National Identity: Traveller Communities

With Issue 10 just around the corner we’re launching our season of content that will accompany the issue.  These articles and interviews will also investigate the theme of ‘National Identity’ releasing at least once a month until Issue 11 arrives in spring 2020. Many of the articles are the result of photographer submissions and writer pitches made during our Issue 10 open call, including this piece by writer Bethany Holmes. Here Bethany looks at 4 photographers documenting Traveller communities.

Traveller communities – an umbrella term including those identifying as Romanies or Gypsies, Travellers and Roma have been subject to persecution and misrepresentation throughout their 600-year history in the UK. Thinkers such as Etienne Balibar have suggested that Travellers are seen to be an ‘internal other’, a perception that could underlie their exclusion from nation-states’ so-called identities.

Indicatively, portrayals of community members tend to perpetuate stereotypes of otherness – either criminalising, victimising or romanticising to the point of exoticism. This is symptomatic of photography in general; historian Eve Rosenhaft notes that photographers, despite intending to capture ‘reality’, risk objectifying traveller communities or indeed any marginalised group by subjecting them to a gaze which re-entrenches power dynamics.

© Sandra Mickiewicz

On the other hand, self-reflexive and collaborative approaches can allow for those photographed to decide how they are represented and in doing so give voice to authentic experience. The four following projects are testaments to this, offering nuanced and sincere depictions in the face of pervasive negative stereotypes.

Sandra Mickiewicz is a Polish-born, London-based documentary photographer. Her projects are rooted in contemporary social issues. The last few months have seen Sandra photographing traveller communities: having built relationships at small horse fairs around the UK, she was invited to capture Appleby Horse Fair in Cumbria – a significant cultural event that has taken place since 1686 and attracts up to ten thousand visitors. 

© Sandra Mickiewicz

Sandra’s bright, arresting photographs nod to the importance of kinship, nature and animals to the travelling tradition. She hopes her latest project will contribute to changing the dominant ‘point of view and our thinking about Gypsies and Travellers’. From energetic children and young adults who have approached her and ‘asked for a picture’, to her intimate portrait of 93-year old Roma genocide survivor Raymond Gurême, Sandra captures the resolute, spirited nature of the people she has met and the pride they rightly feel towards their ancestry.

© Paul Wenham-Clarke

Paul Wenham-Clarke’s work is also motivated by societal issues – in Urban Gypsies, this is a group of Irish Travellers living beneath an elevated highway in London who he spent one year working with. Paul’s photos are formal, mostly capturing large family gatherings such as weddings and christenings. This is based on an agreement with the families: any photographs taken would be on their terms. Clearly, power relations between the photographer and their subjects can never quite be mitigated, but a close collaboration can allow for those photographed to have control over their image.

© Paul Wenham-Clarke

Yet, poignant shots of the static caravan site, and the backdrop of inner-city London, reflect on the housing crisis the Travellers face and the risks this poses to their identity. A reduction in traditional stopping places and authorised sites, as well as the increasing value of urban land, mean many families based in large cities are forced to assimilate and move to bricks-and-mortar housing. This overt pressure allows Paul to draw attention to power and inequality in cultural and social life, but one is also reminded that Irish Traveller identity is formed through togetherness and resilience.

© Heather Tait

In contrast to Paul’s formal photographs, Heather Tait’s snapshots of Cliftonville West are candid and spontaneous, although similar pressures are at stake. Cliftonville, in the Kentish coastal town of Margate, is among the most disadvantaged wards in England and also home to one of its largest Roma communities. Taken over 2014–2019, Heather documents Roma families and children playing on the streets of the seaside town, many of whom she met through her 2014 ‘Kids with Cameras’ project in which local children were given cameras to document their lives.

© Heather Tait

A policy of arts-led regeneration has had vast socio-economic effects on Margate in recent years and although Cliftonville remains poor and overlooked, it is gradually changing. This gives the project an archival quality, documenting a historical ‘moment’.  Heather also notes that some of the Roma children in her photos have returned to their home countries because their families ‘couldn’t afford the increased rents, and their parents were struggling to find work’. It is widely acknowledged that gentrification leads to ethnic displacement, raising questions about who reaps the benefits of Margate’s regeneration and who is excluded.

© Tom Roche

Contrary to the three documentary projects, Tom Roche’s Black Blood is a personal exploration of folklore, mysticism and the complexity of family heritage. The Bristol-based photographer grew up without ‘a clear understanding’ of his ancestry: it wasn’t until after he photographed a Traveller community that his grandmother expanded on his grandfather’s Romany heritage. Such a realisation inspired a search to understand and connect with a culture he felt at once a distance and akin with.

© Tom Roche

Initially planned to have a more formal, documentary method, fragmentary records led Tom to change his approach to a more ‘esoteric meditation’. The assortment of processes used convey the complexity of the feelings surrounding his investigation. Archive material sits with his own photographs of still lifes, portraits of family members, and Romani figures who have inspired him to celebrate his roots. Tom has always felt ‘frustrated’ by the media perceptions of Romanies and Travellers; by exploring his heritage he aims to tell the story from the ‘other side’, while also investigating narrative, truth and one’s place in time.

In bringing to light the realities of an often stigmatised or unconsidered aspect of contemporary national identity, knowledge and understanding at a local level is increased – something that can help precipitate change. These projects are invaluable examples of how photographers can work through the entanglements of power permeating social relations to offer authentic depictions. In this case, the strength of a community whose way of life has been contested throughout history and remains precarious.

Bethany Holmes is a writer and editor. She studied MA Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London and currently works in publishing at the British Museum. She has written for RA Magazine and Novara Media among others. Her interests span cultural and critical theory, the arts, history and their relation to urban space, activism and social justice.

Issue 10 of Loupe will be launching shortly, for now back issues are available to purchase from our online shop.