Tom Roche was selected as one of two winners of a call for work we created for 2018 photography graduates. See the results in full here.
University: University of the West of England
“I would define it as a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed. Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement..." - Svetlana Boym 2013
Through fragmentary information growing up, I learned about my Romany Gypsy heritage through stories and speculation. An ancestor of mine was stabbed through the heart, owing money for land; another used to sell pegs; and Liz used to pick hops - or so I’m told.
This work tries to deal with the folkloric feeling toward being a distant Gypsy, understanding the tropes through my family archive material, and a deep connection to the occult. The road, as a metaphor, strings together the feeling of transience I’ve always felt.
Black blood refers to a Gypsy of the purest type, revered for being a ‘True’ Romany among the culture. The work tries to understand that feeling.
Where did you attend university? Tell us about your final year experience. I went to University of the West of England, in Bristol. It was a pretty hectic final year. I had shoulder surgery in November, so the year started a bit all over the place. But I soon got back into the swing of things; making work, networking, writing, reading, relaxing! The staff at UWE were really great at helping me refine my practice, and understand where my work sat in the industry.
What are some standout moments from your time at university? This is probably a boring answer, but I really took great value in the guest speaker programme the university offered to its students. Understanding how photographers make a living, gain exposure and their working process, really stood out to me as interesting time spent. Some of my favourites were: Hannah Starkey, Frederike Helwig, Rafal Milach & Simon Roberts.
Which photographic genre do you consider your work to fall into and what themes do you find yourself exploring? I think my work blurs the lines of different genre’s. ‘Blurring the line between Art and Documentary’ sounds a bit…ostentatious; so, I like to say I’m: ‘Something like a Documentary photographer’. Fitting into the scope of documentary; but working with Interpretation over investigation. Documentary would be the closest fit for that.
I like to question truth and how the photographic image can manipulate how a story is told. Folklore is a big part of my work too.
What initially inspired you to make this work? I made an image of a group of travellers in a car park, being harassed by police in riot vans. This stared a series of conversations with me and my family, sharing small stories about our own Gypsy heritage. Something that until this point wasn’t really talked about. A tension was surrounding our past, and I wanted to make work that reflected this.
Your opening quote suggests you felt the need to discover more and find a sense of 'home', if possible. Why have you decided to explore this through the use of photography? I guess because I have never felt like I’ve had a home. Metaphorically of course; I’ve always had a loving family and a roof over our head, but always with a sense of transience or anxiety. Maybe my Romany Gypsy roots mean I am never settled, so going out and finding out about that feeling through photography, was a good excuse to get in my car and make images on the road.
Name some photographers who inspire your work. Katrin Koenning, Federico Claverino, Tereza Zelankova, Paul Graham, Max Pinkers. Anne Golaz. There are so many great photographers making interesting work lately.
Describe your final series of images to us. What have you learnt about yourself throughout this process? The work started out in a very traditional documentary style. As the work has progressed and the understanding of the subject has progressed, the work took on more of a mysterious turn. From family archive images that have tension, to a portrait of a palm reader that told my future; the work has no one aesthetic. I think this ambiguous language is important in representing the flawed nature of my family story, and the topic of heritage in general.
I’ve learnt to stick to my instinct throughout making the work. Taking on board criticism and moderating that feedback to progress the work organically, not changing my idea because someone questioned my intention. Critique and discussions of work, are a two-way conversation. And differing opinions can lead to really wonderful things.
Also, I found out that I like talking to strangers more than I thought I did!
Can you explain your series title? Black Blood is a term used by Romany people. Black is a sacred colour in Gypsy culture, so the term refers to a Gypsy of pure blood; the highest compliment one can get. This was pointed to me by the Gypsy and Traveller specialist: Bob Dawson, whom I met and photographed whilst making the work.
Black blood is a metaphor for the feeling I’m trying to interpret with the project.
How did you progress through the creation of this work? Do you think that the more you learnt about your heritage, the deeper connections you were able to make with your images? The process was fragmentary. Images that span: Archive, appropriation, large & medium format; they are as displaced as my heritage. I learned through this process that I cannot make work in one style, but a process of manic image making through different processes is where I feel most comfortable. I’ve had to accept this broken way of working.
As far as learning more about my heritage, initially the work was investigative; but because of the nature of Gypsy life, the formal records did not tell much. But the journey of making the work and trying to understand the feeling of being a distant Gypsy was understood metaphorically, the more work I made. Making work on the road gave me that feeling profoundly.
What are you plans now you've finished university? How do you think your work will progress? I have a few things lined up. I’m in discussion with a magazine about an internship, and I’m in the process of some web design jobs. But mostly I need some time to just breathe. University can be quite restrictive at times, so not having any constraints around making work will allow some freedom and down time.
I’m going to take some time to contemplate my working methods. I’m currently working on a book dummy of Black Blood, and figuring out how to make the project interesting for the web.
Have you got any tips or advice for final year students? Stick to your guns. Make work that is true to yourself, not work that is following a trend or subject matter. If you make work that is organic to your visual language, ultimately it will be more rewarding in the long run.
Also, read lots; show your work to everyone; and try and not to get too stressed!