Sam Wright A portrait of the UK’s misunderstood Traveller community

WordsGem Fletcher

“Pillar to Post” is the result of photographer Sam Wright’s two-year journey to learn more about the UK’s marginalized and misunderstood Traveller and Romani communities. The project is personal for Wright, who was intent on learning about the Traveller way of life after finding out his great-grandmother was part of the community, and what began as a fact-finding mission evolved into a cultural exchange with a group so often pushed to the fringes of society. Here, he talks to writer Gem Fletcher about challenging stereotypes, slow photography and how Romanies’ and Travellers’ nomadic way of life remains under threat.

As Sam Wright prepared to attend Appleby Horse Fair—an annual gathering of Travellers nestled in Westmorland and Furness, a small pocket of Western Cumbria—he was met with a barrage of fear. “People would advise me not to go,” he explains. “They told me there would be trouble. ‘Don't take expensive equipment!’ I quickly saw the prejudice facing the Traveller community before I even arrived.” Despite the negativity, Wright persisted and was warmly welcomed into a community that fearlessly upholds a nomadic way of life. Over time, the Sheffield-based image-maker set about crafting a visual tribute to a marginalized group who remain perpetually misunderstood.

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“Appleby is a big date in the calendar for the community,” says Wright. “It's a place to catch up with family and old friends. A space where people can be themselves, free from the pressures of the settled community.” On his first visit to the fair, he arrived a few days early and could already feel the excitement building. “Some people take two months to make the slow journey across the country with Appleby as their destination.” He quickly bonded with a family connected to his hometown Sheffield, taken back by their warm and generous hospitality. “My experience was a stark contrast to the stereotype, and from that moment, I knew this was a story that needed to be told, and I wanted to invest the time to do it.”

Over the next two years, Wright visited eight fairs in sites across Yorkshire, Norfolk, Cumbria, Galway and Cork. Some were small gatherings in a field with a handful of families, and others, like Appleby, bring thousands together to continue a tradition that dates back to the 1600s. “Pillar to Post” is a culmination of Wright's time spent at the fairs documenting his relationships with countless families. Rooted in a practice of deep listening, he spent months recording their stories and slowly making collaborative portraits. The result is both a celebration of Britain’s last nomadic people and an intimate look at a culture in flux.

The project is personal for Wright, who was intent on learning about the Traveller way of life after finding out his great-grandmother was part of the community. “I wanted to understand this aspect of my family heritage,” Wright tells me. “My uncle has shared some information, but her background isn't discussed within the family. She lived on the road until she married a farmer and was forced to denounce her connection to that world. It's a sensitive subject, but I felt I needed to delve into it to know her better.”

While his great grandmother is the driving force behind the work, it was the young generation of Travellers that captured Wright's imagination. “Like all communities, there is a huge spectrum of experiences that Traveller kids are having, which are completely different to settled kids,” Wright explains, adding that “some have lived on the road for the majority of their lives…while others have a life that is very similar, if not identical, to a settled kid living on a permanent site and going through the school system.” Wright noticed that no matter the lifestyle, the hard truth is that if you are born into the culture, you're often not completely accepted by wider society. “This is difficult to face as a young person and really impacts your outlook on life.”

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TV shows like “Gypsy Blood” and “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” have stigmatized Travellers and reaped irreversible damage to their reputation, causing greater friction with the settled community. This cultural prejudice is compacted by the rapid development of land across the UK, which has left the community with very little safe common land to occupy. While these challenges are nothing new for the elders—who despite mounting pressure to conform are deeply committed to carrying on the tradition—younger generations face greater dissonance between the past and present. 

“Wider society is seeping into the Traveller community,” says Bobby, one of the teenagers Wright interviewed. “While we are a conservative, traditional group that stays tight and doesn't mess much with the outside world, I think the future of the community is getting more liberal. The internet is introducing young people to other cultures, and everything is getting a bit more mingled up.” This tension between tradition and modernity is the subtle throughline of Wright's exploration. Hand-painted, horse-drawn caravans are parked next to convertible BMWs; traditional attire is worn alongside fake Chanel jackets. Frame after frame, we begin to see the pervasive lure of late capitalism quietly infiltrate the culture through objects of status and desire.

While the future remains uncertain for Travellers, “Pillar to Post” marks an important moment in the community’s history. As the distance grows between generations and sociopolitical forces threaten Travellers’ ability to keep traditions alive, they face a critical juncture. “This was one of those projects that you start and then it just turns into something bigger and more important than you ever expected,” Wright tells me as our conversation draws to a close. “These kids have to grow up super quick. They have to have thick skin and be very self-sufficient. They have no choice but to try and keep it all going.”