Closed communities in an open society
The Challenge
Project Highlight
Emma Williams talks to Propellerfish about her time spent photographing travelling communities and what their struggles can teach us about maintaining community in our modern age

We met up with Emma Williams – a photographer who spent extended periods documenting the lives of Irish travellers – to discuss what is happening with a private community which is increasingly being pushed to open up to the modern world.

Emma sought to shed some positive light on the unsettled community who are often unfairly judged by the outside world. In the words of Jane Doherty, a traveller Emma became close with at Bashley site, the community are “often branded as gyppos, pikeys, and unworthy of respect or common decency.”

Closing off your immediate community comes with benefits that the modern world has been quick to forget. Emma experienced these during her time at Bashley site – located down a quiet road, separated from the rest of North West London. With years of little dilution from the surrounding environment, she noticed how many core values and traditions remained extremely strong.

Close family ties were one of them. Little interaction with the outside community has meant that existing bonds have only strengthened over time. Most family members lived only “a stone’s throw” away and so extended family was seen on a daily basis – a rare event in the modern world. Emma spoke about the importance of family dinners and children helping out around the house.

“One of the ladies, Josie, had 24 siblings and many of them lived on site. Her mum had lived to 100 and had apparently held the record for the most children and grandchildren in the world at any one time. She spoke fondly about travelling in the cart with all of her siblings – and even though it sounds unimaginable – it seemed like the time she loved the most.”

In many ways, the modern world presents a less unified picture. Technology that has allowed us to open up our cultures and perspectives seems to threaten important core values that close knit communities are built on. Spending time with those we care about the most can be more of a challenge, with distance often creating a greater barrier.

A recent study in the UK suggests that Briton’s sense of community and belonging is falling over time. Only 62% of people felt that they were a part of their local community in 2017-18, compared with 69% in 2014-15. Meanwhile, parents in the UK were less likely to give and receive help to family members who did not live with them in 2018 than in 2012, falling by 4 and 6 percentage points.

It might be that broadening our perspectives and geographically separating from our immediate relatives has somewhat dismantled our sense of solidarity. Though being a part of closed communities like the Irish travellers may come with less independence to make external relationships, it seems to benefit from a much greater sense of belonging.

Travel is another tradition that Emma highlighted as a still definitive aspect of the travellers’ lifestyle. Something they’ve preserved through their insularity. For the settled world, travel is seen as a privileged opportunity to broaden our global perspective and expand our social networks. For the traveling community, it is viewed in a different light. Rather, it is seen as a way to strengthen ties with like-minded individuals and stay closely connected. While travel for the settled community exposes us to a diversity of people and cultures, for closed communities it seems to reinforce their close community.

Common travels such as horse fairs and pilgrimages are events largely exclusive for their tribe and help build the traditions and beliefs that their community was founded on. Although travelling has evolved from its horse and cart form, horses were still kept on site and brought a lot of pride to the families. Emma spoke about how travel was not as easy as it used to be – something the community expressed concern about.

“Pilgrimages were a huge part of their culture. Those who I spoke to had been on at least 3 or 4. One woman, Tina, had been on over 30. Popular ones were Medjugorje in Bosnia and Lordes in France. A lot of the women said they’d seen miracles on these pilgrimages and I never felt like anything was being exaggerated or was ingenuine.”

That being said, closed communities are opening up to a degree. Emma and I spoke about the role of social media in helping these communities to interact with the outside world. For the older generation, the way in which they use technology still says a lot about their desire to remain closed.

“The oldest generation definitely didn’t use social media. The closest thing they used was a prayer Whatsapp group. Someone would send a voice note of a prayer they had written that night and everyone would listen. It united them. ”

Platforms used by the older generation were largely private, helping them to stay locally connected rather than opening up to the broader world. These privacy concerns are similarly being mirrored in modern society, with end to end encryption becoming more standardardised on most social platforms.

For the younger generation though, social media is offering these private individuals a window into lives outside the perimeter of their people. Through channels like Instagram and TikTok, they are connecting more globally than their parents did. Still, their communication was largely bounded within the wider travelling community. Emma spoke about the popularity of traveller meme accounts and Instagram Q&As with other travellers outside of the site.

Wider networks like these can come at the cost of more intimate relationships. Emma saw that this was concerning some of the older generation, who thought it was contributing to the erosion of traditions and beliefs over time. With recent studies showing causal links between social media and loneliness, their fears may be representative of wider concerns.

Participating in the outside world may be easy online but integrating into offline spaces is not so simple. Minority groups often face many obstacles which makes full integration close to impossible. Emma spoke passionately about the mistreatment of travellers by the settled world and how unfair judgement was only isolating them further.

“Small things like Deliveroo drivers refusing delivery on their site or GPs refusing phone calls has made them defensive to the outside world. Security guards will often trail them at supermarkets and other parents at school will look at them like dirt. Modern society often casts sweeping judgements on the entire community based on the actions of a few. There is good and bad in every group and it’s not right to write off an entire ethnic minority based on the assumption that they’re all the same.”

It makes sense then that isolation is still apparent amongst minority groups like these, who often face larger personal costs when opening up to global societies. Emma believed that a key reason why the older generation were unsupportive of formal education was because of their unwillingness to compromise on their strong Catholic values.

Opening up their children up to formal schooling meant risking a non-Catholic partnership and potentially sex before marriage which would bring great shame onto the family. Sex-education also raised concerns, as parents wanted to teach their children about instead. Pair this with judgement from parents in the settled world and social situations don’t seem so attractive.

For the younger generation though, some are willing to bear that cost. Less interest in Catholic beliefs means that education is seen as an opportunity for some. Some could see their lives developing outside the site and others already had. Though on the most part, education was still largely seen as optional.

“If there isn’t much opportunity for your future to be self-determined, then a lot of the motivation to educate yourself disappears. Most of the boys would end up working with their dads (some as young as 7) and the girls would likely be married by 18 – taking care of the home.”

For modern society, engaging in the global community can also come at a cost. The concerns of the travelling community in opening up to the outside world seem like a micro version of what’s happening on a broader scale. Countries pulling out of trade unions, nationalist sentiment on the rise and a trend towards micro-influencers over big name celebrity endorsements all signal our increasingly inward perspectives. The isolation of the travelling community is a microcosm for understanding our own tendency towards insularity as a larger world.

It seems that a willingness to open our communities and gain the benefits of a more interconnected world comes at a cost that not everyone is willing to bear. Technology may encourage people to be more aware and open-minded, though physical integration still comes with great challenges. The decisions made by tight-knit communities like the travellers to remain apart from the wider world are really just reflective of decisions being made in modern society each day.

You can learn more about Emma Williams and her photography here and see some of the coverage of her upcoming book here.

By Jannah Hardy

Propellerfish is an innovation consulting firm with offices in London, New York and Singapore.
We turn strategy into the products and services that move businesses forward in the real world.