For a five year period in the early 1970s I went back and forth to Ireland living and travelling in a worn out mini van complete with makeshift curtains which I would string across the windows each night.
I was working on a self-motivated and self-funded project supported though freelance work. At the time book publishers like Penguin commissioned photographers to illustrate whole publications. Usually this meant we had several months to complete an assignment and this gave us plenty of spare time to work on our own long-term personal projects.
For the Travellers the 1970s were a difficult period of transition. Already victims of racism and prejudice, they were struggling to maintain a traditional nomadic lifestyle while the Irish government and authorities were doing their best to obstruct their movement and to assimilate them into the settled community.
As with any closed group it took time as an outsider to be trusted and accepted. As I got beneath the outside layers, my first impressions altered. Likewise many of my early photographs seemed superficial.
Once I gained approval I was welcomed with warmth and hospitality and as the dirt and poverty faded into the background I began to feel protected and came to empathise with their yearning for the open road in an otherwise hostile and unsympathetic world.
Although I knew I would never belong I did begin to understand.
The family in the first photograph were living with other relatives in makeshift dwellings on an abandoned industrial site near Galway. The couple eventually had 23 children and continued to live a nomadic life.
A year ago the daughter of the baby in the picture found me through the internet. I visited them in their home and was able to catch up on the past 40 years. This was a moving experience for all of us especially as my photographs turned out to be the only record they had of those tough years on the road. It was like returning a lost memory.
The woman in the second photograph was one those who had been persuaded by the Irish government to abandon the nomadic life in exchange for a house. The family’s hand-carved caravan been confiscated, refurbished and rented out to American tourists looking for what the holiday brochures called an escape from the hectic hustle of modern life. For the Travellers, the move into a settled community was less idyllic. The property they were given was dilapidated, the neighbors were unfriendly and the family had become ill from the “lack of fresh air.” All they wanted was to be back on the road.
In Britain the Travellers have been accepted as a distinct ethnic group. In Ireland there is still no such recognition. The press and television companies exploit their lifestyle for entertainment and society’s attitudes toward the Traveller community remain little changed from the 1970s.
It is in part to redress this in-balance that I have reissued the book. Through the photographs and the words of the Travellers I hope to provide some insight into this much maligned community.
Irish Tinkers: A Portrait of Irish Travellers in the 1970s is available from the iBookstore for £3.49. PDFs, for those without an iPad or iPhone, can be purchased for £4.50 from the Irish Tinkers website.
Janine Wiedel is a documentary photographer and photojournalist based in London. She has covered issues of social concern for the past 35 years. Whilst working on long term projects aimed at publication and exhibition Janine has built up a unique collection of images covering a wide range of social issues including protest, childbirth, alternative lifestyles, multicultural communities, drugs and social exclusion. Her five books include Looking at Iran and Dover, a Port in a Storm. Janine is also the subject of the TV documentary A Camera in the Street.
Photographer since 1968. EPUK member since 2000.
See more work by Janine Wiedel