The Roma people have been photographed often, their lives regularly documented with images that focus on either their colorful festivities or their dismal poverty. Maria Sturm was determined not to tread the same well-covered territory in her images of young, traditional Roma people.
A mostly cohesive group of people with their own traditions, the Roma are the largest minority of Romania’s population. The tradition of early marriage, generally by the age of 16 or younger, reinforces a strong sense of family and community, which strengthens the Roma identity. Sturm approaches this custom with an open mind, determined not to treat it as an exotic aberration.
Sturm was born in Romania – her mother took her to live in Germany when she was five years old – and she speaks Romanian. After talking to many young Roma couples, she realized that by marrying young and having children early, the Roma people moved from childhood directly to adulthood, skipping a youthful period of freedom. But contrary to the expectations of outsiders, this did not necessarily make them unhappy.
The sense of belonging to a group is primary for the Roma, but Sturm gives her young subjects an individual identity. Her portraits are open and direct: she photographs Izabela, age 12, for example, who is to be married in the next year, playfully wearing a wedding dress. The image brings to mind Wolfgang Tillmans’s early photographs of carefree young British teens. Another portrait shows a young couple with their beautiful little boy. The parents look neither happy nor sad, just very young, married at an age that would be frowned upon in other societies.
While the majority of Sturm’s images are the expressive, documentary portraits of her young sitters, she adds context by including photographs of their modest living conditions. Moving away from straight documentary photography, she also introduces a more conceptual approach by including images of flowers, which have specific meanings in Roma culture: apple blossoms are symbols of youth, for example. What makes Sturm’s pictures so appealing is her frank and unprejudiced approach to a practice that others might find alienating.