It was one of those throwaway kind of comments which comes back at you like a boomerang. In June 2012 I was invited to a event in Manchester where the life stories of some local Irish Travellers had been turned into a small spoken-word piece of theatre. The tales had been collected by Sister Carmel, a Manchester nun who works with Gypsy and Traveller communities, and I told her I thought they deserved to be collected in one place after the play – a book or an ebook. I thought nothing more of it but a few months later Carmel came back to me and since then we’ve been working on turning her stories into a book. She collected a few more to get a better balance between men and women and a broader range of ages, and I then edited them, designed a book, contributed photos, came up with ideas and research, asked organisations for advice, applied for some funding, got turned down, wrote a more successful proposal, arranged printing, designed a flyer, printed the flyer, drew up an email mailing list and a list for promo copies and posted these all out. At times we both lost faith that we’d ever get this thing finished but thankfully it’s now out there. The ultimate aim is simply to challenge some stereotypes. Carmel was keen to get copies into prisons and police stations so we targeted various figures within Greater Manchester Police (including the diversity team, who were very grateful and promised to share) and 40 copies have been ordered already – two days after launch – to go into prisons. Other copies were sent to figures within councils who may come into contact with Gypsies and Travellers. And the response from within the community too has been great so far. Hard copies cost £2.50 each plus postage and it is also available online for free using the link below. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to order one.
Slowly slowly I’m feeling more comfortable about my major project. Ironically, after a wobble this week when I attended a tutorial with the brilliant Peter Fraser and completely failed to articulate what I’m doing and why – his response in turn not giving me the encouraging alternative perspective I was hoping for – I am actually feeling better than I was before. As so often is the case, the disappointment of not finding the answers I was looking for in Peter’s session led me to find them independently in the end. Perhaps that is what a good university tutor actually does. After feeling slightly crestfallen and confused for one evening, I turned to the photo theory, sociology and anthropology books I’ve borrowed from a friend and spent the rest of the week ploughing through them. Happily, once I found some chapters I could actually understand, this initial research started to give me a new angle on this project, while at the same time giving me some concrete ideas. So today I started to incorporate some ethnographic techniques into this ‘fieldwork’ stage, to ensure that as far as possible it really will have some elements of genuine collaboration with my subjects…more of which later.
So this week represents a modest breakthrough for me in the way I am thinking about this project, and today I experienced a small parallel breakthrough (or a ‘paradigm shift’ as some of the aforementioned sociology books would have it) with the family of Lida, the young Czech woman I am working with, because I felt that she – and they – finally started to relax with me and my camera. That’s not to say it’s been that fruitful in photographic terms, but it certainly feels like a start. Lida and I also booked flights today for a visit together to the Czech Republic in October. And in seven days’ time I’ll be on my way to Romania with Ramona. Being me and needing something to stress about all the time, my worry has now gone from fear of not getting access to the communities or families I wanted, which I was feeling a few months ago, to worrying how the hell I’m going to shoe-horn all of this into one final project. It’s hardly something I’m going to lose sleep over though – I’m just going to go with the flow.
I’ve been meaning to combine some of my Appleby Horse Fair images from the past two years with some audio I collected this June, but the past six months have been so hectic that I’ve only just got around to it.
I’ve written on here before of my fascination with the other side of Appleby – the social side where young single travelling men and women hope to find that special person.
When I went for the first time, I was transfixed by the young women. It was freezing cold and drizzled for most of the four days and I spent the whole time decked out in several tops, gloves, a waterproof and a rather unattractive pair of green wellies. Yet the young Gypsy and Traveller girls floated around the fields and village like neon, fake-tanned birds of paradise – decked out in some of the skimpiest clothes you’ll see outside a nightclub. It was utterly unexpected.
As I learned more about their culture, this display became even more of a conundrum. These remain some of the UK’s most traditional communities in terms of moral values and a girl’s honour is all. Couples usually marry young and often start families by the time they are 17 or 18. Sex before marriage is frowned upon, divorce is rare and family is everything.
Appleby, I learned, is not only about horses – there are actually two distinct parallel events taking place. Just as the animals are washed and groomed in the hope they will catch a buyer’s eye, the 300-year-old fair has become a time when many single girls primp and preen in the hope they will snare their Prince Charming.
I’m still feeling as though I’m making slow progress with my Gypsy project in Istanbul but a few nice images are starting to emerge.
My portrait repertoire is somewhat limited, I’m learning. I feel I need to start using some different approaches to just standing straight on and sitting down and looking at the camera and to the side, but I don’t really spot the opportunities. Using doorways, windows, steps or anything like that might help.
Taking the time to get prints done every day of the previous day’s shoot has worked a treat in getting the family to open up to me though. It’s a trick I use at home sometimes but in a family with so little the gesture really seems to mean a lot.