In May 2011 I travelled with the film crew accompanying Romani academic Dr Ken Lee to the whitewashed French seaside town of Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer. Dr Lee was following in the footsteps of his father, Clifford Lee, on the journey he had taken with the National Geographic in the 1960’s, the result of which was the book “Gypsies wanderers of the world”.
Dr Lee was to join the annual Gypsy pilgrimage to honour Saint Sara-la-Kali. The earliest found records of Gypsies making the pilgrimage date back to 1500’s and the pilgrims believe Saint Sara-la-Kali was one of them, the Romani black Madonna.
Dr Lee, following the icon into the waters at the mouth of the Rhone River, dipped his tarot cards into the sea as his Father had before him. Tradition dictates this must happen whilst Saint Sarah is still in the water.
Under President Sarkozy’s administration from 2007 to 2012, hundreds of Roma families were forcibly deported from France back to their countries of origin. This policy was also used as a smokescreen to remove indigenous Romani families from land they had occupied for generations. Local Romani Activist Esmeralda Romanez and Shero Rom “Gigi” had received news of a large extended Roma family interred in a local camp whose children were sick- outraged at their treatment Gigi managed to get the detainees released to his care, where we found them all housed by him in his home in Arles.
On the 26th of May in Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer a commemoration is held by Les Cavaliers de la Nacioun Gardiano, the people of Arles and Romani from far and wide to acknowledge Marquis Folco de Baroncelli. He is remembered for his humanity and generosity and for winning the rights for the Romani to celebrate Saint-Sara publicly.
Featuring black and white photo scans by Albert Placy from Photoscope 1965 by Editions Gérard & Co, Verviers (Belgique) and Esthétiques Nouvelles, Paris (France) and colour photo scans by Bruce Dale for the National Geographic Society publication ‘Gypsies- Wanderers of the World’ 1970.
All other photos by Patrica Knight.