Olga Sokal


The Romani people encompass nearly 10% of the inhabitants of Slovakia. However due to violent cultural and institutional racism, the majority live in isolated communities detached from the rest of the country. My work investigates the cultural impact of this detachment on both the community and the individual.

I traveled to Roma Villages primarily in Eastern Slovakia - Velka Ida, Stara Lubovna, Rankovce and Lunik iX - visiting multiple times during 2016/2017. Recognizing my position as an outsider, I used portraiture photography to build bonds with both my subject and their community. Through this I was able to capture the spirit, atmosphere, and life of these places that are not dying, but rather being re-born.

It was important for me to battle the deeply entrenched stereotypes the surrounding  Slovak communities held against the Roma. Utilizing portraiture to showcase the beauty of each person, I captured the uniqueness of their culture. Large format was  a fundamental part of a project. The longer process allowed me time to build a deeper bond with my subject. Additionally while I was behind the dark cloth, the subjects were able to focus on themselves and their stories rather than my position as a foreign photographer, giving them a sense of autonomy in the process.

I never photographed people who did not wish to be photographed. I made sure to ask all subjects how they wanted themselves to be seen. As a result, I took power away from the photographer and put it in the hands of the subject. Meanwhile this created a sincere and comfortable atmosphere for the shoot, whilst instilling a sense of pride and confidence within the photographed.

You mention taking power away from yourself as a photographer and putting it in the hands of your subject. Can you tell us more about why you believe this part of your photographic process is important and valuable to the final image you create?

Photography has always been my escape. As a classically trained artist in both drawing and painting, I have often felt trapped and isolated by the solitude of these mediums. Photography gave me an excuse to work and connect with people on a more visceral level. For me, it is this intangible human experience that excites me about the process and ultimately it is this kinship that emanates from the images I create.

It is important to me to try and make the people I photograph feel and be as comfortable as possible. At the end of the day, by taking their photograph I am aware that on multiple levels I am exposing them, so I assure them that the entire process is on their terms and that they are in control. I think this lies at the heart of reaching a level of authenticity and genuineness. I place a premium on empowering them.

As a female photographer entering the Romani culture were there challenges you had to overcome. In what ways did your interactions differ between photographing men versus women subjects?

Yes of course. Patriarchy governs Romani culture and the Romani people have a long history of being marginalized and stereotyped, so getting the trust of the local people was not an easy feat. In general I did find it much more difficult to photograph the man than the woman, however, I also found the older women of the community to be wary and suspicious of me. As a young woman, it was hard to overcome these inherent biases.

At the end of a day I am always acutely aware that I was a guest, entering their world, and always tried to remain respectful. I tried to show my willingness to learn about the culture and customs and focused on making a connection with the individuals I worked with.

Why is it important for you to break down stereotypes with your camera?

I think it is important to always aspire to seek the truth, strive for an authenticity and see people how they genuinely are. Ultimately, we all share the gamut of the human condition, the search for happiness, love, and appreciation on some level motivate and connect us all. It is important for me to keep the focus on our vast commonalities rather than the minutia of our differences. I am just privileged to have had the possibility to show the stories and people and to be able to emphasize the fact that we are simply all humans.

One of the most memorable anecdotes from the shoot was working with Nikola a 10-year-old girl from Velka Ida. In Velka Ida, there is a strict delineation marked by which side of the road you come from, it is very uncommon for kids to cross to the road. For the duration of the shoot, Nikola gripped my hand tightly, insisting on accompanying me everywhere and helping me whilst I shot. She took care of my camera equipment and bags for the entire time. One of the members of ETP Slovensko told me that she was just very happy to feel needed and appreciated. It was very humbling to see the sheer joy these mundane tasks and my attention brought her.

Your subjects seem very comfortable with your presence, how do you feel when you are in the moment, in a stranger’s home setting up your large format camera to photograph them?

I know it is not always easy for people to open their homes and lives to a complete stranger. I always feel very appreciative that people feel comfortable enough to allow me to photograph them. The inherent long process of using a large format camera affords me a greater time with my subjects that enables me to build a rapport. I strive to be very present and listen intently and show my willingness to learn from the conversations I have with them. Ultimately, I feel that the level of comfort comes from a mutual respect. The photography becomes almost a secondary consideration, an excuse to connect to someone different from myself.    

To keep up to date on Olga’s upcoming work follow along here:

Instagram https://www.instagram.com/olgasokal/

Website https://www.olgasokal.com/

Rhombie Sandoval