We launched the Patrin project yesterday at the House of Commons, in the presence of the Gypsy community, the All Parliamentary Committee for Gypsy, Travellers and Roma and a gathering of activists and lawyers. For those of you who don’t know anything about the project here’s my introduction from the book.
Patrin is a photographic history of Gypsy families coming from the East Midlands. The photographs were taken by family members, from the late nineteenth century right through to 2010, and take us on a journey down memory lane through the themes of family, work, travelling and campaigning.
The Monitoring Group has been empowering different communities, tackling racism and campaigning for human rights for 30 years. Over this time, there have been many positive changes in the UK, though some changes have made life harder. For example, for the Gypsy and Traveller community it is much harder to find anywhere to stay in 2012, than it was in 1900. It is this constant struggle to find somewhere to stay which leads to the persistence of racism and misunderstanding of the community. Yet, it is a daily struggle which most people do not understand.
Susan Sontag’s, ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’, is a small but important book about the way in which we become spectators when presented with photographs of suffering. Although we are bombarded of images of suffering on TV, photographs, films, and video games, yet we are immune. A rare example was an front page image in the Independent newspaper, on the 22nd July 2008, of two young Roma sisters who had drowned at Torregaveta beach, near Naples in Italy. The bodies of the two girls were laid on the sand; their sister and cousin had been taken away by the police to identify and contact the parents. The photograph showed the bodies of the two girls lying on the beach half covered with a towel, and around them holidaymakers continued their beach holidays, sunbathing, picnicking, playing games, totally indifferent. At the Monitoring Group we felt compelled to do something, and we started a campaign to highlight what was taking place in Italy.
The idea of the Patrin project developed alongside a campaign by the Monitoring Group and the National Federation of Gypsy Liasion Groups to stop the Italian government from closing every Gypsy camp in Italy. In breach of European Human Rights legislation, the Italian government used National Security legislation preserved for times of war, to enforce the swift closure of every camp in the country. Alongside this campaign, the national media spread almost daily news stories of some Gypsy delinquent behavior, mostly untrue. The result was that the country became almost blind to the burnings of Gypsy camps, and even the deaths of foreign workers who looked like Gypsies.
When Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright and politician became President of the newly formed Czech Republic he drew an important distinction between creating democratic institutions and fostering a spirit that would make them work at their best. “The Gypsy problem is a litmus test not of democracy but of a civil society,” Mr. Havel said. “The two are certainly two sides of the same coin; one is unthinkable without the other. One means legislation to enable the people to vote and make them the source of power. The civil society is related to human behavior.” Almost two decades after he said this the indifference many Europeans feel towards the suffering of the Gypsy community is widespread, with racist attacks, illegal evictions, and even racist murders prevalent in every European country from Belfast, Budapest, Sophia, Paris, Liverpool, Gdansk, London, and Prague.
Sometimes, it feels as if most of Europe would fail this ‘litmus test’ nowadays. Yet, as this book shows, the Gypsy community shares the same European history and heritage as everyone else. People from the Gypsy community in Derby fought in the World Wars, family members died in Nazi War camps, members of the community served English aristocracy. They are part of the everday rural life, they farmed the fields, picked fruit, reclaimed the waste, yet remained largely invisible, even today. The East Midlands is home to three of the largest Gypsy groups in the country, and these groups have played an important role in the history of the Gypsy community as a whole. This project aims to give a voice to the Gypsy people so that they can record their heritage, and challenge the perceptions of the settled community. Perceptions which have been largely surrounded by myths, stereotypes and prejudice.
It is ironic that the one true European community, who travelled across Europe regardless of changing borders and political regimes for over 700 years, is now the only ethnic community in Europe who are not allowed to settle inside any one country. Nobel Prize winner, Gunter Grass, praised the community for maintaining a culture and heritage regardless of political boundaries. He once wrote “ The Gypsy and Roma people exist somewhere beyond all provident care, only seldom does anybody speak up for them.” The Gypsy community has been part of the English rural community for over 600 years, in the 2011 Census nearly 60,000 people identified themselves as a Gypsy or Traveller, yet most people in England know very little about their local Gypsy community.
This has not been helped by the perpetuation of a mythical idea of rural England, with no black or ethnic minority people, or any form of difference. Hunters, pastoralists, farmers, factory farmers, Gypsies, migrant labour have all been present in the English countryside for hundreds of years, but if you look at publicity material of English Heritage, or Visit England, the real countryside is absent, replaced by a purified place.
In the nineteenth century, Gypsies lived in encampments (as shown in Chapter 7), or even cheap lodging in cities over winter alongside working-class populations, making and selling goods, moving in regular circuits across the countryside in the spring and summer, picking up seasonal work, hawking and attending fairs. Far from being ‘a separate people’, their economic survival in fact depended on close engagement with the wider population, but as Britain’s population became increasingly urbanised, communities became more separate, and our knowledge of the Gypsy communities became more and more reliant on stereotypes.
A glaring example of the sterotypes could be seen in the Channel 4 documentary ‘Big Fat Gypsy Wedding’. While appearing to be sympathetic, it nevertheless presents an exoticised image of Travellers, which seems to encapsulate how they remain the ‘other’ of British society.
In early 2012, a young member of the Gypsy community wrote an open letter to Channel 4 to complain about the program. In his letter, Pip Mckenzie, 17, claimed he had been the victim of physical violence as a result of the advertising. “We are not a joke – we are human beings and your work of fiction is only strengthening stereotypes and ignorance,” he wrote. An investigation by the Advertising Standards Authority eventually concluded the publicity for the programme was racist, and the show was eventually decommissioned. It is episodes such as this which reminds us the importance of preserving the real history and heritage of the Gypsy community.
The Patrin project was a colloboration between TMG, a number of Gypsy groups, Gypsy families, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the New Art Exchange in Nottingham.
The Monitoring Group has done much to promote the history of Black Britons over the years, yet the history of the Gypsy has remained largely hidden, even amongst the anti-racist community. Over the past 20 years the work of the Lottery Heritage Fund has shown that heritage is not just for the privileged, but everyone, and was therefore our natural partner for the project. We thank them for the patience in seeing the project through.
This was a heritage project for the Gypsy community, providing an opportunity for them to recount their lives and histories, in their own voices. The advancement of digital photography has increasingly meant that almost anyone can produce great images, without having to spend years training and learning a craft. The participants in the project were given guidance, and they used their imagination to produce the images. The power of photography lies in its ability to document and define the past. For many in the Gypsy community the photographs were momentums of a vanished past often recalled in stories. Gypsy families buy and sell items and possessions, but not photographs and memories. These were not items to be traded. Readers of this book will have similar photographs in their family archives, and most people will be able to identify roughly when the photos were taken from people’s clothes, dress, hair-style, toys, and other items. The Gypsy community is not that different from us, and does not really resemble the caricatures we see on TV shows.
The project has been delivered in two parts. During the first year, we employed two artists, Ceceliar Jardemar and Sara Heitlinger, to help the communities take photographs and collate material, and we thank them for their assistance on the project. This material was showcased at an exhibition at the New Art Exchange, in Nottingham, in August 2011, attended by over 5,000 people. After the exhibition the Monitoring Group and the community then spent nearly a year gathering more material, and deciding which images to use and how to lay them out. This book has only been possible because of the consent and active involvement of many families and individuals from the East Midlands Gypsy community. They have all contributed images and text. Each chapter of the book is introduced by a member of the community, providing their voice and perspective.
Heritage is a powerful tool. It is something that gives a sense of place and identity and helps to inform us about who we are and how a region has developed over time. One writer described the process of recording your heritage as ‘place making in a place-less time’, an apt phrase for the Patrin project. (Robbins 1991)
However, Heritage has been a process which has historically been difficult for the Gypsy community because their nomadic lifestyle, combined with official discrimination, has meant that accurate government historical archives have not been wholly reliable. Historically, the Gypsy communities themselves being sometimes part illiterate, afforded little value to the paper and ink, insead they pass on their history on by word of mouth, and through images. This oral tradition means that very little written work exists. But in the digital age, much is changing, and the community have embraced the access to knowledge and information which mobile gadgets and computers bring. Alongside this book we have built a website showcasing images from the book. The website and book will provide a lasting legacy. The National Federation of Gypsy Liason Groups have recently secured funding to continue the work on the website and over the years to come this site will have many more stories from the community, both in the East Midlands and elsewhere. We hope that it will grow to become a treasured national resource.