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Words by Mr Ryan Herman Photography by Mr Vanley Burke

Often described as “the godfather of Black British photography”, Mr Vanley Burke moved to the UK from Jamaica in 1965 with a box Brownie camera that his mum bought him for his 10th birthday. Since then, he has been documenting the lives of people living in and around Handsworth, Birmingham, to create one of the most important and celebrated archives of Black British life and culture. Mr Burke’s work has been published in books, and displayed in galleries around the world. In 2018, he appeared on Desert Island Discs and is featured in a new book titled 100 Great Black Britons.

“I didn’t have a mentor,” he says. “So I used a friend in Jamaica as my sounding board. I thought, ‘I will take the photograph as if I’m trying tell him what life is like in Britain.’ I broke it down into different topics – social, politics, religion, that sort of thing. Obviously style and what people wear is such an important part of that story.

“I also felt that working within the same community was important. There were times when I wondered, ‘is this the best way to go?’ But I stuck with it because I wanted to tell the story of these people and their lives as they struggled to establish themselves in a new environment.”

His latest project is Hard Times Require Furious Dancing – the title is taken from a poem by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Ms Alice Walker. Mr Burke has become the mentor he never had, teaching people within his community how to document and archive their lives through photography. And 2020 will be quite a tale to tell.

To coincide with Black History Month, he has selected some of his favourite images for MR PORTER. They not only chart how style has evolved but also he reveals the stories behind those images and the experiences of black people living in Britain over the past 50 years. Over to you, Mr Burke…

“They look very dapper, don’t they? If you turned up to a party and didn’t look the part, then people would make comments and could turn on you a little bit. It was handed down from the previous generation that arrived in Britain just after WWII. You would see men working on a building site in a shirt and tie. You were always told to be smart. Most young men would be taught to sew buttons, iron suits and have a pair of well-polished shoes.”

“The shot is a little bit fuzzy, but I like it because of the energy and everyone jostling with each other to be at the front of the crowd. Every time, they kept moving forwards and I kept having to move back to get them in shot. One of the guys, Leon, said the photograph changed his life. I think he saw it on TV. It made him reflect because he was getting into trouble. They still meet up regularly and use this photograph to stimulate conversations about their past.”

“Activism has been a feature of this year through Black Lives Matter. But we have seen big protests in the past. What usually happens is the appointments of some people into positions they should have had in the first place and the the news moves on. I hope BLM is not cosmetic or just a moment in time.”

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