About 20 years ago, local gypsies stole some beer from the off-license I was working in. Without realising it, this experience had sat comfortably somewhere in my subconscious and tainted my view of the gyspy traveller community.
So when I found myself photographing for a charity working to improve the rights of gypsy travellers, I had to confront those 20 years of subconscious judgement.
I’m sat in a modest charity building, having a chat over a cuppa with the staff team, a lively and positive bunch. Stories about stigma and oppression, alternative cultures and historical context slowly peeled away those layers of prejudice.
But, as soon as the traveller community arrived, I sensed a shift in energy. There was an instant reticence towards me, a coldness and hard exterior that very nearly threw back those closed-minded layers. I battled to keep my mind open and allowed the energy to form its own shape in the room. Usually, with time, this allows space for my presence to sit within it. But it wasn’t happening today.
When the kids ran outside, I jumped on the opportunity for a change and followed, hoping to join in some playfulness. I was met with a cheeky, aggressive attitude that you don’t expect from young pigtailed girls. ‘You can only take my photo if I see it afterwards and then you delete it’. I obliged and took a photo, only to have the camera snatched from my hands afterwards. ‘Oh no… that’s not a toy, you need to give that back now and I’ll promise to delete it.’ She held it strongly while I deleted the photo. I realised I was going to have to work with the energy that was there - these were kids who have been brought up tough, learnt that they have to fight back in this world for their culture to survive - one which is slowly being suffocated by laws and regulations pushing them further and further away from any chance of integration. As with anyone, you can’t look at their way of being in isolation.
It was an exhausting couple of hours, and I felt resigned to failure. But as is often the way, something magical happens when you accept and go with what’s there. The kids didn’t soften, but I stopped trying to make them soften. The images that came to me I now feel really capture their energy, and in a funny way, their underlying nativity and childishness that I couldn’t see on the surface.
I learnt that day that uncomfortable energy isn’t always negative. It’s a sign of unfamiliarity and I think the images here reflect that, making more of a statement for it. They illustrate the kids’ response to a society which oppresses and undermines theirs. To me they also represent how ’normal’ society views the gypsy traveller community, blind to the real humans beneath it.
I love it when the unplanned-ness of a shoot uncovers something you couldn’t orchestrate, and opens my mind in the process. Shoots don’t always go to plan, but sometimes that reveals more than you set out to achieve. The lesson? Plan, but be ready to let the plan go when you need to and just be led by the energy on the day.