A Monkey's Revenge - My Blog

Lessons from a life well travelled

(Number plate on this photo digitally removed)

Traveller Noah Burton.

Lessons from a travelling man. Well, perhaps more observations of a travelling man.I've been an editorial photographer for a long time and there is one assignment which always makes the heart skip a beat. Call them travellers, gypsies,gipsies or whatever, but sooner or later a press photographer will get to cover a job involving them. I've lost count of the times I've done this myself-from Cray's Hill in Essex, Yarmouth in Norfolk to yesterday's Telegraph job in Meriden, supposedly the centre of England.

Lets face it, travellers get a bad press. Quite possibly some of that is deserved. But they also get undeservedly false assumptions made about them and naturally that makes them very wary in their dealings with Joe Public and especially with members of the press.Only last month I photographed the event rider Phoebe Buckley and her parents in Cambridgeshire for The Guardian. Phoebe has experienced at first hand what it is like to be from a traveller family and the presumption of criminality that often entails.

So hearing that I had an assignment to photograph the first ever national RAID,(Residents against illegal development), meeting near a gypsy site in Meriden yesterday was hardly going to fill me with joy. Two sets of opposing forces and me as piggy in the middle. Press photographers have to take the rough with the smooth and not every job is going to be a walk in the park.

In Meriden the gypsy site is on greenbelt lane, tucked away behind a thick hedge and backing onto the main Birmingham road, the A45.Apart from the mud which is to be expected after all the snow and rain, I have to say it was one of the best laid out gypsy sites I've ever visited. Potted palms and recently planted conifer hedges showed that these people care about their surroundings. Not a piece of scrap metal in sight either.None the less, set up illegally and without any planning permission on land the travellers bought from a local farmer.

I had been warned by one of the RAID protestors to be careful before I went into the gipsy site. It wouldn't have been the first time a traveller had offered me physical violence on approaching them, but at the Meriden site I was greeted cordially by them and even invited to look around and take photos. I'm not sure what their response would have been if I'd been from The Daily Mail though-apparently the paper had upset them with a photo published of a tatty old caravan in the mud. It wasn't representative of the rest of the site and I was told that that particular caravan was being restored.

My own observations are that travellers are just like any other group of people. They are usually ok if approached sensibly and with respect. Sneaking around in the bushes surrounding a traveller site is unlikely to win friends and influence people. So I tend to go for the direct approach and meet them face to face. Same as for anybody else. If they don't want to play ball and suggest I stick my cameras somewhere the sun doesn't shine, then I respect their wishes and back off.

Meriden has a RAID camp across the hedge from the gypsy site-a 24 hour vigil to keep an eye on the travellers. The RAID people were friendly but adamant that they did not want a traveller site across the road from their homes and built on greenbelt land without planning permission.Earlier they had held a meeting which RAID members from all over the UK attended. Traveller Noah Burton had asked if he could attend but been turned away. I met him outside his shiny Airstream caravan at the camp and he said how disappointed he was that he hadn't been allowed to put across the travellers point of view.

Both sides in the matter are claiming death threats have been made against them. Allegations of criminal activity and also of racism have been made. One thing is for sure-this issue is just one of many up and down the country that are not going to go away and it will take the wisdom of Solomon to find a solution both sides find acceptable.

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