Iain McKell, The New Gypsies, with essays by Val Williams and Ezmeralda Sanger

IssueJune 2011
Review by Ian Sinclair

In 1986, documentary and fashion photographer Iain McKell was sent by the Observer to photograph the new age traveller “Peace Convoy” on its way to Stonehenge. A year earlier, the police had attacked the convoy in what has become known as “the Battle of the Beanfield”. It was, said an ITN journalist present, “the most brutal police treatment of people that I’ve witnessed in my entire career”.

In 2001, McKell revisited the new age traveller community to see how the subculture had developed since those tumultuous times. He fell in with what he calls “the new gypsies’ – a small minority of new age travellers who had ditched their “rigs” (customised buses) in favour of the traditional Gypsy horse and wagon.

Made up of 65 colour photographs – mostly portraits – and three accompanying essays, The New Gypsies is a fascinating snapshot of McKell’s time with this alternative tribe. For McKell, these people are not traditionalists seeking to turn back the clock, but environmental pioneers who have been living greener lives than any other element of society.

Built around festival dates and limited by how far their horses can travel each day, their slow-paced lives may be gloriously out of step with modern urban living but technology such as mobile phones and solar power are eagerly embraced.

Peace activists should find much to sympathise with – from the disproportionate police attention to their questioning of the dominant ideology and attempt to carve out an independent, sustainable life outside the mainstream.

The inclusion of two shots of supermodel Kate Moss is baffling and seems superfluous to the larger project. And what to make of McKell’s assertion that Moss is a “global gypsy” whose “connection with travellers is already there in one’s consciousness”?

This, though, is a minor criticism. Overall, these striking and humanising photographs offer an important corrective to the often hysterical and ignorant media coverage of travellers and Gypsies. In the concluding essay, Ezmeralda Sanger, a member of the horsedrawn community, notes that the 1994 repeal of the 1968 Caravans Act – which compelled local councils to provide adequate sites for travellers – effectively criminalised travelling communities in the UK.

This lack of adequate provision continues to haunt the debate today, the impending eviction of around 86 traveller families at Dale Farm in Essex just the latest battle travelling people have to fight to continue to live the life they choose.

An accompanying exhibition is at the Fashion Space Gallery, London College of Fashion, 20 John Princes St, London W1G 0BJ until 4 June (10am-6pm, Mon–Fri; 10am-4pm, Sat). Iain McKell will be giving a lunchtime lecture at the National Portrait Gallery on 9 June.

Topics: Radical Living