Documentary, Interviews, Projects

Birte Kauffmann gains a rare insight into the Irish Traveller community

Main image: After coming back from school in County Kildare, James sits on a camper bumper while his sister hangs clothes. All images © Birte Kaufmann/INSTITUTE

'The Travellers' unearths the everyday lives of Ireland's largest minority group.

Prejudice, social tension, abuse and even physical attack have dogged the Irish Traveller community since the group’s formation.

Widely considered to be among the most socially excluded communities in the UK, Travellers have endured what has been termed ‘the last acceptable racism’, experiencing such sustained and virulent xenophobic sentiment in the media and elsewhere, that it is no wonder why there is often little regular contact between them and other members of society, and therefore much mutual suspicion and incomprehension.

Emily and her brother dressed for the wedding of their sister at the haltingsite, County Offaly Ireland

Emily and her brother dressed for the wedding of their sister at the haltingsite, County Offaly Ireland

It is surprising then, that German photographer Birte Kauffmann managed to gain unprecedented access to this close-knit community. In 2011, she travelled to Ireland in a VW camper van in order to photograph the travellers for the first time:

“It really took me a while” Kaufmann says. “When I came to them as a German, and not a native English speaker, I didn’t understand them. I knew they understood me and I just told them that I’m really interested in their life, because we don’t have this group in Germany,” she explains. “They were surprised, they laughed. They did not think that I would come back, then I came back and it took me nearly three weeks visiting every day until I could really start to work with them.”

The Travellers

Kaufmann spent four years with the community, over time gaining their trust and eventually living with them – as an unobtrusive observer, her camera slowly became part of their daily lives.

The result is The Travellers, an intimate monograph that captures the mundane routines and habits of one big family clan, with the aim to banish the negative stigma’s to which the group have been unduly bestowed.

Old Jack is sitting in an old fashion armchair, smoking a cigarette at a haltingsite in County Carlow, Ireland.

Old Jack is sitting in an old fashion armchair, smoking a cigarette at a haltingsite in County Carlow, Ireland.

“The Traveller’s traditions are so different that they are met with little acceptance by the rest of the Irish society,” says Kaufmann. “They live in a kind of parallel world with rules all of its own, with deep-rooted traditional gender roles – a world to which outsiders have little access.”

“Men don’t typically speak to women in public, and for a long time I couldn’t take my pictures in the male world of the community. They would let me in for a couple of minutes, and then tell me to leave, because I am a woman,” she explains.

The Travellers

“There was a point when the males of the group went hunting in the night, and I told them I wanted to go with them to take photographs,” Kaufmann recalls. “They said I wasn’t allowed, but I argued, ‘how can I take a photograph if I don’t go?’ There was a big discussion, they even asked me if I could walk that long, as a woman. After a while, they let me go with them – it was then that I knew they had accepted me.”

The Travellers

Pamela lies inside a caravan on the backroads of County Carlow.

The young feature heavily in Kaufmann’s images, reflecting the structure of the Traveller community – marrying young, often having large families of up to 10 children – those under the age of 18 making up approximately 50% of their population.

The Travellers

“I wanted to capture the Travellers way of life and their values in pictures,” she explains. “In doing so, I did not want to romanticise them, but rather show their everyday life, a life where people still hunt rabbits and where horses play a vital role, but also a life that contains hardship and boredom from an early age.”

Kaufmann has done just that, with a raw veracity, The Travellers provides a startling yet honest portrait into this unknown, complex and marginalised community.

The Travellers by Birte Kaufmann, published by Verlag Kettler, is priced at £42. For more, go here