As an essential element in the history of Western photography, so-called "Gypsies" have given many photographers the opportunity to make a name for themselves - the exotic close to home. Yet what we find close to home - the places of this exoticism - are enclosed, concrete places, lined with motorways, railways, factories and cemeteries, places that we do not see. Photography can thus accompany Travellers' struggles by showing the environment of dedicated caravan sites that French Travellers call "designated sites".
By travelling around France, I tried to build an archive of the encampment of "Travellers [gens du voyage]", to document it and to produce evidence. In order to see and make people see, I climbed up in trees, on electricity poles, on the roof of my truck. For several years, I accumulated evidence that French citizens are being placed under house arrest in places that are hostile to all forms of life. The oxymoronic "welcoming areas [aires d'accueil]" can be recognized by its fences, its gates, its straight alleys, and, sometimes, by its panoptic social center.
After half a century of various experiments, the French administration created "welcoming areas for Travellers": places exclusively dedicated to one category of the French population. Because these descendants of Roma, Sinti, Manouches, Gypsies and Yeniches have the audacity to continue living in caravans in the 21st century, they no longer have the right to choose their place of residence and are forced to live in these shadeless car parks.
How can one show the segregation? Take a step back, take a broader view and make visible what surrounds the caravan site: a factory, a waste disposal site, a motorway, a railway line, a nuclear power station, a cemetery. Many places that reveal the unspoken nature of public policies towards "Travellers [gens du voyage]". My photographs have captured dedicated caravan sites through the lens of environmental inequalities. In a world where a camp no longer shocks, can an environmental approach arouse sympathy? At least that was the challenge of this photographic project started in 2015.
About the Photographer
Born in 1990, Valentin Merlin is a French photographer. Since 2015, he has been documenting the environmental inequalities faced by "gens du voyage" [Travellers] by photographing the dedicated caravan sites where they are forced to live. Some of his photographs are currently on display at the MUCEM (Marseille, France) in the Barvalo exhibition.
To see more from of the artist's work, please check out the website:
To learn more about environmental inequalities experienced by French Travellers, please go to:
Lise Foisneau, « Dedicated Caravan Sites for French Gens du Voyage: Public Health Policy or Construction of Health and Environmental Inequalities? », Health and Human Rights Journal, vol. 19, n° 2, 2017, p. 89-98.
This exhibition is being held in association with the Critical Romani Studies 2023 International Conference Racism, Justice, Environment: Critical Approaches in Romani Studies and Beyond taking place at Central European University 1-2 June 2023 and with the generous support of the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture – ERIAC. For more information on this conference and how to attend, please visit the webpage https://events.ceu.edu/2023-06-01/racism-justice-environment-critical-approaches-romani-studies-and-beyond