With a cigarette hanging from his mouth, a red bandana covering his newly bald head, (he always tried new looks and disguises on the road), Robin was in his element, barking orders at children too stunned by his ferocity to do anything but what he wanted.
We were on the street in Mexico City, filming street children who hid from the adult world by living in a dry sewer, where the electric lines and their young lives were buried. Betrayed by adults many times over, these filthy children would steal you blind, were so unpleasant you had to remind yourself they’re kids.
“Get over there, don’t look at the camera. Jesus, I said don’t look at me!” Robin’s exasperation, sweat and Herculean effort to control everything, his compact muscled body tensed less the slightest bobble spoil the shot.
Robin was always covered in cameras. He was a one man show. He shot stills, video, took sound, did interviews. He filled every vacuum. He didn’t know how to delegate. He hated sharing. He wanted everything perfect and was willing to pay the price of doing it all himself. The price was physical exhaustion, illness, a candle burning at both ends.
We carted ten cases of still photographic gear for every case of video equipment to the ends of the earth. His passion was for stills. He was one of the finest natural light videographers I have known in forty years as a director-editor. And still his photographs are among the best the world has ever seen.
This was the Robin I knew, working to take the perfect picture that would tell the story of a child’s life, and of our world’s indifference in one frozen second.
The kids understood this immediately . . . intuited it. Their attraction to Robin was electric. They ran to him, invited him into their bleak lives. They saw his heart. They did as they were told. Robin clambered over a barbed fence and slid into their subterranean world within minutes of our first meeting – becoming one of the street gang. He would shadow them, be one of them, for the next two weeks. Another work day in the world of U. Roberto Romano.
Impatience was one of his core virtues. In the field, as we traveled the world together photographing and talking with our poorest children at mines, dumpsites, in fields, quarries or on the streets, there weren’t enough hours in the day to accomplish what he felt needed to be done.
At home, when the shoot ended, the impatience became urgency as he took the unmet needs of all of the world’s children and placed them squarely before those who can and should help – Congressmen, Heads of State, government officials.
He hated hypocrisy and would tear into the tobacco or cocoa industry reps we’d cross paths with in D.C. He once traveled to the Ivory Coast and went to the precise spot where a school, supposedly built by the Cocoa Foundation was said to be located, educating former child laborers. He sent me a picture of a chicken coop, occupying that very spot. Like I said, he didn’t take other people’s word for it. He went to ground zero.
He was a take-no-prisoners kind of guy, not cut out for politics or compromise. He didn’t suffer fools and dealt poorly with many. He spoke truth to power, whether they wanted to hear it or not. At most meetings, he was filled with anger and with a strong bullshit detector. He cared. He cared so much, it made him ache. He carried his frustrations on the surface, his heart on his sleeve. Children were genuinely his life’s work.
That life was like a rocket, entirely ballistic. I’ve seen him confront men twice his size, the foreman on a coffee plantation where the workers were mostly young girls under 14, a thug on a train in India who was beating a street boy who’d begged for food. Robin wouldn’t abide this and he’d put himself in harm’s way to stop it. The thugs always backed down.
Robin’s courage was tested in dozens of the world’s poorest places, where government officials, even NGOs, rarely venture. He’d wear a hidden camera to film girls being trafficked, with the full knowledge that discovery meant death. I’ve been held at gunpoint with him, run for my life with him and watched as he disappeared into a tear-gas riot, where three people lay dead. All to get that one shot.
Robin’s aura of arrogance, courage, obliviousness and caring carried him largely unscathed through one near catastrophe after another. It all had the feeling of being led by an invisible force to where we were supposed to be. However long it took, there would be Robin with his camera, the children and the abuse, and in less than ten minutes, if you hadn’t discovered his presence, it would be too late….he’d have dozens of shots and we’d be on our way out. “Run Away” was our general fall-back plan.
Meanwhile, these past fifteen years, thousands upon thousands of Romano photographs have found their way into the mainstream of global human rights writings, on web sites, at schools, in films, studies, exhibitions, before government, on TV, in the press and in every imaginable form of social communication.
My own children came of age with Robin, the wicked uncle, a regular in our house and lives. He was the only adult they would cancel their budding social lives for. He didn’t so much visit as invade. Bags of gear spilling out everywhere and on every surface of our living room, he never used a guest room. He simply slept where he fell; years of sleeping under trees or in slum hovels made him the perfect low-maintenance guest. And he was a great cook, making banquets so filled with butter, they should have been served with a stent.
He answered our telephone and greeted the kids’ friends with an Indian accent, or posing as a Russian spy. He would call me at work and talk for the first five minutes as an IRS auditor. He faxed doctored photos to my largely female production company of me shopping for young prostitutes in Shanghai, (fortunately for me, they knew I had never been to Shanghai).
He was wicked. He was the funniest and perhaps the smartest man I’ve ever known. And now the shooting star that was Robin is looking down at us all. It’s not going to be sufficient to be sad and shocked at our terrible loss. Robin expects more of us, to fix what’s broken, and we need to get busy.