ON THE ROAD WITH THE IRISH TRAVELLERS
It was two years ago when Birte Kaufmann, a German social worker and photographer, first saw an Irish Traveller camp whilst on her way to a festival in Ireland. Intrigued, Birte’s desire to know more about the Traveller way of life would not be appeased until she was living alongside a Traveller family in an old Volkswagen camper van.
Whilst Irish Travellers have some of the same cultural values as Romani Gypsies, they are a separate ethnic group with their own language and distinct customs. Traditionally, Irish Travellers worked as agricultural labourers and skilled craftsmen; however, industrialization and mass production rendered many of the Traveller’s traditional trades and services obsolete. As well as experiencing high rates of unemployment, Irish Travellers face significant housing problems. Whilst just over 80% of Travellers live in permanent housing, the remainder live on caravan sites and illegally on the roadside, often without access to running water or sanitation.
Birte’s aim in spending time with the Travellers is to learn more about their culture and to explore the divide between the Traveller and settled community. Irish Travellers have long been the subjects of fear and acrimony from non-Travellers, and prevailing stereotypes are often exacerbated by media depictions of Travellers as outcasts and dangerous. Birte has documented her time spent with the family through photographs that are raw and evocative, and that convey a genuine narrative of Traveller daily life that is largely unprecedented given the notoriously closed nature of Traveller communities. Birte has recently launched a campaign on Emphas.is, a crowdfunding website for photojournalists, in the hope of funding return visits to Ireland to continue documenting Traveller life. A worthy endeavour, given the mystique and misunderstanding that continues to surround the community.
FRAMED: Hello Birte, how are you?
BIRTE KAUFMANN: I’m grand.
What’s happening with your project?
I will fly to Ireland at the end of next week to take more photographs.
And when you go back, will you be working with the same community?
It’s always the same community I go to. It’s one main family. The old daddy has nineteen children alive. And one of those children has between six and ten children themself. Some of the Travellers live at the roadside, others at the halting sites, and in the wintertime, some live in housing estates. So, I gave them a call a couple of days ago, and most of them are out on the roadside again [laughs]. I have to find them, but I will manage it.
How did you approach this? Did you have connections to Traveller communities before you began photographing them?
Ah no, not really. I am very connected to Ireland through friendships and all that. I think that it’s the country that I’ve travelled to most of my life. It was nearly two years ago that I first saw Travellers. We were on the way to a festival in the middle of Ireland, and I saw a Traveller camp beside the road. I immediately wanted to stop, but my friend said, “Come on, Birte, let’s go to the festival!” [Laughs]. And then I started to ask more and more questions; I was really interested in the Travellers and it never left my mind. Then finally I thought, all right, just try to start it. And at first I tried to get in touch through organisations that work for Traveller rights, but that didn’t work out. I had an interview in Dublin with one of the biggest organisations, and at the end they said, “All right, we believe that you want to do this in the right way, and we want to help you”. But it was really complicated. They gave me support, but it would not have enabled me to become really close to the community. A couple of days before I left, I met a girl here who is from Ireland. She said, “A friend of mine, she has grown up close to a halting site, and her father is one of those people who really likes everybody and everybody likes him. Maybe you can visit him as well and he can try to introduce you.” So he introduced me, and the first time I was there, it was really hard for me to understand them. I was like, oh my God, what a lot of work; because even if they speak English, it’s completely different to any English you’ve ever heard before. But immediately, I knew I wanted to go on and learn more, and go really deep in. To begin with, they invited me to have a cup of tea; and, of course, it’s easier to become close to the women, because it’s a completely separated community.
Oh, really? It’s separated even within the one family that you’ve been photographing?
Yes, there are men parts and women parts. It’s like in another century, like we had it a long time ago [laughs]. And even if they meet up, of course they talk to each other and all that, but then the men go out to the fire or to one caravan, and the women go to the other caravan.
So are most Travellers employed? Do they still practice their traditional skills?
Actually, they come from the tinker background, and they’re migrant workers. But they are skilled in work that nobody needs anymore. I think you’ll find two tinsmiths in the whole of Ireland nowadays. Travellers are very much in the horse business. They are involved in nearly everything that has to do with horses in Ireland.
Are they training horses, selling them, what do they do?
They breed them, and they sell them. They have a very, very close relationship to horses. Even if they are beside the road, they always have their horses close to them. Even those who are not really in the horse business, they have horses and they still drive their sulkies.
I didn’t realise they were involved in that. Most of the information I’ve found has emphasised their dependence on welfare. You said that the family that you are photographing has moved back to the roadside. So are they nomadic? Or do they just stay in that one area now?
Now, most of them just stay in that one area. And in the wintertime, they are in the halting site. They are places that were built in Ireland when the government decided that they didn’t want to have Travellers beside the road anymore.
So these halting sites were especially built for them?
Yes, they are only for Travellers.
And so how long do you stay with the family?
The first time I spent nearly one month there, just to become a little bit closer.
It was not immediately possible to take photographs of everything. Of course, it’s easier for me now, but you still feel sometimes—especially if it’s men’s things in the community—that you’re not deep enough inside and you can’t just do it.
All the men know me very well, but if, for example, it is a horse race, or something like that, then it is considered men’s business. I can talk about everything to the men when they are with their family, but if it is only men, they will greet me, but they don’t really talk to me. After a while, they will say, “All right, Birte, the women are over there, why don’t you join them” [laughing].
[Laughing] So do you stay in your own little van?
Yes. I have an old Volkswagen camper over there.
Yeah, it is really thanks to a friend; I wanted to go buy a tent. And a friend of my family said, “No, no you can’t stay there in a tent”. So I am really thankful that he gave me this old Volkswagen camper. So I stay with them even when they are beside the road. They’re always like, “Oh Birte, you can park your camper here, we have space for you”. It’s much easier now, but I have been to Ireland for this project five times now. It was really necessary to go so often in order to gain their trust, because it is very unusual that a non-Traveller is in that community and is staying with them.
Are negative stereotypes of Traveller communities prevalent in Ireland?
Well…it’s completely separated, but Travellers separate themselves as well.
Even when I tell them I was here or there, they ask me, “Is it a Traveller or settled?” And from the other side, of course, some people are very nice to them, and when they are beside the road they say, “Okay, you can get water from our house”, and stuff like that. But people are really distrustful, and the way of life they live is not really widely accepted. There is a law in Ireland against the discrimination of Travellers, but I was there at Christmas and it took us three pubs before one pub allowed us to enter. Of course, they would never say it is because they are Travellers.
What do they say?
They say, “It’s a private event today. You have to be a member of the pub to be allowed in”. And then the Travellers say, “All right, we’ll be a member of it”. And then the pub managers say, “Okay you can apply on Monday for it, we have no forms now”. Even when we were at a pub, we went out for one cigarette, and then more Travellers came wanting to join us, and they immediately closed the door from the inside.
And how did the people you were with react?
They say, “It’s because we are Travellers”.
So they've become used to it.
Yes, of course. They don’t like it, but they are used to it. I was very shocked, but to them it is normal.
Has it always been that way?
In earlier times, when they were migrant workers or tinkers, everybody needed them; they were accepted. And then they lost their function in society, and they had to find other ways of doing business. I don’t know what has lead to the breakdown, but it is to do with the fact that a lot of them lost their function in mainstream society. Something has happened. I would say it is deep inside, you don’t see it completely; it is not obvious, but you see it in the way that some of the people look at them. They are so completely different in some ways from the main settled Irish community. It is hard to say exactly what has lead to this. I think it is the same problem that we have everywhere in the world with nomadic groups. Their way of life is not widely accepted. They have other traditions and feel that nobody understands how they can feel free to move around.
We try to put them into our society's structures with the aim of helping them. And people don’t understand that they don’t feel free if they have to stay in one place.
I noticed for example that they don’t know how to deal with electricity bills. Most of them can’t even read. And then they come to me and say, “Can you please read me this letter?” Then they have big electricity bills for the houses on the halting sites. And then there is this attitude of, all right, this doesn’t work, I don’t know how to manage it, so I’m just going to take my caravan and go back to the road.