Vanley Burke on documenting Black British experiences
With his photographs on display in an exhibition at London’s Tate Britain exploring Caribbean influences on British culture, Vanley Burke talks to David Trigg about how he got started, his vast archive and the possibility of lasting change.
Who is Vanley Burke?
Known as the godfather of Black British photography, Vanley Burke was born in Jamaica in 1951 and has lived in Birmingham since 1965. For more than half a century Burke has documented the lives and experiences of Caribbean diaspora communities in the UK, capturing images of everyday life and significant events such as the 1985 Handsworth uprisings. This winter, a selection of his photographs is included in Tate Britain’s ‘Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 1950s–Now’, an exhibition celebrating the influence of artists of Caribbean heritage, and those inspired by the region, on British art and culture.
Vanley Burke in conversation with David Trigg
David Trigg: How did you get started with photography?
Vanley Burke: I was still living in Jamaica at the time as one of these so-called ‘left-behind children’. My mother had emigrated to England to train as a nurse and she would send parcels on special occasions. It was in one of those parcels that I received my first camera, at the age of 10, and that was when my interest was sparked.
DT: What led you to documentary photography?
VB: As children, we heard stories about England and wondered what life was really like there. When I arrived in Birmingham I started asking questions of people who had come from the Caribbean. I felt that I needed to document their lives and their experiences as they established themselves in a new environment. I could do that with photography.
DT: How did you develop your skills?
VB: I built a little studio in the cellar of our family shop and a darkroom at my grandparents’ house, where I spent days and nights. I did evening classes and also bought magazines like Amateur Photographer and the British Journal of Photography. Later, I attended the Birmingham School of Photography.
“People say to me that, without my photographs, they wouldn’t be able to tell their children about their history” Vanley Burke
DT: How did you choose your subjects?
VB: The visual representations of Black people that I saw in the British press were quite negative. I thought that we must take responsibility for writing our own history. I decided that if I was going to document Black people’s experience, then it needed to be everything, from birth to death. I broke it down into categories – social, politics, religion, work – and photographed within those. A lot of people say to me that, without my photographs, they wouldn’t be able to tell their children about their history.
DT: You have amassed a vast archive of material relating to Britain’s Black communities. Much is deposited in the Library of Birmingham. What can be found there?
VB: There are photographs, pamphlets, leaflets, magazines, newspapers, obituaries, clothing, records, ornaments – pretty much everything. The Windrush people started arriving in the late 1940s, and I wanted to create a record of that process of immigration. As well as taking photographs, I also collected ephemera and objects related to these people’s lives and experiences. I have a substantial amount of material in my flat as well.
DT: Your flat was the subject of ‘At Home with Vanley Burke’, an exhibition at Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery in 2015, supported by Art Fund.
VB: Over the years it was suggested I should open my flat as an exhibition. The material I collect is really not for me, it’s public; I’m just a custodian. Jonathan Watkins [Ikon Gallery director] visited me and asked how I would feel about showing the entire contents of my flat at Ikon. I didn’t hesitate, I just said, ‘Yes.’ The show re-created the rooms of my flat. They did a wonderful job.
DT: What are you showing in ‘Life Between Islands’ at Tate Britain this winter?
VB: I’m showing a selection of images, including protests, riots, work, religion and social life in the Black community of Birmingham. A poignant one for me is Young Men on a See-Saw in Handsworth Park (1984). We encountered a lot of racism and these lads’ parents weren’t believing their stories of police aggression. They were being beaten up, harassed and arrested. To me, that see-saw reflected their reality, placing them in a no-man’s land, neither up nor down, just floating. Another photograph is Boy With a Flag (1970). I saw this boy riding his bike in the park with a Union Jack. I loved the innocence. We spoke about identity and belonging, and whether England was home. I asked to take his portrait and the wind blew the flag at just the right time.
DT: How do you feel about the current interest in the work of Black artists?
VB: Over the years, usually after there has been some disturbance, a few doors have opened and a few people are dragged in. Then, when everything settles down, they’re shoved out again. But we’ve got curators now who understand the work and the culture so I hope the interest continues. As long as my photographs are getting seen and are valued by the people represented in them, for me, that’s the most important thing.
A version of this article first appeared in the winter 2021 issue of Art Quarterly, the magazine of Art Fund.
'Life Between Islands: Caribbean-British Art 1950s–Now' is on at Tate Britain, London, until 3 April 2022. 50% off with National Art Pass.