(*all photographs below, copyright Iain McKell, from the book The New Gypsies*)
McKell writes in the intro of his book about his first actual encounter with the subculture during Summer Solstice in 1986:
"I was immediately taken with this idea of punk in the landscape, and these larger-than-life characters, who seemed to hark back to the extremes of the Post-Industrial Revolution -- a blot on the British landscape. It was Biblical, filmic, gangs of urban subcultures let loose in a rural setting. It put the fear of God into the likes of Thatcher and the establishment. She [Thatcher] thought she had smashed the opposition, the miners and the unions, but new opponents were taking their place -- road protesters, rioters, gypsies, outlaws, subversives."
You can read McKell's introduction in its entirety in a recent article about the book from the New York Times' T magazine.
"These are modern, predominantly city people who have moved out of largely working class urban communities, out of poor accommodation, escaped the shit being dumped on them. The greatest irony is that they took Norman Tebbitt's advice, got on their bikes (or wagons in this case), on the road and found freedom. Their freedom is not in this country, but in their heads, where freedom is in the journey."
The underlying principles of the group's countercultural leanings surely evoke any wide variety of associations in the popular imagination -- from the negative stereotypes carried by traditional Roma labeled as thieves and liars, to the more romanticized, spiritualized pursuit of a life freed from the rat race of contemporary urban living that might coalesce rather well with some of today's New Age or eco-conscious thinkers.
"We are happy to ignore what we're really doing to ourselves and to our environment and what we're leaving behind for our children. We seem quite comfortable in our way of thinking but psychologically, deep down inside somewhere, perhaps we've become aware that it is fashionable to be aware. We might still regard these people as the Untouchables like in the Hindu caste system -- the unwashed, unclean hippie gypsies, the lowest of the low."
One way or another, to move past the seeming shock value that initial imagery of the New Gypsies might present and instead consider an honest reflection of what their lives symbolize, is to at least ask some serious questions (after all, isn't that one of the greatest things that compelling, engaged photography can offer us: not to give direct answers, but instead to ask questions?) about how we each individually measure and decide what constitutes a life fulfilled.