BELA VARADI - GETTING SOAKED WITH THE PILGRIMS
"As the only Roma photographer in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, I felt the pressure to take the best pictures…"
Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer's little French coastal town holds one of the most important religious Gypsy festivals every year on the 24th and 25th of May. Hundreds and thousands of Gypsies, Travellers, Romas and Gitans flock to the handful of streets of the Provencal port town to celebrate the Patron Saint of the Gypsies, Sara-la-Kali or Saint Sarah.
According to legends, after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, three of his followers, called the Three Marys, trying to escape from the persecution of the Romans, arrived on the shores of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. Depending on the versions told, Sara-la-Kali was either a servant of the Marys who was also cast adrift or a Gypsy woman living in the area who welcomed them ashore.
During the two days long religious festival, the arrival of the Three Maries and Saint Sarah is replayed: their wooden statues are taken out of the 9th-century fortified church, and a long procession carries them to the sea, where the statues are ritualistically dipped into the seawater.
Many pilgrims came to see the relics of the saints to gain forgiveness or seek some cure for their sickness. Many of them live-streamed the event through their phones to transfer the healing power of the statues to the family members who were unable to take the long pilgrimage. Although there were a few thousands of pilgrims in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in this first festival after the covid pandemic, I was told that the crowd used to be three times bigger, and organisers believed that covid and the following economic hardship possibly forced many people to miss the occasion this year.
While pilgrims stayed at home, a huge number of photographers decided to attend the event. Not everyone appreciated the continuous presence of dozens of cameras, and when the crowd was taking the ritual of bathing the statue of Saint Sarah, some photographers got the extra push away from the statue and into the seawater. Like so many times when I was photographing GRT events, I felt the frustration of the crowd myself. This festival is one of the last religious events in the Catholic calendar dedicated to GRT people, but again their stories would be represented in magazines throughout Europe through the lenses of non-GRT photographers. As the only Roma photographer in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, I felt the pressure to take the best pictures…
I was raised in a non-religious working-class family, but as we were coming out of the sea, having been standing there for 30 minutes, clothes soaked and physically exhausted, I suddenly became thrilled, almost like I was baptised in front of Saint Sarah, the Patron Saint of the Gypsies.
Bela Varadi bio
For decades I have been trying to integrate my two main interests; creating visual art and represent the life and interest of Roma people in Hungary. As a young adult, starting a career in journalism helped me to find an accommodating platform for my passion for visual and social representation. I was one of the founding members of Europe’s first Roma radio, RadioC. After working for various radio stations and online newspapers, I started working for television as a news reporter and broadcaster. Alongside my journalist job, I have created a documentary mini-series which won the grand prize at the Faces of Poverty Film Festival in 2010.
As the far-right Orban government started its crackdown on the public broadcaster, it became increasingly hard to maintain my editorial freedom. I resigned in 2011 and moved to the UK. Starting life in a new country forced me to reconsider how I could create socially conscious visual art. I started educating myself in photography and after years of experimenting, I started various projects about immigration, Roma journalism, and minority representations. My recent work "Gypsy Hill", and the year before the BLM protest in London was nominated in the professional photojournalism category at the Fine Art Photography Award 2021-2022 and has been published in various magazines.