Londoners may be looking forward to the 2012 Olympic Games, but Travellers who have lived in the East End for three decades or more have little to celebrate as their homes are bulldozed to make way for shiny new sports stadiums. A new exhibition of photographs taken by Traveller children captures their disappearing way of life. Gill Brown hears the story behind the pictures
For some reason, I just love it. I'm just that kind of a boy who doesn't find it boring." Whenever he can, 14-year-old Daniel gets up at the crack of dawn and takes off to the marshes behind his mobile home. The skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, a few miles to the south, dominate the horizon. "I've watched them being built all my life," he says. "They're part of my childhood, really."
But Daniel's days on the marshes are numbered. Soon bulldozers will be clearing his home, a Traveller caravan site run by Hackney council that lies in the shadow of the A12 flyover in the Lower Lea Valley. Now occupying prime land, it will be flattened to make way for three Olympic stadiums. "It's good for London," says Daniel. "I hope it will be good for us too, but it'll be really sad to go."
For more than two years the families have known they may have to move.
"It's been stressful," says his mother, Philomena. "And it's taken a toll on the children." Her son is one of 25 children from three sites in east London who took part in a year-long project capturing their daily lives on basic digital cameras. The best photographs are currently on show at the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood. "They showed real commitment from the start," says Bobby Lloyd from On Site Arts.
Like Daniel, young Travellers and Gypsies spend most of their time outdoors around their sites. Some boys took Ms Lloyd and her co-worker Caroline Christie to their "secret" parts of the marshes. "It was on that walk that the project really took off," says Ms Lloyd. "They wanted it to be about who they are."
Daniel was two when he moved from a roadside camp to the caravan site 12 years ago. Traditionally, Irish Travellers have been door-to-door traders, a way of living that has declined in recent years; the men now pick up work wherever they can. Tom, aged 12, has set his sights on becoming an acrobat, as the photograph he took of himself coming in through the roof of his mobile home demonstrates. "Because the photos were about us, I got good at the self-timer and took a lot of myself around the site," he says.
Across the marshes, next to the Channel Tunnel rail link works in Newham, lies another caravan site, home to 12 families of English Gypsies for 34 years. A huge electricity pylon towers over the site and many children have asthma from the dust generated by a slagheap nearby. By 2012 the Olympic village will stand here, neat and landscaped, but the Gypsies aren't included in the plans. "We're concerned we'll have to split up," says Tracie Giles, whose son Billy took part in the workshops. "Because they knew we'd probably be moving, they got excited about recording their lives here."
Billy, aged seven, photographed his grandmother, Lily, cooking in her amenity unit. Known as sheds, these are garden-style chalets people build alongside their mobile homes to create more space and a safer kitchen. "To the settled community, our living quarters look different and it's good they can see how we live," says Tracie.
Like the others, Billy had never used a camera before. "I learned all about it and now I want one for my birthday," he says. He snapped everything, even his classmates. But it was a speech he made at school that had the greatest impact. Billy stood up in class to explain how his family was being forced out of their home and, as a result, the school's Olympics display was taken down.
Within a year he will be making new friends somewhere else, but the albums he and the others have carefully compiled are already an archive of their disappearing way of life.
The Our Sites exhibition is on display at the VA Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, Cambridge Heath Road, London, until October 30.