Vanley Burke: "The whole idea of black history is fraught with problems"

By Vanley Burke | 27 January 2015

Known as the grandfather of black British photography, Vanley Burke’s entire Birmingham flat is to be moved to Ikon Gallery if an Art Fund initiative raises £17,000. He tells us about his lifetime's work

A black and white photo of two people taking part in a marriage ceremony
Vanley Burke, Wedding from Handsworth from Inside (1968-82)© Vanley Burke, courtesy The Arts Council Collection / Ikon
“When I was in Jamaica we would hear many stories about what was happening to people in England. Many of them had left [Jamaica]. So when I came to England I started asking questions about the lives and experiences of those people.

I wanted to see visual representations of their lives, but there were none. So I started taking photographs of family and friends.

We had a shop, which was a brilliant stimulus for conversation because people came to you rather than you having to go look for them. That stimulated me somewhat.

I set out to cover from birth to death. What excites me about photographs is to be able to capture the lives and experiences of people.

The whole idea of black history is fraught with problems: history generally is thought to be written by the victors, and if victors write your history then you tend not to believe it if you’re a victim.

So I decided that if we were to believe our history, we had to write it ourselves – and I could do that with photography.

I was about 18 at the time, and I used to buy a lot of Amateur Photographer, the British Journal of Photography and other photographic magazines. I developed photographs myself in a dark room at the back of my parents’ house.

My mother thought that I should study English, but the evening classes in English and photography fell on the same night. So my mother said that if I went to English, she would go to the photography class and then tell me what she’d learnt.

Later on I went on to the School of Photography in Birmingham, but that was a commercial course, not a documentary course. People wrote about my work and said it was documentary photography, so I said, ‘Oh, I’m a documentary photographer’.

But I couldn’t let those labels define what I do. For me, the bigger picture is the need of the people to have something substantial about their own history – a base that they can build on that references their presence in England.

I started taking photographs in the 70s, but we [Caribbean people] started coming here in the 1940s and 1950s, and I had no material from then.

So I thought, ‘well, I’ll collect that material.’ Those images existed already, and so I started collecting ephemera relating to the experience of people in England.

I decided I would collect, but there were no mentors or examples of how to go about collecting. I just knew that I was intrigued when I found a little bit of paper that would tell me something about people’s lives and experiences.

When I finished the course at the School of Photography, the common practice was to go to London. But I remembered the line of Bob Marley that said, ‘You're running and you're running, but you can't run away from yourself’.

While most people were running to London, there were others who were running to Birmingham. It was about standing still and looking at what was happening around you.

I’m glad I did, because I think what I was able to do in Birmingham I wouldn’t have been able to do in London. Birmingham is sufficiently large, but small enough to manage. And I bought into its politics at the time, the whole idea of self-help and providing for yourself.

I’m hoping that the exhibition will inform a wider community about the necessity of valuing these bits of material that exist within them. While pieces might be of value to the individuals who have them, they only become really valuable when you bring that material together collectively, like in the archive.

When I watch wildlife programmes, whenever an elephant passes the bones of its ancestors, it takes them up, it mulls over them. I think we, at our stage in England, need that opportunity to look back.

While you’re living you’re not observing the things that are happening around you – it is only when you have a quiet moment to sit back and relax, and to look at the events that have taken place, that those materials become valuable.

What I’m doing has grown from the grassroots. The collection has not been funded.

I’m absolutely skint, but with the money I have I go out and buy records.

The archive has grown organically, and people respond to that. I put photographs in different community settings – in pubs and clubs, in church halls – and that helps inform people about themselves.

When people tell me that without the photographs they would never be able to tell their stories to their youngsters, that for me is the reward of it, and that’s what I’m trying to capture.

That’s what I’m trying to preserve for future generations. Otherwise, we’ll continue in ignorance about where we’re from and, to some extent, not accepting the history that is there, because we weren’t involved in the writing of it.

I don’t really mind the collection being taken out of my flat, because I’ve never seen them as my belongings. They’re things that I have collected for a group of people, rather than for myself.

All I have is the ability to see the need to collect them – it’s like I’m holding them in trust. As for being in an empty flat, I don’t know how I’ll feel about that, but I’m looking forward to it because I’m hoping I’ll fill it up again.”

  • Rewards for donations to the At Home with Vanley Burke project range from updates and postcards to a party and limited edition artworks. Visit the fundraising page to contribute. Visit Art Happens for more projects to support.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

A black and white photo of three people standing in a bath tub wearing white clothing
Baptism, from the Handsworth from Inside series (1968-1982)© Vanley Burke, courtesy The Arts Council Collection / Ikon
A black and white photo of a group of children in a field full of straw
Educational Outing, from Handsworth from Inside (1968-1982)© Vanley Burke, courtesy The Arts Council Collection / Ikon
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