Colin O’Brien’s pictures contrast sharply with the environment they are currently exhibited in. But it’s the photograph of a blonde-haired child next to her dark-haired father that is so striking. Only last month a blonde-haired Roma girl was returned to her family after being taken away by Gardai in Ireland after claims that she did not resemble the couple who claimed to be her biological parents. The events followed the news of a little blonde-haired girl allegedly abducted by a Roma couple in Greece the same month.
Irish Travellers are of course distinct from Roma, but they share the characteristic of a mobile culture, something that O’Brien in his photographic study was to experience for himself.
O’Brien first came upon the Travellers’ children in Martello Street in Hackney in 1987. They were playing under the railway arches in what was then a very run-down area. He took a few Polaroid shots and gave them to the children to show their parents.
The adults liked the pictures and consented to O’Brien taking more photos over a period of a few weeks, when he got to know the families and gained their trust. The parents even dressed the kids up in their smartest clothes to be photographed.
This was all before the digital revolution in photography when film had to be shot, developed then printed. O’Brien reeled off rolls of film and developed the negatives over the few weeks that he got to know the families. But it was only when he came to print from the film that he realised what beautiful images he had collected.
In the fourth week he went to return to the community he had got to know, to share with them the excitement he held for the printed images. But he found the streets to the east of London Fields empty. The Travellers, as they do, had moved on and O’Brien had no way of contacting them or knowing where they had gone.
Travellers’ Children in London Fields, an exhibition of photographs by Colin O’Brien: 14 November to 5 December 2013 at Agnès B, 40/41 Marylebone High Street, London W1U 4QH. Free entrance.
Travellers’ Children In London by Colin O’Brien, published by Spitalfields Life Books: priced £10.