“We needed to write our own history”

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Council of Voices

Known as the “Godfather of Black British Photography”, Vanley Burke was born in Jamaica and moved to Birmingham in 1965 at the age of 14. He spoke to Birmingham poet Kurly about his life, his photography, how communities had to respond to racism after immigrating, and his new exhibition at Birmingham Cathedral for Black History Month, Being Built Together.

How were things when you arrived in the UK compared with where you were brought up?

I’m from the very rural hills of St. Thomas. Because we were on a hill you would look out and just see green, there’s hardly any houses — and then you come to England and it was all houses and hardly any green so it’s the quite opposite. The architecture was quite different, the whole transport system was different; everything was different really. The immediate cultural differences were things like food. The cooking was different. Preparation and presentation of food was quite different. The language was different.

The lack of cultural references to my past, the absence was very loud. We were made to believe that all that we had to offer was not culture, it was something else. Culture is what we received when we got here. Culture as we practice it was denied to us so we had to create the environment to fulfil those needs.

So I guess that would have planted the seeds of events such as the carnival

Yes. Initially we had things like the carnival. You were politically aware so organisations were set up to fulfil some of the needs. Quite a few youngsters were being targeted by the police and other racist institutions. So an organisation was set up to serve the their needs. Issues such as mental health, housing, education, supplementary education, church even were taken up. They were all formed out of desperation, or a lack of willingness to accommodate us in the wider community.

So you’re there as a young man, seeing all this going on — the community basically fending for itself to enable the cultural import of what you guys are bringing to still survive and be preserved.

Yeah, it’s like the laying of a foundation. And that necessity was born out of racism. If we weren’t treated so badly in the education system and other systems then we wouldn’t have had to do that.

So for yourself then, did taking pictures become more than just a hobby? From your mindset as a young man was there a sense that there was a higher purpose?

Yes, I felt quite early on that there is a need to document. I wanted to see and experience the lives that had been talked about prior to me being here and I wasn’t able to. After making a conscious decision to be a photographer, I decided that I needed to concentrate on documenting the lives and experiences of African-Caribbean people as we struggled to establish ourselves here.

What were you trying to achieve?

History is written by the victors and if we continue to have our history written by those who are not familiar with the processes of that history then we can’t complain about it. I felt we needed to take control and write our own history. For me the taking of photographs was part of that process.

While I was taking photographs it was important not just to be mindful of racism and those who might harm you, but I was also mindful of the people who I was photographing. While I see the need for this documentary process to take place not everyone who I was photographing understood why I was taking the pictures. So I had to be educating them while I’m taking the photographs. I’d take a box of photographs around with me and I’d tell them what I’m doing.

In terms of today with what’s going on, the climate of fear seems to be rising again, we’ve seen the rise of the far-right in Europe. How do you feel about the situation today?

The blueprint for hate has never diminished really. Hate has existed and will continue to exist and change its form. A lot of the racism in the early 1960s, 70s and earlier was quite blatant and then later on it became much more institutionalised. We didn’t have the chance to go close to the institutions before, but when we did we came up across racism, whether it be in the health service, education or the prison service. They weren’t necessarily representing us.

Education is a good way to address some of those issues, but we have to speak to people outside of the immediate circle. I think you need to hear and speak the difficult language to those beyond the already converted.

Do you see art playing a part in that?

Oh yes art definitely plays a part. Art is one of the main means by which that is done. Art is grossly underestimated. I think it has the potential to influence greatly the perception of people.

What sort of work is going to be displayed in your upcoming exhibition? What’s the significance of the venue?

The cathedral decided to put together a service in honour of the Windrush Generation and I was asked to put on an exhibition of some sort. I didn’t particularly want to put photographs because somehow they didn’t seem to fit nicely — they’re not designed for that space. So I decided to use a piece called “Council of Voices”. It is a piece of work which references conversations I’ve heard over the years. Whenever a number of black people come together the conversation is normally about race. So this piece is primarily about race. It’s a pretty large collage — it’s a transparency, so it’s mounted on a sheet of glass. And this collage has a text that goes around it. There are a number of conversations. You the viewer have to decide where you join the conversation and how you follow it because it doesn’t go round in a linear fashion. It breaks and it comes back onto itself and it repeats. It’s interrupted by words and statements and phrases and names of countries, people and so on.

As black people you joined the conversation when you’re about seven years old and you leave when you die. It continues; it’s a perpetual, circular conversation. The information from this conversation is never collected. So they’re not collectively acted on. But it’s one that, as a people, we feel compelled to have.

Being Built Together is at Birmingham Cathedral from 6 to 20 October. Admission is free