BY THE RIVERS OF BIRMINAM
Photographs of Vanley Burke curated by Professor Lynda Morris in association with the Visual Identities in Art and Design Research Centre
By the Rivers of Birminam is a retrospective exhibition of 100 photographs taken by esteemed documentary photographer Vanley Burke. Curated by Professor Lynda Morris (Research Professor Curation and Art History, Norwich University of the Arts), the exhibition documents the history of the diasporic African-Caribbean community in Birmingham, and particularly Handsworth, from 1968 to 2011. In its photographic detailing of the everyday lives of Birmingham’s black community for close on four decades, this visual record is one of the most extensive and significant photographic archives of African-Caribbean life in postwar Britain. His intimate, insider’s view presents an alternative to previous ideologically-laden, historical archives that purport to ‘document’ black presence and settlement in Britain, yet mostly do so from an uninformed, skewed or biased outsider’s perspective. Burke’s collection of photographs forms a substantive and powerful archive that holds the means to speak to, and of, a broader pluralistic consciousness and historical moments from multiple positionalities and perspectives. Through his photographic practice, Burke raises questions that speak cogently to the broader politics of photographic representation, and more specifically as they pertain to documentary photography, as well as to postcolonial debates around diasporic conditions of uprootedness, alienation, displacement, adaptation and belonging. Burke’s work; its integral relationship to the socio-political historical context in which it was produced; its connectedness to Birmingham’s intellectual and cultural milieu from the late 1950s onwards; and the issues around the politics of photographic representation that it raises,
form strategic points of departure from which to explore issues associated with documentary and vernacular photography in relation to broader historical and contemporary frameworks. Although ‘documentary photography’ and ‘vernacular photography’ can be understood as discreet terms, they are often interconnected.
For example, vernacular photography may employ the aesthetic modes of documentary photography, while photographs of the ‘everyday’ can act as ‘records’ in that they document a particular moment in time and space. Burke’s archive contains a rich store of what Paul Gilroy (cited in Hall 2007) terms “indirect evidence”; his images offer detailed glimpses into the everyday lived experiences of individuals in British African-Caribbean communities, whilst simultaneously acknowledging their social and political struggle to define a sense of belonging and identity over three generations. Stuart Hall’s (1989:68) observation that, “The practices of representation always implicate the positions from which we speak or write – the positions of enunciation” is pivotal to these debates. With acknowledgment of how the differing historical, political, geographic and social contexts in which photographs are taken significantly influence the ways in which they are read, the complexities relating to documentary photography – for example, issues of agency, and the power relationships between photographer-as-author, and subject – that Burke’s work raises, and his personal and political impetus to record, find strong resonance, despite their very different socio-political contexts, with many examples and archives of documentary photographs taken by South African photographers from 1948 onwards.
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