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.
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…
House Party, West Bromwich
“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.”
New Testament Church of God, George Street, Lozells
“This was taken at a funeral. Again, the reason I chose this was because the men are well dressed. Guys would buy a length of cloth or fabric and take it to places like Mr Saunders, who was from St Kitts and had a tailor’s shop in Birmingham. They would then have a suit made for an important occasion. Quite a few people have said that images like this help them tell their children about the lives they’ve lived and what they used to wear. So the pictures also have a practical purpose.”
James Hunte campaigning in the Birmingham Ladywood by-election
“James Hunte was a local politician and somebody that I knew personally. He was very flamboyant, always had that big afro, had amazing suits and always stood out in a crowd. James was also a very interesting character and campaigned for people who were scammed through a pyramid selling scheme. When I took this picture, he had fallen out with the Labour Party and was standing as an Independent candidate in a by-election for Birmingham Ladywood. He also got Muhammad Ali to come to the city in 1983 and open a community centre named in Ali’s honour.”
A group of young men jostling in front of the camera
“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.”
Siffa Sound System at Handsworth Carnival
“Rastas were always around but in smaller numbers. They really started to establish themselves in the 1970s and 1980s. A big reason for that was that Bob Marley boosted the culture when he came here (he played in Birmingham on his first UK tour in 1972). Rastas were being talked about in a good way when previously they would suffer from negative connotations. I think there was also a fear of the unknown. Marley’s music was positive. He lived the life, he was a true believer, therefore he raised the profile of Rastafarians everywhere.”
Young men on a seesaw in Handsworth Park
“I’ve taken a lot of pictures here, and I often describe the park as the front room of the community. It’s the place where you can hold events that are too big for your own home. This wasn’t a special occasion, it’s just how young men dressed every day. I remember I grabbed my camera and took the picture. I didn’t ask them, and if I had I wouldn’t have got the photo you see now. But I think, somehow, that also comes from when you’re able to be with a community all the time and they know you, and they trust you, they will allow you to take that picture.”
Dominoes at the Bulls Head, Lozells Road
“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.”
Man at a funeral, Birchfield
“I do take photographs at funerals because people get dressed up and see it as a part of life. They don’t mind, and it is documenting the process. Sometimes the families will send the photographs back to the Caribbean or America to share with relatives who couldn’t be there. Invariably, what I find when people look at this photograph is that they think he looks a bit rough, especially with his rings. But then when they see that he has a badge promoting Cancer Research they all change their minds towards him. The response to the badge implies he’s not a thug, but a caring person.”
Elderly gentleman, Handsworth Park
“He just looked so relaxed. That generation still gets dressed to go out of the front door. Shirt and tie are standard attire. I think he might have been watching a cricket match. Cricket was important because when the West Indies beat England, it gave people bragging rights at work. With Black History Month, we can celebrate what black people have achieved, or invented, or designed, and you can find out about it on the internet. Before that, we could say it but we couldn’t prove it. They encountered so much racism, but the thing that everyone could see was beating England at cricket.”
Kokumo, graduation day at Birmingham City University
“Kokumo Noxid is a poet, singer and activist who was born in Jamaica but lives in Birmingham and is a member of our local community. This was an awards ceremony at City University and I like it because he looks stylish in the photograph. It’s not how he would usually dress.
“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.”