It was while at school that he first displayed an interest in the evidence past people had left which provided a key to an insight into their lives. He said : "I remember reading about the Morant Bay Rebellion (in 1795) when Paul Bogal led his people against the British and these people were taken from Africa and I had a need to find out as much as I can about these people. They used to live in the hills in caves. Just imagine if there were any relics left ? Anything that you can use to be closer as much as possible to their lives and experience".He also recalled sitting around a fire at night and being told stories handed down from his African heritage, about Annancy the Trickster spider. He retained the first photograph of himself from this time, taken when he was either 9 or 10 years old and recalled : "Dressed up in the Sunday best. You can still see the crease in the trousers. A table was put outside and flowers were picked and the photograph was taken which was then sent to England, so my mother could see what I looked like". Shortly after this he received a Christmas parcel from his mother in Britain, which, when he opened "was quite surprised and intrigued by this camera, Kodak Box Brownie 127 and I took some photographs of a house that was being built at the time. They had got a photographer to photograph the house and she (the owner) reckoned it was better than their photograph".(link)
Vanley's mother wanted him to study to become and engineer and was resourceful. Vanley recalled : "There was an evening class (in photography) being held at Handsworth Boys' School on the same day as an English class was held at Handsworth Technical College. My mother wanted to do 'English' and I wanted to do 'photography' and my mother came up with this wonderful idea that : "How about, if I go about and learn about photography and you do English and then I came and teach you what I learn".
Needless to say, Vanley studied photography and in his late adolescence he became fascinated by the thousands of faceless immigrants who had preceded him to Britain : "When I came here I wanted to know them and having found these people I couldn't let them go". He thought : "I need to capture them. I need to keep them together. I need to collect them". Crucially, he said : "The notion of 'documentary photography' didn't exist, But, I'd been sufficiently informed for me to think that photography has a life beyond just a record".
He cited the example of : "A young man who'd left Jamaica with all his dreams, borrowing all the money from his family, perhaps sometime they would sell him farm produce to get this money to come to England. And if you're in a pub on a Friday night and you see these wasted lives. You want to document it and there's a lot of drama and emotion there. It wasn't about this person having a drink at the bar. It's about the failure to succeed. It was much more than one image. It's what lay in the shadows. It's what you don't know is what I'm interested in". "I need to convey the lost dreams of those in the photograph. I don't know if I succeed, but I try".
The low level bigotry continued. On one occasion when he was dressed up to go out on a Saturday night, in a double-breasted blazer, someone threw a pot of curry over him and in one pub the bar staff would smash the glass from which he drank. He put an end to this practice by taking all his mates along to the pub and forcing the staff to concede there were too many glasses to break. Occasionally, when he went into a shop, the person behind the counter placed his change on the counter rather than in his hand.It was now, in 1970 and at the age of 19, he got a job as photographic technician at the College of Art and Design is Aston, which in the dark room in the basement, was : "Heaven, because I could immerse myself as a developer". Most of his occupation involved processing to work of the students but Vanley also found that : "Within that setting I was able to see how photography can be used to develop the ideas of history" and he used the library to research photographers who were "documenting peoples lives" like Ernst Hass and Brassaï. He said was "searching for good images, irrespective of where it came from". He himself now had a Praktica Nova IB camera with a built in light meter.
As a photographer trying to make his mark, he found the 1970s difficult and said that people's attitude towards him as an artist was that they couldn't understand his work and his work "wasn't well respected". Things changed in 1979 when he won a Kodak Bursary which confirmed that, in his own work, he was doing the right thing, without the aid of a mentor. He took a portfolio of his work and in the interview where saw himself as "a lad from the provinces" who explained : "My photo is not about showing you everything that's there. It's about stimulating this emotion inside you". He said the Bursary was a "validation" of what he was doing and if Kodak said his work was good, then that must have been the case."You had to be aware of the sensitivity of the people you were photographing because the only time they were being photographed was in confrontation. It would be social services or the police and so I got asked that question so many times : "Who are you working for ?" and "Who sent you to do this ? Why are you doing this ?" Sometimes I'd laugh it off and give them a joke to move on with. Later on I'd take a box of photos and say "This is what I'm trying to do". A lot of the time they said "No".
He said : "I exhibited in pubs, clubs, school halls - everywhere, because I had to educate the people while I was taking photographs. I had to let them know what I was doing to build a profile for someone else to see the work and say : "He's not a threat".(link)"big guy wearing a donkey jacket and with steel capped boots" who said to him that if he saw a photograph of himself, even as a baby, he would kill Vanley. "I had every reason to believe that he would do what he said he would, because the Acapulco had that reputation that preceded it" and "So for a little while afterwards I made sure I did scan the horizon before I fixed my camera".
Of 'Geffery Morgan loves white girls' Vanley said : "I was on my way to taking photographs when I saw this on a wall just off Antrobus Road. I thought it was wonderful, so I took o photograph of it. Now UB 40 used this was the cover of their album 'Geffery Morgan loves white girls'". The album was released in 1984."These were young black lads who, at the time, were neither here nor there. On the one hand they were just growing out of the home - they were experiencing things that their family weren't familiar with and they couldn't explain to their family." He said it was "A representation of their lives then - see-sawing - not quite sure where they will settle". compilation of news reports (link), were reportedly sparked by the arrest of a man near the Acapulco Café and a police raid on the Villa Cross public house in the same area. Hundreds of people attacked police and property, looting and smashing, even setting off fire bombs and Vanley captured the aftermath. (link)
For his series 2008 'Murder by Postcode' Vanley said that he : "Would locate the scene and research as much as possible about what happened there and take black and white photographs in the absence of anything visible if a crime scene. Post code defines the gangs". He said he was looking "at areas in Birmingham where youngsters were killed by other youngsters". The postcode was the territory they were fighting over and he named his photographs by that code. Vanley said : "I even got spots of blood on the streets before they cleared it up and blood on door handles. It's just an attempt to read what's happening and rather than be general, sometimes, be specific".
Vanley said :
"I do love the Community. They piss you off, but I do love them. Some artists use oil. Some use watercolour. Some use wire. Mine are people, that's my material and you have to treat them with respect".
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In grateful acknowledgement to Shirley Read and the 9 hours of oral history interview for the British Library that she carried out with Vanley, over four occasions in 2014, which provided a wealth of insight into Vanley's work and thinking.