden hue to the avenues of the city.
My work took me into small businesses both new and old, from ‘botanicas’ selling magical potions and remedies, to artisans creating Dominican interpretations of Spanish espadrilles.
The Dominican Republic has experienced one of the fastest rates of economic growth in the Americas over the last 15 years, and this is reflected in the dynamic young people behind some of the new ventures that I visited. At Travesias restaurant, head chef Inés Páez Nin (aka Chef Tita) brings her contemporary vision to classical Dominican staples like tostones, chicharrones and pastelón.
On my final night in the Dominican Republic I made my way to the Estadio Quisqueya to partake in another tradition – watching a baseball game. Luckily the Águilas Cibaeñas (the team from Francheska’s city of Santiago) were in town so choosing a team to support was made easy for me!
Working in the Dominican Republic was exhausting, with long days carrying heavy equipment in a hot, hectic environment. However I fed off the positivity and energy of the people that I met. It seemed like everyone was ready with a joke and a smile, a song and a dance. One of my favourite moments was drinking rum and lime at one of the cities many ‘colmados’ – traditional corner stalls that double up as impromptu drinking spots. As a well-known ‘dembow‘ song came on the jukebox, everyone from the shoeshine boy to the group of girls drinking beer at the counter burst into song.
2016 introduced me to new cultures and people, challenged my preconceptions, and took me out of my comfort zone.
Some of the political figures that have risen to prominence this year would like you to believe that people who don’t share your religious and cultural affiliations are a threat to your way of life. This is not my experience, and I believe that now more than ever we need to appreciate the differences in others while recognising that we have far more things in common with people from other cultures. After all, when Phillip and I spoke to refugees on the island of Lesbos, we found that all of them had similar hopes and expectations – to work, and as a result to provide themselves with food and shelter; to be independent, but to also be safe with friends and family, and to be free from tyranny.
These days, if my former tutor Aaron Schuman was to inquire of my photographs ‘why should I care?’, then I would respond that I couldn’t expect anyone to care about my work specifically; what I would hope for is that the stories that I have worked on will encourage the viewer to find out more about those that they perceive to be ‘different’. Even if they don’t ‘care’ about my individual photographs, then perhaps they can be inspired to care for strangers as they would hope to be cared for themselves. Regardless of where we come from, we would all benefit from more of that.