The private world of London’s Traveler community

Written by Rachel Segal Hamilton

Rachel Segal Hamilton is a London-based freelance journalist, specializing in photography. This is an edited extract from her introduction to “Urban Gypsies” by Paul Wenham-Clarke, published by Hoxton Mini Press.

The Westway curls from Paddington to North Kensington, a colossal gray serpent, choking West London in its grip.

Like so many constructions of the 1960s and ’70s, it can look irredeemably ugly to contemporary eyes, but its conception was utopian. This 3.5 miles of continuous concrete was built between 1964 and 1970 to alleviate congestion, an elevated, eight-lane dual carriageway leading commuters in and out of the capital, from the office in town to suburban bliss on the outskirts.

Courtesy Paul Wenham-Clarke

As with all developments, the project had its losers: some residents’ homes were cleared to make way for the new road. But one group remained.

Stable Way, near Latimer Road in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea, has been a stopping place for Travelers (nomadic ethnic groups) since the 19th century. Officially designated as a Traveler’s site in 1976, it’s now home to some 20 Irish Traveler families.

Courtesy Paul Wenham-Clarke

Early in the morning, as he drove along the A4 into London to work as an advertising photographer, Paul Wenham-Clarke would catch a glimpse of their static caravans and trailers, along with mechanics’ workshops, football pitches, stables, a school — a whole world thriving in this inauspicious setting.

In 2011 he set out to document the entire length of the Westway but remained most intrigued by Stable Way. (Wenham-Clarke is a professor of photography at Arts University Bournemouth and his university gave him time and funding to undertake this project.)

Wary of aggravation, Wenham-Clarke adopted a roundabout approach, initially photographing everyone except the Travelers. Each time, he’d casually mention his interest in photographing the Travelers.

Courtesy Paul Wenham-Clarke

Eventually it paid off. Eight months into the two-year project, he received a call from Pat, a well-respected long-term resident of the Westway Traveler site. They agreed Wenham-Clarke could photograph the Travelers, but only on their terms, covering family events or celebrations, always asking permission as he went.

As a result, many of the shots show the Travelers at formal occasions, christenings, anniversaries or birthday parties.

Courtesy Paul Wenham-Clarke

This isn’t documentary photography in the candid tradition. It’s clear from the hands on sparkly hips or heads tilted towards the camera that they’re conscious of the camera, and Wenham-Clarke’s use of lighting give the shots a sleeker feel. But this makes it no less authentic, perhaps more in a way.

After all, we now know that idea of the photographer as an impartial observer who hits the shutter and captures “what’s there” to be a myth. A photograph is the end result of many choices, from framing to editing.

Courtesy Paul Wenham-Clarke

Through this close collaboration the Travelers are deciding how they want to be represented. And who can blame them for wanting to take control of their own image? Travelers are a subject of fascination to wider society, endlessly misrepresented, exoticized or mocked, from Bizet’s sexy, dangerous Carmen to Brad Pitt’s comic turn as an incomprehensible bare-knuckle boxer in “Snatch.”

The best-known recent depiction is the TV series “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding,” which invited us to gawp and sneer in “a narrative that’s part ‘Stars in Their Eyes,’ part nature show,” as the author and former “Travellers’ Times” editor Damian Le Bas puts it.

Courtesy Paul Wenham-Clarke

Over the past decades, British Travelers have seen their right to culturally appropriate housing eroded. The 1994 Criminal Justice Act took away special protections for Travelers’ sites and the 2016 Housing and Planning Act did away with protections for those with a “cultural tradition of nomadism or of living in a caravan.”

Courtesy Paul Wenham-Clarke

Today, the 17,000 Travelers estimated to be living in London are facing a housing crisis. As property developers circle, the Travelers of the Westway fear their time here is limited. And moving on most likely means moving away from each other.

There’s poignancy in shots in which the huge road looms above, or a young boy sits in a broken toy car. No longer able to live the nomadic life, the Travelers find shelter in the shade of society’s more sanctioned form of travel. But this interpretation doesn’t tell the whole story.

Courtesy Paul Wenham-Clarke

It’s a common mistake among outsiders to think that Travelers are only Travelers if they’re on the go. London is their home. What Wenham-Clarke’s pictures show is that Traveler life is fundamentally about community. On site, inside and outside blur, caravan doors swing open, kids play and leap, not a screen in sight.

Freedom isn’t just the freedom to escape. It’s also the freedom to be together.

“Urban Gypsies” by Paul Wenham-Clarke, published by Hoxton Mini Press, is out now.

This article originally appeared here