Think “gypsy” and you’re likely thinking of some stereotype. Maybe you’re thinking of a “good” generalization — such a passionate people! What guitar music! More likely, in today’s Europe, the word conjures up uglier notions: outcast, beggar, thief.
Chloe Borkett’s photography avoids either extreme. Over the course of six months, she took portraits of Britain’s Gypsies and Irish Travelers (read here for a detailed take on the most current correct names for the group) in their homes. The seemingly mundane moments from daily life are a direct rebuttal to the wilder notions of gypsy roma identity. Taken as a whole, “untitled portraits” forms an unusually intimate, nuanced glimpse of Europe’s most persecuted minority group. She joined us from her home in London as she prepared for her next project: a trip to Kazakhstan, where she will be teaching English as well as working on her next photography project.
Roads & Kingdoms: Tell me about “Untitled Portraits”.
Chloe Borkett: I have a long-standing interest in race, identity and heritage, particularly of those who are marginalized. In 2010, I was living and studying in South East Wales, which happens to have a large settlement of Gypsy Roma and Travelers, so it became a possibility to explore this community.
R&K: You got inside these people’s homes for a lot of the portraits. How did you approach them?
CB: Yes, that was tricky. What needs to be understood about Gypsy Roma and Travelers in Britain is that they have been persecuted for decades, which means they have become an isolated and very suspicious community. So it was never going to be a case of just rocking up with my camera and saying ‘hey I’m interested in you, can I take pictures?’. So to gain access, I approached the many outreach organizations and government initiatives that are trying to bridge the gap between these communities and the wider society. This meant I would have a trusted route in. It took some time.
R&K: What did these organizations and initiatives focus on?
CB: Mostly education, skills development, housing issues and cultural preservation, etc. Many Gypsy Roma and Travelers are illiterate, so they need people to read letters and write correspondence for them. They need advice on a lot issues. It took me 3 months of research, developing my visual approach and contact with the organizations until I met with people from the community. We are talking serious suspicion here. I spent most of my time with women and children, as the men go out to work during the day. I rarely saw them. I had to be introduced by the outreach workers, who would explain what I was doing, then I would make appointments to meet with people. There was a lot of hanging about, drinking tea and smoking cigarettes. They all spoke English but not in a way that either you or me understand it. They have a very definite dialect.