Sunday, 29 August 2021

Britain is a country which provided Photographer, Vanley Burke, with the stimulus to create his brilliant Chronicle of the Black Community


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Vanley, who is 70 years old, was born in Jamaica in 1951 and has lived in Britain for the last 55 years. During that time, using his skill and understanding, he has built up a unique photographic record of the migration and settlement of the Jamaican Community in Birmingham. It has always been his intention to construct Black history from his own perspective by empowering his subjects through his photography as he captured them at work, at play, at church, on the streets and in their homes. Vanley said : "The idea was to photograph everything between birth and death. I live as part of the community I photograph and I’m very much aware of what’s happening around me".

He was born in 1951 in a small village in the foothills of the Blue Mountains in Jamaica and described its location as : "If you take an aeroplane to a destination and if you are unable to move any further, then you jump in a car and the car is unable to go any further because of the road, and you get on a donkey, and when the donkey is further, that's where I lived. Just around the corner". It was here, when he was three years old, that his mother left him in the care of his grandparents and travelled to Britain to train to be a nurse. He didn't know his father and was not to see his mother for another twelve years. He got on well with his grandparents, who were farmers and in particular his grandmother and recalled that in school "The history was English History, Cromwell and all the rest of it - Battle of Trafalgar, Waterloo, Kings and Queens. I remember thinking that if I was a king, every week of the year I could have a different pair of shoes". 

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)

He had received his only tuition in photography from a travelling photographer who told him :"Keep the sun behind you and squeeze, don't press it". "Now 'keep the sun behind you', the light is on the face of the person facing you and you squeeze it, rather than press it, because when you press it you are likely to shake the camera. So those were my instructions". (link)

By this time, Vanley's life had taken a turn for the worse because, in 1960, his Grandparents had left him to join his mother in England and left him in the care of Aunt B who already had children of her own and left him feeling an outsider. For the next five years he was overburdened with chores - feeding and cleaning the pigs, chickens, guinea pigs and rabbits and picking fruit and coffee beans. If he committed a transgression his Aunt would beat him with a cane and he described this period as a "brutal experience". No doubt, his sense of isolation increased when he learned that in England his mother had married and he now had 5 step brothers. 

Vanley admitted that he had yearned for a family life and this period in his life ended on May 13 1965 when his BOAC landed at Heathrow Airport and he was met by his Grandfather and stepfather and was driven to Birmingham to his new home over the family's Caribbean grocery shop in Handsworth. It was here that he was reunited with his mother who he referred to as 'Sister', his Grandmother being 'Mama'. Much later he said that it was : "Almost if I was trying to collect these people together and that collection of people had exploded because it wasn't just about the individuals but a whole group of people and the collective nature of - immigration and settlement".

In comparison with Jamaica he said : "I thought this house was so small. Everything was just close and claustrophobic and if you looked out the bedroom window, you looked on to a church or the house next door". Back in Jamaica you saw "the next hill and you can just see for miles and it's just so green". In comparison he described England as "grey". It seems that his two years in school - Bell Street School for Boys in Lambeth, where he was taught 'English for Immigrants', was equally uninspiring. It was here that Vanley experienced his first taste of low level bigotry when : "We had to show our hands at lunchtime and the teachers would say "Go on. I wouldn't know if it's clean anyway".

He recalled conversations in Jamaica with his best friend : "Earl and I used to have frequent conversations about what life was like in England ? I would try to imagine what their existence was like ? what their daily routine was like and their environment?" Vanley found that, now he was in England, he used these questions : "As a sort of template. So now I tried to use photography to answer those questions and I used Earl as the person I'd be communicating with". In addition to architecture, he included the landscape and "some of the practices might be going to school, church, funerals". In short, he said : "I would pose the questions when I got here and answer them with the camera" and "It was really me who was posing the questions, but I was using the experience of us having talked about it". He was still using his Kodak Brownie 127.

He said : "I started teaching myself photography, bought 'Amateur Photographer' and 'British Journal of Photography' weekly and built a dark room in the back of my Grandparent's house". After leaving school at the age of 17 in 1968, Vanley said : "I went to Handsworth Technical College and when my friends were all going out to dance and places, I would be in the dark room till one, two three o'clock in the morning trying to perfect the thing".

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.

Vanley recalled, when he was 19 years old in 1970, the circumstances around which he took, what would become, perhaps, his most famous photograph : 'Boy with Flag'. He recalled : "I just picked up my camera one Saturday morning and went to Handsworth Park" which he called 'The community's front room' "and I was just interested in walking and seeing what was happening in the neighbourhood and when I arrived he came by on his bike". He was struck by the union jack flying from the handlebars and said : "It evoked a strange feeling in you. This whole thing about longing and identity was very strong at the time and here is this young kid, just bold, cutting across all those arguments with his bicycle and his flag and I just thought it was so brave and wonderful of him, so I took the photograph". (link)   
                                                                     
He was clearly proud of the fact that the MP David Lammy had used the image projected behind him when he made his inaugural speech when he in Tony Blair's Government and he had used it on his website. He also tweeted it in 2017.  

Vanley added to his qualifications by undertaking a City and Guilds course at the School of photography in Birmingham, but it was a commercial course he didn't well with the teachers who he found to be : "A bit stuck up and into photography in the old traditional way - silver ware and glass ware". 

In 1975 he captured the exuberance of youth in his 'Day Trip to Skegness' and two years later photographed 'African liberation Day in Handsworth Park'.(link)
He recalled : "If you imagine  youngsters coming from the  Caribbean not meeting anyone from another country, only to find other islands and also African countries. We were all tarred with the same brush". He saw the need for self-development being addressed in the 'African-Caribbean Self Help Group' which had arranged for speakers from organisations in Africa like SWAPO and the ANC but also groups in the Caribbean and the U.S.A. He said he shot 10 rolls of film, but he thought the event warranted that and also that no white faces were allowed in the Park that day and the event was lightly policed and there was no trouble. 

At the Liberation Day Procession he also photographed the cyclists at the front and said : "I call this 'Outriders' and it's like policeman in processions : what tends to happen on these occasions there's always a group of young men on bicycles and they always go up and down the crowd and they're able to go into side streets and they'll come back and say : "There is a group of policemen on such and such a street". They would constantly be moving around the crowd. I also like the bicycles. The history of bicycles is there in the picture. We have a chopper. We have another one in the back and we have this cow bicycle and this upside down racer handle. It's all there".

Vanley photographed this in 1977 and liked it "because of the energy and everyone jostling with each other to be at the front of the crowd" and said "I refer to this one as 'The Wild Bunch' and the young guy up front, he told me that this photo changed his life. He said he was up to no good until this point and when he saw the photograph published and on television and whatever, he had a reassessment of his life at it changed him".

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.

Vanley now matched his increasing professionalism as a photographer with his acquisition of a £300 Nikon camera with a standard 50 mm lens, for which his Grandfather vouched for him as the financial guarantor. He became increasingly aware of the problems photographing strangers might create : "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)

In the notorious Acapulco Café, where he wanted to photograph, the owner had told Vanley : "It's your camera. It's your life" when he was approached by a "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".

He also cited another case which illustrated the hazards of his career as community photographer in a time of riot : "A photograph was taken of Hazel, a young man with a fire torch in his hand and it was on the front covers of the nationals. That young man subsequently had seven years in prison for arson, two people died. The person who took the photograph left Birmingham and never came back". Vanley commented : "You had to work around that sort of thing".

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.

In 1985 he photographed the young men on the see saw in Handsworth Park where Vanley was working at the time as a play leader. He recalled : "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". 

In the same year the Handsworth Riots, reported in a 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)

Also in the 1980s Vanley said his 'Dismantlers' came about when : "This white guy decided to sell his house to a white family. It was illegal and he was thrown into Winston Green Prison and as a result the National Front came out in support of him and the Anti-Nazi League and other community organisations came out in protest and the police were in the middle. Either they didn't have riot shields or they weren't prepared on that day. They raided the back gardens and used the dustbin lids to protect themselves from all the rocks. If you look on the wall it's called 'The Dismantlers' . There's just some images which are naturally titles". (link)


For his 'Dominoes at the Bulls Head, Lozells Road' in 1988 Vanley said : “You would always see old men wearing a hat. Specifically, a felt hat was the headgear of choice. These guys never believed in just going out, they had to look smart. Each individual saw themselves as an ambassador for the race. So they were very conscious that they needed to look good, almost like you can’t let the side down. But it’s more than that. It’s about taking pride in yourself, which is something they brought with them from Jamaica. That look is a part of their lifestyle and their identity.”

In 2012 Vanley's book, 'By the Rivers of Birminam' was published alongside the opening of an exhibition of his work with the same name. Vanley invited Winford Fagan, the boy with the bike with a flag in 1970 to the Exhibition. Fagan was 50 at the time and Vanley had photographed him at his son's funeral a few years before. He said he chose to take the shot at a low angle because he "wanted him to be isolated from the congregation". He recalled : "His son was shot in gang violence that was taking place in the community and on this occasion his wife is on his right and his brother-in-law on his left". Winford didn't see the photo of himself as a boy until he was in his late thirties. 

In 2008 Vanley captured 'Man at a Funeral, Birchfield' and said : "This man with with his chains and his rings and then when they get in close and look and see that his little badge is actually 'Support Cancer Research' their attitude towards him changed. It's like a rough man like that can't be gentle enough to support cancer". 

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.

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