Our Big Real Gypsy Lives (2012-13)

Commissioned by Cultural Solutions in partnership with The Gainsborough Traveller Initiative. Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Our Real Big Gypsy Lives was an ambitious project that aimed to train young gypsies and travellers, living in Lincolnshire, to ‘harvest’ oral histories from their families and friends. The stories collected were used to inform the wider population of the rich and diverse heritage of the local traveller community through an exhibition and suite of educational resources. My role on the project was to work with young gypsies and travellers on sites across the county to create an archive of unique photographic images, some of which have since been accessioned into the collection of the University of Reading’s Museum of English Rural Life.

I felt privileged and humbled to be part of this project and was struck by the generosity and hospitality of the families that I worked with. I was also very grateful of Paul Boucher and Sam Turner’s support (from the Gainsborough Traveller Initiative) who gave up so much of their time accompanying me on site visits and facilitating introductions; this undoubtedly had an impact on the community’s willingness to trust me.

Despite being one of the most rewarding projects I have worked on, Our Big Real Gypsy lives was not without its issues. I often felt that my presence was intrusive and on occasions I experienced suspicion and hostility. Given the persecution, racism and inequalities Gypsies and Travellers experience, it wasn’t hard to empathise with these responses which seemed completely understandable, reasonable, and rational. They did however encourage me to question the ethics of working with marginalised communities, and for me this represented the personal learning of the project. I have included my thoughts as a series of unanswered questions which I’ve found helpful to reflect on when developing new work as they seem to represent common themes in socially engaged/participatory practice. You can access them here.

This project is also included as a case study in Eleonora Belfiore’s 2022 paper for the European Journal of Cultural Studies, ‘Who Cares? At what price? The hidden costs of socially engaged arts labour and the moral failure of cultural policy.’

You can view a slideshow of images from this project here.