BLACK BRUM; from the Swinging 60s to Mandela and the Handsworth: Riots, Vanley Burke Has Chronicled Black History - through a Lens

Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England), January 31, 2010 | Go to article overview

BLACK BRUM; from the Swinging 60s to Mandela and the Handsworth: Riots, Vanley Burke Has Chronicled Black History - through a Lens


Byline: SOPHIE CROSS

HE has captured history through a lens by photographing the black community in Birmingham over five turbulent decades.

Vanley Burke has amassed thousands of poignant, dramatic and iconic pictures since arriving in Britain from Jamaica as a teenager in 1965.

The 58-year-old is now an award-winning photographer and artist with honorary degrees from West Midland universities.

Yet his future was far from mapped out when he joined his family in a very different Birmingham in the Swinging '60s.

He said: ''At that time, there were very negative images of black people in the country.

"Some newspapers described us as disease-ridden, or work-shy people who had 'come to take our jobs'.

"I felt the need to address some of those issues, so I started taking photographs.

''I saved up and bought a camera and converted my grandparents' shed into a darkroom.

"It was definitely a conscious decision to document black social history. When I arrived in England, that's when my place in that history started, and that is when I started my project... You have to start somewhere.

''I saw the lack of images reflecting black people and felt the need to document them... Once I started I couldn't stop."

Born in the parish of St Thomas, Jamaica, Vanley came to the city to join his parents who had travelled ahead to set up a shop in Handsworth.

They had followed the Windrush generation, Caribbean migrants who travelled to Britain looking for work and the prospect of a better life.

Dad-of-three Vanley recalled: "We often heard stories about those who had gone to Britain. All those tales conjured up images in your head, but as a child I was unable to visualise the British landscape.

Turbulent ''So when I arrived in this country I desperately wanted to see the places that people had travelled to.

"I also started photographing my family and friends in Birmingham and that expanded into the black community.'' Vanley's evocative photographs capture memorable scenes of everyday life in the black community, including family gatherings and social occasions.

But he was also on hand to record the more turbulent times, most notably the Handsworth riots in the early 1980s.

Vanley said: "The picture of the burnt-out car was taken in Lozells Road in 1985 - the car had been burned out during a riot the night before.

''They were happening all over the country at that time. Kids were protesting about stop and search."

He added: ''I set myself different topics with my projects, everything between birth and death. ''I want to photograph life, schools, education, society and politics and the architecture.

"Photography is writing with lights. It's about what we are trying to see, and what is that image trying to say? …

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