What is an Irish Traveller? Some may have a select few words that spring to mind, while others could reel off the technical definition. But, as I have learned over the past few months, there are many Traveller experiences that do not fit within the stereotypes and generalisations with which we have become familiar. As a gay writer and performer from the Traveller community, I understand the struggle inherent in expressing yourself while appeasing the traditionalists within your community.
I recently started a photography project with Photo Museum Ireland and Open Doors Initiative, which aims to facilitate expression through an artistic lens. The project, funded under a new initiative by Creative Ireland, the Arts Council and the HSE, has taken me and nine other young Travellers on a journey of discovery and self-representation.
The participants – Winnie Ward, Patrick McDonagh, Chantelle Stokes, Emma Ward, Timmy Casey, Thomas Connors, Martin Ward, Helena Power, and Emily Evans – come from all over Ireland, aged from 19 to 36 years old.
The plan for the project was simple. I would meet each participant to photograph them, and then they would be tasked with taking a picture themselves, allowing us an insight into their perspective on a range of topics I had assigned to them, including “hopes and dreams”, “happiness”, “freedom”, and “security”. Guided by mentors from the Open Doors initiative, and an online workshop by photographer Brendan Ó Sé, we were tooled up with knowledge, and ready to go.
Most were nervous at the start of their first photo shoot. I asked Emma Ward, a wheelchair user and aspiring journalist, why this was so, and she responded, “my wheelchair”. I wanted Emma to feel powerful, and I wanted to experience the moment from the vantage point of someone looking upward, so I lay on the ground to take the pictures. I showed them to her immediately, I wanted her to see how beautiful she was, without any edits to the shots – something I did with the other participants too, which always got the same reaction... “I can’t believe that’s me” or “Oh yeah, that’s not too bad, is it?”
Timmy Casey from Limerick invited me out to a field to see his horses. His love for horses has been passed down to his children , evident in how they gently held and rubbed their own little ponies. As we took the pictures, Timmy told me that it is important for him to pass down his knowledge of horses, as it is a dying part of the Traveller culture.
Emily Evans is from Tullamore and works as a make-up artist. She dreams of becoming a model or an actor, career paths not often explored by Traveller women. Emily’s mother Mary was by her daughter’s side on the day of the shoot, and told me that more mothers need to support their daughters’ dreams, regardless of internal pressures from the more traditional people within the Traveller community.
Chantelle Stokes also works as a make-up artist, while studying youth and community development in UCC, and substance misuse and community development in Cork’s College of Commerce. She would love to be a make-up artist in the television and film industry.
Through this project, I got to meet Travellers from all over Ireland chasing dreams that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. I have learned of the intelligence, resilience, and drive that exists within the community, and I have had the pleasure of giving a platform to people whose voices are rarely heard.
Through Our Eyes will premiere at an outdoor projection event in Meeting House Square, Temple Bar on Thursday, November 3rd. An exhibition of selected photographs is on show in Photo Museum Ireland’s Artists’ Project Space until Wednesday, November 30th. Admission is free, see photomuseumireland.ie