Bigger. Fatter. Gypsier
My. Big. Fat. Gypsy. Wedding. Crass, contrived or both? Lorna Dockerill’s chance meeting with the show’s campaign photographer ELISABETH BLANCHET reveals the scandalous tale behind the billboards
“You look like you’ve just met the man of your dreams,” Professional Photographer’s Art Editor Becky beamed at me as my eyes, the size of space hoppers, glanced back at her having just encountered Channel 4’s Big Fat Gypsy Wedding photographer, Elisabeth Blanchet.
It had been a stellar night. The magazine’s Professional Photographer of the Year Awards in London’s hip Shoreditch had seen judge and celebrity photographer Andy Gotts and an unnatural amount of photographic talent congregate in one room – many of whom had collected awards for their merit. The evening was drawing to a close and I’d conservatively refrained from attacking the bar with the menace journalists usually exercise, and from falling in love with Blanchet’s professional persona. Both were difficult. Allured by a romantic French accent rippling across the space we huddled in, the documentary photographer clutched a glass of wine and wildly vented frustrations formed while shooting Channel 4’s advertising campaign for its controversial series, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding last February.
Vivid and animated, Elisabeth was a loose cannon. She spilled the beans about how the television channel had emblazoned the slogan 'Bigger. Fatter. Gypsier.' over her images without permission – with the original photojournalistic '1970s life magazine style' brief being warped into a car crash TV advert. Nine years of graft spent building relationships with various travelling communities in the UK prior to Channel 4’s involvement were under threat of being permanently severed. This photographer was vowing never to work with the broadcaster ever again. It was too good an opportunity to pass up. I needed to speak to her on more sober terms.
A distorted brief
“I’ve always been interested in the way that some communities can live in a different way.” Elisabeth confessed to me, after the awards ceremony, still as enthusiastic even without the drink in hand. The Normandy native had worked as a maths teacher in Lome, Togo, West Africa for four years with her now ex-husband and had always revelled in taking documentary shots of street children and women, depicting their labour-led way of life. If you read January’s issue of PP, you’ll remember Elisabeth’s account of her ongoing Romanian orphanage work in the 1990s and early 2000s. As a student she’d set up a sponsorship programme and a French charity with friends to help an orphanage in Iasi (north-east Romania) while photographing youngsters there, and later re-located 30 of the now adult orphans to capture them on camera again. Obviously a photographer motivated and appeased by working with isolated social groups, why did she become involved with the Channel 4 project which has been accused of glamourising Gypsy life?
“Channel 4 called me in December 2011, telling me they liked my work with Travellers and that they wanted me to shoot the campaign,” she said. “I don’t actually know how they found out about me and I never asked them. I guess they must have researched me online and seen my pictures featured in Travellers’ Times (an online site dedicated to news and opinion from Traveller communities) and my Dale Farm work on Travellers shot for Time Out magazine last year.
“At the beginning they gave me three weeks to photograph Travellers on the show in Queensferry, Flintshire, North Wales, but I didn’t know them so it was difficult to get natural shots. I wanted to try and make them forget I was there, but they knew I was there to take their picture for a huge poster and naturally, they wanted to pose. For the Travellers it was a contradiction though, because My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding is about exuberance and showing dresses and cars, but I was asking for the opposite,” she added. Elisabeth, who has lived in the UK since 2001, had been visiting the site regularly, but a few days before the original deadline received a concerning phone call.
“A director from the channel called to give me a steer and said they wanted dresses, girls looking at the camera and that it was a programme about weddings and dressing – completely the opposite to the brief I’d had at the beginning. Horrible suggestions were made such as two teenagers having a dirty kiss. I said no way, it’s not the job I was hired for. I couldn’t believe it. I thought, have they been taking drugs? I can’t see any Traveller agreeing to that. It would have needed to be set up and if that was the case, why hire me? They said fine, but I did take some pictures of the girls in dresses. After I had that phone call, I was very careful of the pictures I sent them and made sure the girls weren’t showing too much.”
Elisabeth told me Channel 4 were happy with the pictures after this, though she was not aware of the slogan about to be branded across the bridge of a young boy’s freckly nose and the faces of people she’d formed bonds with. “I was done, then Channel 4 realised they needed release forms. I thought because the Travellers were in the show they didn’t need them, so I had to go back to bloody Wales God knows how many times for them, which I was pissed off about. After that the posters came out and a friend called me and said, ‘Is it you who did the Bigger. Fatter. Gypsier?’ I said ‘What? Oh my God.’ I absolutely hated the slogan and thought it was racist, but I didn’t think it would have all those reactions.”
By reactions, Elisabeth means the 372 complaints made against Channel 4’s advertising campaign, which is now under formal 4 investigation by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) following an appeal by the Irish Travellers Movement in Britain (ITMB). The Authority had originally decided there was no grounds for investigation earlier in the
year, but overturned its decision after an independent review by former civil servant Sir Hayden Phillips. The show, which attracted eight million viewers, even ignited a street protest from Travellers in Hackney, East London. Elisabeth was paid £5,000 for the Channel 4 campaign.
The photographer also received intimidating telephone calls from Channel 4, and I had to ask, was there an ethical debate going on in the mother-of-two’s mind? “Absolutely,” she admitted. “But I hate not finishing a job. It leaves you feeling like you haven’t achieved something. I learnt that you can’t rush things in proper photojournalism. It takes time and that’s the only way to get good results. I think I had some nice pictures but I don’t think they reflect the pictures in my archive of Irish Travellers. The aim behind the photographs was different though – I knew it was to advertise a show I didn’t really like. It wasn’t like a long term project, or a nice editorial feature, or book project. For the first time in my life I was shooting for advertising but I thought it would teach me a lot and be interesting. I learnt that I want to avoid working for certain TV channels and I’m not comfortable working with broadcasters who misrepresent people.”
Did she feel a mound of guilt at the bottom of her stomach when thinking about the raucous that ensued after the debacle? Or responsible at least? “I didn’t feel guilty or responsible.” She claimed. “I felt happy before the slogan was added and that I hadn’t surrendered to their conditions. Some Travellers didn’t like it and were cross, which I understand, but I went to see them and explain what had happened. It was annoying for me and put me in an uncomfortable situation where ten years of trust had been damaged. But some don’t care and I still take commissions – I did a Traveller’s wedding in the summer. I do them for free and then just ask that I can use the pictures for my archive.”
I knew Elisabeth had been witness to trauma experienced by children in her earlier years and had by no means led a sheltered life, but I was intrigued by her fascination in Gypsies. She’d been inspired as a child by her grandfather – a keen photographer who handed down his Voigtländer, Instamatic, Ross Ensign Ful Vue Super and Polaroid 104 Land Camera to her. But she now lives in affluent Hampstead, the polar opposite to a Gypsy lifestyle. Was it her poignant Romanian orphanage work which enticed her to gypsyville?
“The fact I like to work with these people is nothing to do with Romania really – that’s part of my own story when I was involved with the charity and it’s personal. I was just in Bermondsey, south London one day and spotted
some caravans. They seemed to be organised and not like Gypsies in France.
I expected dark hair and skin, but instead I saw freckles and pale complexions. They looked very Irish. I was fascinated by the fact that they lived around
the corner from us but in a completely different way.
“Then a lady in her early 60s named Mary-Ann invited me into her caravan, something I’d dreamt about for months. She gave me vodka at 4pm – but it helped us understand each other! After that I went to see her regularly. We built trust and I could take pictures of people in caravans. I was interested that they are always outside and have a strong sense of family, but what really fascinates me is their freedom. They are always ready to go, from one site to the next and have fewer obligations than we do. Maybe it’s a bit of a romantic idea.”
Following a marriage break-up, I wondered if she was at all envious of their care-free attitude, close family ties and their ability to up and leave any situation? “Yes, totally,” she laughed. “We have too many obligations with papers. I’m
very envious. I like their way of life.”
Working further afield
Had she continued living in France, Elisabeth thinks she would have never become a photographer after locals told her she was “crazy” considering the career change given her successful career as a maths teacher. “The UK really gave me the opportunity to become a full time photographer because people in France are not as open minded as they are here about working without diplomas. I don’t have that much experience but what counts is what you produce and the English told me I should do what I want! It was a risk to start a new freelance career after being used to the secure salary of a teacher, but it was now or never.”
Although full of disdain for Channel 4, the photographer hopes to continue her documentary photography with Irish Travellers and extend her work to America and produce more videos. Her Romanian project of 12 B&W then and now children’s shots finished being exhibited at the Romanian Cultural Institute in Paris this year, something even to this day she feels she hasn’t completed.
“I still feel I haven’t really finished that project. There are around 20 of the kids I originally photographed who I’d still like to find, so it’s not finished. And we’re trying to find them through word of mouth.”
The advertising feud surrounding Elisabeth’s work seems to have struck a nerve. When we went to press her guest speaking skills had been flexed at an Amnesty International popular media event questioning the representation and discrimination of Roma people in society and the media. I did wonder if Elisabeth ever worries about
her own representation as a photographer. My guess is, if our magazine’s Professional Photographer of Year awards are anything to go by, no chance. And good on ‘er. I hope she’s at the next one with more controversial tales to tell. Maybe we’ll hold 2012’s in a caravan with some vodka…
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