Art & Photography / In Pictures

Iain McKell, The New Gypsies

Renowned for his work in fashion editorial and campaigns, and social documentary, photographer Iain McKell’s latest book immerses us in the fascinating world of The New Gypsies...

Pheo, 2009, from The New Gypsies by Iain McKell
Pheo, 2009, from The New Gypsies by Iain McKell © Iain McKell, 2011

Renowned for his work in fashion editorial and campaigns, and social documentary, photographer Iain McKell’s latest book immerses us in the fascinating world of The New Gypsies. Bringing our attention to the British horse-drawn travellers, these New Gypsies sport elaborately decorated caravans and share a desire for freedom of the open road, self-reliance and a disdain for the trappings of contemporary life. Preferring to describe this photographic series as “a personal journey not a documentary,” McKell’s body of work spans over ten years spent with the “small tribe”, many of which he has developed strong relationships with and seen grow up.

Opening with six images of New Age travelers in 1985, that McKell calls “the precursors,” the book goes on to strikingly capture the personalities of the Horsedrawn, presenting a way of life and set of ideals far from those of our western capitalist society. Often viewed as an inferior counterculture this publication brings to light these misconceptions and through Mckell’s distinctly fashion aesthetic and abandonment of traditional documentary traits, portrays a wonderful sense of community and forward thinking attitude – “where freedom is not in their country but their heads.”

Here we speak to McKell about where it all began and how they have inspired his own outlook on life.

Where, how and why did this project come about?
It began in 1986 with the New Age motor vehicle travellers called The Peace Convoy and then when I returned to Stonehenge Summer Solstice in 2001. To my surprise I found this new renegade tribe that had evolved to horse-drawn wagon but had all the modern technology as well – solar power, mobiles phones, laptop computers and off course facebook. I loved this idea of the old and the new working well together and the open road.

What was your initial perception of gypsies and how was this altered by the time you spent with them?
Punks in the landscape anarchy and beauty.

Did you face any challenges or come across any difficulties?
The winter is hard and having to dig a hole with a shovel to make a toilet.

Did you learn anything from their way of living?
Yes, their passion for it. They are so absorbed in the lifestyle and looking after the horses making wagons. It’s very inspiring.

What are your views towards the image of gypsies that has been recently portrayed by the likes of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding?
This is a personal journey with new age modern travellers. The point being they have no history of Gypsy that’s what makes them interesting to me. That they have chosen to live by the road with horses keeping the tradition alive of really travelling and not staying in one place. They come from our culture so they are like us rather than the traditional travellers who are from different blood.

How would you sum up this photographic series?
It’s a personal journey not a documentary, an experience beyond our imaginations. To show a way of living that is both colourful and meaningful. Drawing from the past and combining with the future creating a progressive new idea and values not based on materialism and not been chained by the stress and complications of our modern existence.

What do you hope viewers get from this book?
To transport them to a place in their imaginations. To raise that question about how we perceive travelers and to re-exam our own existence. We all desire nature deep inside and have a desire for freedom. A sense of there could be another way to live and to question what standards we apply to create a full life.

The New Gypsies by Iain McKell, with essays by Val Williams and Ezmeralda Sanger is published by Prestel and out now.
Iain McKell, New Gypsies exhibition will be in The Clic Gallery, New York until October 2 and acte2galerie, Paris from October 12 – November 15 2011.

Text by Lucia Davies