Contact Sheet - Gypsies
Vintage Gelatin Silver Print
25.4 x 20.3 cms (9.98 x 7.98 ins)
Jo Spence. Collaboration with Terry Dennett
'It occurred to me during this period that I could use my camera differently. My journey through documentary photography took a classic form. I started on the edges of an unknown sector of society, gradually moving closer and closer to the inside. (Jo Spence, Putting Myself in the Picture: A Political, Personal and Photographic Autobiography, London: Camden Press, 1986, p50, 54)
In the early 1970s, having worked for a number of years as a high street portrait photographer, Spence began to feel that what she was doing essentially contradicted her political beliefs. Seeking 'to belong to a more egalitarian society' (Jo Spence, Putting Myself in the Picture: A Political, Personal and Photographic Autobiography, London: Camden Press, 1986, p50), Spence exchanged her purely commercial relationship with photography in order to pursue the political and documentary possibilities of the medium. This led to her involvement with the Children's Rights Workshop and her endeavours to produce reading material for children based on photographs. Spence's early documentary work took a particular interest in how children are represented within the family environment and attempted to break through the usually scripted depictions of children within archetypal domestic photography.
In 1974 whilst working for the Children's Rights Workshop, Spence met Terry Dennett, whom she somewhat humorously described later as, 'a socialist earning his living as a scientific photographer'. Together, they 'started to visit illegal sites in various parts of London where gypsies and travellers were encamped, and to take photographs'. Such experiences are documented in Spence's autobiography, Putting Myself in the Picture in which she elaborates: 'You could say that it was the classic introduction to documentary for me. I was both privileged and upset to be allowed to look at a world where people had to work so hard to survive, whilst labouring under such terrible disadvantages. The transient sites in particular had no plumbing or refuse removal and life appeared to be very hard. I feel in retrospect that I was looking at them sometimes as the exotic other, and at other times as victims of society. My picture making process duly reflects this.' (Jo Spence, Putting Myself in the Picture, p 51)
'In our travels', Spence continues, 'we made contact with Venice Manley, who ran a school for gypsy children on a London site and did occasional teaching on itinerant sites. Through her we began to visit regularly one site in East London and take pictures of the residents. I had no real idea of why I was taking the pictures, but felt a compulsion to keep returning and looking.' (Jo Spence, Putting Myself in the Picture, p 51)
And yet, despite such a self-deprecatory admission, it is clear that this project allowed Spence to acknowledge the limitations of documentary photography: 'My version of their reality got more and more problematic'. In so doing, she recognised too, the interception of the 'romantic photographic eye' (Jo Spence, Putting Myself in the Picture, p 54) in her observations of the more pastoral and nostalgic sides of gypsy life, for example in photographing 'ancient customs' such as cockfighting. 'We always took contact sheets back to the site and provided the people we had photographed with images of themselves. Here I encountered an antagonism to images which were not idealized or obvious snapshots. To attempt to interest people in a sociological approach to their lives seemed impossible' (Jo Spence, Putting Myself in the Picture, p 51), and yet, seeking a new means of representing her subjects, Spence concluded that 'self' representation might be the answer. At this point she began to provide gypsy mothers with cameras in order that they might photograph their own children, something which, in addition to running practical and educational workshops, the aim of which was to pass on necessary skills, hailed the beginnings of Spence and Dennett's work in the participatory mode.
British Photography / The Hyman Collection