Wicked and Wonderful – Goodbye, Dear Robin

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.

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15 Responses to “Wicked and Wonderful – Goodbye, Dear Robin”

  1. Julia Perez says:

    Len, this is the Robin I remember…you captured him beautifully. He was light and darkness, sanity and madness, sweet and sour…he could drive you nuts and make you laugh. I’ll miss the roller-coaster that was our Robin. So glad to have an accurate portrayal, too often people want to erase a person’s color with a bland palette..Robin was a colorful spectrum of personality. We go on fighting for the voiceless in his honor..

  2. Scott says:

    You’ve described Robin “to a T”. I will miss him too!

  3. Alan Brigish says:

    Wow! Wow!! WOW!!

    I wish I had known him What an inspiration.

    And what a great obit. Kudos.

    They say that only the good die young. So true. How old was he?

    Thanks, Georgia and Len, for sharing.


  4. Corinne Kevorkian says:

    Perfectly Robin. Thank you, Len, for this pitch-perfect tribute.

  5. Cynthia Fox says:

    Wonderful. Thank you.

  6. Marisa Verduzco says:

    Len, thanks for this article, remembering that work trip to Mexico. It was a privilege for me to met Robin. Warm regards.

  7. Susan Rubinsky says:

    Spot on. My heart is filled with sadness.

  8. Raymond Chevalier says:

    Robin, thank you for being so much part of our journey to fight injustice and poverty. It is a priviledge to have known you. The below reflects Robin’s life very well:

    He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often and loved much; who has gained the respect of intelligent men and the love of little deprived children; who has filled his niche and accomplished his task; who has left the world better than he found it, whether by an improved poppy, a perfect picture, or a rescued soul; who has never lacked appreciation of earth’s beauty or failed to express it; who has always looked for the best in others and given them the best he had; whose life was an inspiration; whose memory a benediction.

    Bessie Stanley

  9. ed serues says:

    Unlike most of the respondents who knew Robin (to me he was always Roberto or simply Romano) my relationship with him was largely social dating back to his undergraduate days at Amherst where he played tennis and squash on the teams my father coached. Though Roberto was loved like a son, no one of his players in over thirty years challenged and tested Ed Sr. like URR did-between his enormous intellect, his energy, whimsy and a penchant for both sophisticated and raw shenanigans-he was the ultimate handful.

    Though not even close to his league in matters of the brain, we bonded as friends in mutual enthusiasm for seeking out all things zany or hilarious, or both. We played some tennis, a fair amount of squash, and occasionally golf. We drank a lot of beer, shared many dinners, and generally hung out–mostly in Cambridge (where he would often travel through) and the family home in Chatham. At a higher level, he would keep me in the loop on his projects world-wide via mail or phone, and if there was to be a presentation (movie, lecture, etc.) in the eastern MA area, he’d be sure I knew about it–and if I went, he’d pay attention to me as if I were the most important person in the room–and boy, I was far from it.

    I remember him most for the many, many times he would just show up at my front door (causing my wife and I to scurry and wish we had a crawl space behind a secret door)and, upon realizing there was no way out, welcome him in for food and drink and hours of lightning fast, good- natured, and often nutty repartee and conversation. There was simply no-one like him, ever. I am happy to read that a formal remembrance is to be held–and that it will have a component of irreverence–he deserves the best.
    Ed Serues

  10. Patricia White Watson says:

    If only they only knew of his life that was totally given in their millions of names, the lost and enslaved children of the world would wail in unison so very long and loudly at the loss of our Robin. RIP dear Robin.

  11. Patricia White Watson says:

    There was so much you would still have done, dear Robin, to continue the shedding of light on the world’s beleaguered children; and perhaps, you would have ultimately turned to the true fine art in your soul of which we were seldom privileged to glimpse. This was much, much too soon. RIP dearest Robin.

  12. Anna Andersson says:

    Thanks Len. What a wonderful thing to read, and what strong feelings it evokes. With his strong character he always provoked a lot of feelings. He embodied all the extremes at the same time. As a complete angel and a daring devil, as incredibly kind and polite yet seriously rough and rude. Endlessly funny and always joking but yet so dead serious. Remarkably enough he always managed to apply them with the the right person at the perfectly right time. There was a depth within him, so rare and so visible. And by the way, thanks for the situations you described. I could really see it on front of me, and also, although I had forgotten all about it, I can hear that indian accent again…good lord…

  13. LE says:

    This truly is a wonderful remembrance of Robin. When I first met him, I thought “Que arrogante es este hombre” but then I fell in love with his character, his love of children, his advocacy, and his staunch belief that children deserve better and that we owe it to them. Thank you for such a moving “goodbye” note to Robin and I thank Robin for reminding me not to judge a book by its cover but to learn from it-Gracias Robin!

  14. SUSAN FRAME says:

    Len…perfect, exquisite depiction of our “shooting star”, Robin. I met him at an ICP reception ages ago…I said liked his cologne, ‘fireplace’…we started talking and never stopped. He has given us an exceptional legacy to follow…and we shall…hearing him bark his passionate commands, while smiling and knowing it will never be done to Robin’s meticulous perfection. I love and miss you, my cherished friend.

  15. Meridith Schmittou says:

    I met Robin when he visited the campus of a the University where I work to give a talk. We took him out to dinner at one of the supposedly nicer but also more food conscious restaurants in town. I arrived a little late and our table was already seated. The maitre d’ greeted me with “I thought you said there were 6 in your party! There are 7!” I sheepishly said “Well, I guess I could leave…” I thought Robin was going to come over the table at the guy! He nearly couldn’t eat for being so offended at the way I was treated – and he had met me for one day – immediately got on his phone and told everyone he knew never to eat there – and then of course proceeded to wow our students with is work and his love of their personal stories of being the first in their families to go to college as children of migrant workers – we were all so saddened by his death and so glad to have met him.

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