Vanley Burke is a Jamaican-born photographer often described as the Godfather of Black British Photography. His body of work is regarded as the greatest photographic record of African Caribbean people in post-war Britain. He is motivated by a desire to document culture and history. Vanley was born in 1951 in St Thomas, Jamaica. When he was four, his mother emigrated to Britain to train as a nurse, leaving him in his grandparents’ care. His mother sent him a Box Brownie camera as a present when he was ten, and his interest in photography was born. When he was 14 he left Jamaica to join his mother and her husband and their children, in Handsworth, Birmingham, where they ran a shop. Vanley’s fascination with photography continued and he began taking photographs of every aspect of the life of his local community. He also started collecting relevant objects to provide more context for his photographs, gathering everything from pamphlets, records and clothes to hurricane lamps. His archive became so substantial that it is largely housed in Birmingham’s Central Library. In 1977 he photographed African Liberation Day in Handsworth Park, documenting what is thought to be the largest all-black crowd ever to assemble in Britain. In 1983 he held his first exhibition, Handsworth from the Inside, at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, and in 2015 the entire contents of his flat was relocated to the gallery for the exhibition At Home with Vanley Burke. His images have appeared in galleries around the UK and abroad. Earlier this year, he was commissioned to mark the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush, creating the installation 5000 Miles and 70 Years at the MAC in Birmingham. CASTAWAY'S FAVOURITE: Blue in Green by Miles Davis BOOK CHOICE: Encyclopedia of Tropical Plants by Ahmed Fayaz LUXURY ITEM: A Machete and a Crocus bag Presenter: Lauren Laverne Producer: Cathy Drysdale
This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
Pvc sounds music radio broadcasts, I'm not La verne- and this is the desert island discs podcast. Every week I ask my guest to choose the eight tracks book and luxury they want to take with them if they were cast away to a desert island for rights reasons. The meat It is shorter than the original broadcast. I hope you enjoy listening. I. MIKE The way this week is vastly back, he is known as the godfather of black british photography. It was as a ten. Old boy in rural jamaica that he first picked up a camera. The kodak box. Brownie, a gift from his mother, a member of the windows generation who left her homeland for britain in nineteen.
Sixty five at the age of fourteen. He followed her immediately began to put his camera to good use, capturing the of the community surrounding him, enhance with birmingham his design. From the start. Was the document history from the inside ass? It happened. He said I remember realizing that all history had to start somewhere and that we were a unique stage of history in this country. I was fortunate enough to be witnessing the arrival of a new group of people his award. Winning images have chronicled the lives of his subjects and the history they are part of. Ever since vanni burke welcome to desert island discs good morning, and thanks for having me you've said that The aim is not to hold onto the past, but to document the past. For future generations, why is it important to working group? with people. We need to be in charge of our history. History is a by product of life It will be written whether we participate in the process or not, and I felt as zoo
group of people who live in this district is important at being back and forth. In document in and ass a photographer, I felt it was a good way of writing help internet this history. So you knew even ass, a young man that when you were picking up your camera you're going to capture something special arduous. Thought to myself, here. I am weakness in if you like. I have been able to see the arrival of people coming from the caribbean to this country and her fault. In the time to do that, because I think well, what happened two thousand years from now, and I thought least I could do. Is the document that as much as possible and idea was to photograph everything between burthen death really and as well. Photographing. You are a collector, collections reflect haven't you ve described it as well beyond the frame the collection consist of numerous pieces of material have collected over the years, pamphlets leaflets magazine book jackets clothes
cases anything that resonates with the community with a history but have a story tax. To it. I comment I so simple, Captain I noticed an enviable stash vinyl in the floods. How big a part of your life is music. It is very big really, but no more so than anything else and have done. This is all of this is an attempt to acquire to capture to retain as much material. I can find for future generations to reference. I have quite a few students from time The time who would write to use materials from the archive, and that is the purpose that it was intended really for it. Form future generation about lived experience. And mine. Tell me about your first piece of music today. The first piece of music is defeated, recording and which was made in rural jamaica, and
particularly where I live on the foothills of blue mountain rural. I remember going to displace John feel, where do an emission hall, where the soft music would be son, and there's a lot of granting the process, and for me it is one of the earliest link with the african experience in which I have heard so much about the child. So this a piece of field recording I'm here I dunno know I know
May I therefore noisy now don't give easier. Nineteen we need a common visa costs are now. I don't doubt a field, including you may can revive or music vainly back. All of human life is in your photographs, from birth to death via celebrations protests, religious worship and day trips. Tell me a little bit about the people that you photograph the people ordinary people who came from the caribbean in an attempt to prove their life chances really and think. Initially, most people thing here from the cabin for five years:
the reason was the duration of the passport was five years and they felt that they could improve their lot. Return within that time. So the idea was to go back to jamaica, really they initially came here because of the state of the caribbean. At the time in particular, to make in agriculture was quite poor. I mean people needed work and they were quite a few people, including my grandfather went to america to pick fruits and work on the farm, and then come back, and you know it probably pay for an extension of also bind randal or whatever is necessary and I think more women mark of closing the door at the time and england asking for people to come after the second world war. Then It seemed an obvious thing to do because quite a few of these but had served in the second world war and its the return of those people that brought about the the winds rush. You spend your life documenting the lives of people around you in the bahamas, shop, the cafe a funeral at church and some of the subjects
liqueur in your work at the individual subjects, including the boy at the center, one of the most famous images, the boy with the flag, which shows a young boy on a homemade bicycle with a union jack flag flying from the handlebars tell me about it pictures that you took him winfried fagin recently bought a camera, and I was desperate to start taking photographs. I would go out, and after my choice, guns, saturdays and go out and take a look for photographs are to take and I was walking in hands- was back on this saturday morning, and I saw him riding in the park coming towards me. And I thought wow, it was incredible to see this young man with his back adorned with this one in brighton with his dog run behind him? So I asked if I could take a photograph of him and fortunately agreed and again
quite fortunately after compose the sought, the wind blew in the right time and the flag stood up and the photographs. It's been used numerous times and many but covers in debates. It's got a life of its own and continue to do so and lady took pictures of them when fed fagin at his son's funeral. Yes, yes, I'm very much in touch with the people. I photograph. I leave as part of the community that I photograph and I'm very much aware of what's happening around me, and am I thirty son was shot and, he said damn. If it was going to allow anyone to take the photograph, it would be me and am in. I duly went along and took some photographs and if you know of his son,
fanny back it's time for some more music. Tell me about your second disc. Coming from the foothills of the blue mountain, I've decided that burning spear man in the hills would be an appropriate choice. My brother, along the burning spear man in the hills, vandy bug you were born in ST thomas, jamaica and nineteen. Fifty one and after your mother moved to britain to train as a nurse you are raised by your maternal grandparents. What was family life like for you? It was wonderful all
children had a chore. Mine was sweeping the house or the yard, but it was wonderful played with friends, rule isolated observer, willing diversity very rural describe where I come from, as if you get on it, aeroplane to the country they plane doesn't go beyond that point and you get in the car and then comes, the end of the road, then you get a donkey and when the door you can't go anymore I'll just around the corner It is very rule, but absolutely beautiful. I mean we literally on the top of the hills in some foothills where from seed a valley area, so we could see some distance away. You grandpa farmed? Didn't this? They did. It's a family farm and big true cash crops, ports grandmother would take to the market and bees to look forward to coming back, because it was only then that we would have sweets. I mean kids eat sweets now, and
tongue goes red, we say beach, quite health, The first photograph of you, which I have seen is taken outside you very formerly dressed to go to white shirt and tie on very serious expression on your face and you're resting one hand on a table with a vase and some flowers on it who who took it and why it's a local photographer, who would turn up or on once a week at the moment in a sunday and walk around the community and ask if anyone wants a photograph taken, and these photographs would say to england to inform the family of how you look in the trousers that they recently sent to you things like that this was outside our house in nearly up in the hills and at the table, was taken outside and it was made to look at a studio shot really- and this is simple as well to the photographs that would be sent back to jamaica, where people would dress. A benign there is because, on Sunday best men working Actors in turn would have gone.
Sign and tied. It sit beside the telephone and the table its in it To show success or progress that is made, but something the telephone he could see the court it wasn't plugged into anything really, but the photograph in that context very powerful. It is very powerful. Yes, the first, were you ever owned, was a gift from your mother. Do you remember the box brownie? What you remember remember very well how open the yellow box- I remember the smell of it, wouldn't the new technology, weary from all our toys we made ourselves but miss would be in one of the many passes that were sent back to family in the caribbean, and this is normal and birthday. Christmas or occasions like that, and in one of these occasions I received this. This box brownie camera. As I said, the smell of it, the local and also I was fascinated by the science of it. How did the image get from there to here
Remember when I eventually had some lessons on how to use the camera. It was keeping son behind you and don't press the certain squeeze. It and remember. It obviously did I ever since fanny Tell me about your next is my third is my boy lollipop nearly small. I remembered this very much when I came to england. You know it was so very much talked about record. Then it blinked. You know the whole jamaica experience with here. So my boy, lollipop, really small
the middle small. My boy lollipop finally broke at fourteen. You arrived in the uk. Now your mother had married by this time, and you had a step father and four brothers, so new country and pretty much a new family to adjust to how much of a culture shock was it. It was a fairly big. Some greeley amene pride to come in here and we were told about coal- in snow and fog and the whole of this one thing and it's: how am I going to live in this cold place that I hear about? I
desperately wanted to get away from Jamaica was like whiskey through really, but as it happened right to leave in I've gotten on the aeroplane to be sent back because it was my passport, so you know just when you ve got it escape. He sent back you got on the aeroplane and then had to get the aggregate get off their bloom. If only that had been given a bottle of coconut oil to take to my family in england, and I think the bottle had broken and they didn't know about it. So I had to deal with all of that, amongst other things, when I got back opening on your own, I'm dr loomis, my own, and two days later we had. I think it was it. It would have been a telegram in those days to save at dinner. I could travel so come into. England was the need ya. Think like a lot of people's experience of heard about, we write from his very rural. So therefore, when you arrive I'm hearing here and see all these buildings with smoke coming out of them. Houses, we thought were factories,
if the parents ran the shop in Handsworth just beyond at Birmingham city centre. Now, obviously the local shop is the hub of the community. What was yours like? It was a really wonderful place to hear the experiences of and lives of, who were around it's where they would talk about their experience in a factory in the church and I've been at that miss sharp again, it was a shot. It's a small, it's my first speech The of having an upstairs downstairs way back. Really you look out, No green at all. It's just so it was a bit of a culture color shop and what was community itself like who is around you? It was a mixed community. There were few english, irish, not that many people from the indian subcontinent at that stage, but if you get the racism, you know, you'd have a situation where one family would move in in the street,
and the white neighbors on either side would move out. In ghettos has, as they referred to, are not really made by the people who move in there. They made by the people who move out of these places really happens. That I'm not by any means suggesting that old, like people were aggressive towards your friends of my family, who were white as well, and my mother and her husband. She has many friends who seemed plain. In the snow with that when she came here to study to become a nice or white as well. So it's just the majority of people that we encounter doers is, Friction and for some music finally broke. Tell me about your fourth disc. My fourth disc is in relation to all that was happening at the time. You know the sus laws where the police would stop and search individuals. The street without reason, and obviously this annoyed know lot of people who were going about their lawful business and
Do you know in many areas it erupted into violence, so I've chosen in quite a johnson son s letter in his letter, is alleged to have been written from sun living in england to his mother in jamaica, about his experience at the hands of police, turn to jelly belly. Licking pain in back of them. Licking, panama, head butted, talk like alexa, then keep your men and feed and it started to bleed mama I couldn't up there do nothing. Show me, Japan, in the miami started to cry someone in the mouth anime episode. One hundred and twenty nine started to print the pumping bunnymachine nanny drop, anna being the panic crash and dead
crazy to finance sonny's letter valley, but you were part the growing west indian community in Birmingham that was much discussed in the media at the time. How much of what you heard and read reflected your own experience? Very little really. I mean we heard about disease ridden people living in an overcrowded house in in our send our women, a lazy and all of these negatives and I wasn't experiencing that, so that also propelled me to that end. We need to do commend our own history. We need to hear our own voice, so definitely that Potential is missing and what the generation gap between you and your parents who are part of that early winds generation. We know how wide was there, the gap and the different not choose between those send women level the older generation liking came and they thought that for young,
listen came and told them. You ve been really boost school or or by the police or by any of the institutions around wouldn't necessarily believe them. Their attitude is that there is no smoke without fire and you must have done something wrong for this to happen. It wasn't until much later on that a lot of people realise that tonight the children were being picked on really for many by then it was too late because there was a lot of britain You know a lot of lot of people died at the end of racists. Racism and racists in this country. You know in police cells. A lot of them would be put in mental institution we hear about, but that's been going on for a long time So, yes, I love people been really after brutalized by the system and at the time who you taking your photographs, for
I don't know, I mean I talk about I'm photographing for the people, but I really don't know if I could identify them. I just felt the need to you know compelled if you like to document these things and it wasn't always easy photographing the community and threatened a few times in the process, but I just felt that If you like, I knew best. You know, and you will come around to seeing what I'm trying to do. So I remember when times got tough. Later on. I thought to myself and war would happen. If I were to take all my negatives and publicly. And took her to cannot act in a few choice, press and say well when the bank will be destroyed. This negative enhances park on twelve o clock on the fourteenth of benevolent. Who would respond to that and I remember telling a young man this and he said- do not yours to burn anthony
if that solves the whole question I needed to ask anymore. It wasn't necessarily that I wanted to to destroy them, because I still knew the value in them, but I just wanted to question the whole process of. Why am I taking these images and what are their purpose and who is aware of them and who will be involved with their values and about tell me- about your fifth disk. My fifth disc is Selassie speech united nation in nineteen sixty three. I recently used this speech in a piece of work I did the mac in birmingham beyond wind rush, where I I see I see the air out of it. I took out all the space is all the punctuation mocks. All the capitals and just presented in a block form wise. Sky temple it's important for me, because it tries to challenge the whole notion of racism by major powers, the philosophy which holds one race. Peer and not the inferior, it's also the
it speech that bob molly's song war was based on, but I wanted to go by. To its source. It still running. And today, with all that's happening around the world and perhaps more so than it was then a hell of a child, ray superior and another in here is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned until there are no longer first class and second class citizens of any nature. Limited until the color of a man can I have no more significance than the color of his eyes, but don't tell the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all without regard to race, but until that day the dream of lasting peace and Citizenship and the role of international morality remain, but a fading allusion to be pursued but never attained, and until the ignoble and
Happy regimes that hold out brothers in angola in mozambican in south africa in sub human bondage have been toppled and destroyed until bigotry and prejudice, militias and inhuman self interest have been replaced. Understanding and tolerance and goodwill until all africans to stand up and speak as free human being is equal in the eyes of all men, as they are in the eyes of Heaven. Until that day, the african continent will not know peace. Highly Selassie. Speaking at the? U n in nineteen, sixty three value. How did you go about becoming a photographer? Did you have a dark room years? started by. I built a document. Grandparents house did recently purchased a house in the losses area. Birch failure and I can't the old outside Kabul house, into
through my uncle, helped me to put electricity and water in it, and I would spend numerous. I was in their doing photography, but- there were two even classes to learn, photography and later on. I worked and I went to the school photography in Birmingham, but I spent a lot of time in ireland in the dark room by france, we're going to parties and so on. I have been there and we of the moon in trying to understand how photography works are trying to take that perfect in it have left school I took a job as a studio attendant at birmingham college of art and design, so it wasn't possible to make a living from your photographs modern. No, no! No. I tried the idea of going around to houses. You know taking photographs But my parents, really, my mother in particular, didn't want sit up of photography. With something you're doing a spare time. Really, you need to do a job pointed whereby engineering or something like that and I would go around people's houses and take photographs had come to the shops and invite me to take photographs of them
the family, but I soon but on the head, because when I took the photograph to deliver the photograph and collect my money told how can you come back next, I think the paraffin man is just complaining. They've just paid the patterson man. So can you come back next week and that went on too often, so I decided you know, I'm not going to be doing this powerful mantle was going to prioritize and rightfully so, and so I just decided- I was going to concentrate on taking photographs but fortunately- and none of my family's ever said, do you need to get a proper job. You know they ve always supported what have done, and when do you know it's time put the camera down. It's never a time to put camera down, that's when you can't lifted it up, I don't always succeed, but I try to take photograph everyday fanny back. You bet your next. Is the next is miles. Davis, bluish green, just one, gentle music, you can relax too and if you drink rum you can have a rum and coconut water to beautiful. Music
please the. The the The hmm the the hmm.
Wednesday. Sadly blue and green valley back imitator windisch inspired installation, five thousand miles and seventy years at the mac in birmingham earlier this year? Now you this if one of the windows and generation and, of course, controversy over incorrect deportations of windows, citizens has been making headlines. Oh yeah, you must have been following the story very closely. How do you, about it or personally for the grace of god, go hide really because I'm one of those people unfortunately, I happen to have applied for citizenship when it was asked and exempted. But I've made a number of people who, since told me that they were caught up in the home events at a gentleman whom I hadn't seen for some time. I noticed in recently at or local-
shopping center and he told me that he was in jamaica for some years he was unable to return to england He was just able to because of the recent controversy is given leave to come back to england You know, if you can imagine just been told you can't go back and you can't work the ability using national health facilities to work to gain more mortgage to have a bank account, it affects every aspect of your life, so you know these people have been traumatized. Really is quite shocking. And you know how do you feel as a british citizen, watching the incense bright all really as the number of fair minded thinking, people would be is particularly horrific to treat people who were invited to come should it and many of them you have to remember, pay their own feet to come here to fight the war, and there was Elections around the island by spitfires fight in
world war and they came and they contributed with their lives and active, really developed. This country in many many respect and to fight, that then you're been shoved on the scrap heap in. I did certainly you described, godfather of black bridge photography and have said in the past that people are desperate to see themselves. Are they still do think, or is social media helping to change things and to redress the balance? no, as these people are desperate to see themselves reflected in the society and see their contribution to the society that they live in the communities that they live in. I think I've been very fortunate in that have hit upon something that resonates with the people that I I photographs of the acquired keen to see what What I'm doing and what have done and uniform the solutions that have had their. This eagerness to see
the share that experience with other people tend to me finally back tell me about your seventh disk. They serve one is c mon? I will send you how it would feel to be free. I loved the innocent. Amongst many other artists, but she was exceptional, and this one for me is really you know what is to be free. What is it to to spend a whole day without thinking about race in what is? to spend you like ours without thinking about it. What would life you'll be like that freedom. What is how would it be an odd really love to experience that? I don't think I might, though, but in I do like her rendition of this
we knew the fee to the fame. Then we could bring all the chain. So the wish I could say things that I should say: cher louboutin clean the whole round. I wish I could share all the remove all the boss, Becky, the shoot the man shoot, the moon is shining haven't healed to be free vandy, but I know you see your mum every day and you you cook for her. You take food from your own allotments. For years ago, my friend quoted homes. She had an allotment and she invited a number of us to come and share the allotment with her
see moved on to somewhere else, and it's no my allotment sawyer I grew vegetables this where I got to do my thinking really going your fingers were green Do you have to remember that I come from a rural. You know, and farming would have been my next choice of career I stayed in the caribbean and I love growing things all of it I was somewhere a grow and I give to friends and family and we cooking. The pumpkins are wonderful. Tomorrow is a wonderful this year. Everything is not all that time. A final piece of music family boat. What's it going to be the next this gives earlier grim, not given up on our member during the hard times in a win win. All of these photography, documentation and archiving was a big, a you know. It helped me through some dark moments. I just needed something if you like to propel you along. You know you're not making the progress you thought he should be making at the time trying to eat it
slowly along push you along and jolly you up and tell you just get on with it. Really, I'm not I'm not it should be a little green and giving up family burke. I'm about to cast you away into lonely isolation on your very own does island, but having discussed your tenacity and resourcefulness, and lately your green fingers, I get the feeling you
I'll? Be all right. What do you think? I think about the experience you'd like to challenge, and I challenge: would you get lonely I might do but try to form relationship with the animals around try to get a parent or something you can teach him Whenever language you speak- and of course you gonna be- their distance from your archive. What about collect well I'd- find something to collect. Perhaps galaxy cells make things from seashells cocoanuts had find something to do You will, of course, find the bible and the complete works of shakespeare waiting for you there. You can also choose another book to take with you. What's it going to be a thing encyclopedia of tropical plants? It's to identify and to grow them what more would you need on a desert island? You can also take a look she with you, something that will make the time on the island more pleasurable. What would you like? A mushroom them? Caracas burg, machete new crocus by
What is a crook has been identified as being the rites of passage as a young man when you school and you're, giving your own field. You have a majority to deal with the land and attack which is used to put stuff in stuff. You might harvest it's! A heavy and sack haven't painted on those in the past. I have done you've. Your homework well they resonate with the history of the people and my experience and the lives of the people and created from the caribbean. So, yes of sorts, martin painted on them and what last thing to ask: if you ve only work, if you could only keep one of your fabulous tracks today, which would it be, it would be my Davis, blue and green. Vienna and, in the end of a long day cultivating the island need something to come and listen to go. I would definitely take miles davis, blue, angry I'm choice, valley back. Thank you. So much for sharing your desert island discs with us. Thank you very much. I've listened to desert
ireland, all my british life and I did dream? We sit in this tat. Thank you has been a pleasure in here Oh, you enjoy that interview with family back many photographers. Being cast upon the island sunday shores, including David Bailey and ninety ninety one. Some taylor would in two thousand and five and run can who spoke with Kirsty young in twenty thirteen eve, Arnold, the american woman to be a member of the famous photographic cooperative magnum talk to sue slowly. Nineteen, ninety six, your photography self taught, isn't it. You never really had any professional training. Oh I had six, ex trading at the new school for social research under brought a bitch who was the great hero of magazine,
right direction. This was in new york in new york six weeks six weeks and was given to the school told new school for social research. How did you get on well The first day that I went to the class, I brought some pictures with me. Broadbent, you told a class. We were all going to criticise. Each other's work and class was just savage with me. Might work was not very good at this very much camera club kind of thing, and I let that class determined that I would never go back, however, I was too intrigued with what the assignment that was given us was, which was for the following week. We were all to go out and photograph at fashion shop, and I wasn't interested in fashion, but I dug up a group of fashion models in harlem and it was really quite incredible because this was in the fifties when you couldn't place at magazine art
and a white magazine about a black, but I was intrigued with these young women. It was before the civil rights movement became very heavy and states, and these women are sewing their own clothes designing them. It was at once an attempt to go their own way and also an attempt to turn their backs on seventh avenue and the rag trade in new york, and I photographed there came back, but the pictures to the class of one of the models called fabulous. Her name was charlotte scribbling, but she called herself fabulous and brought a bitch see. Who is giving the class decided that these were fine pictures, and then I was to go, and continue photographing. I went back to her of her year, but what what was so extraordinary? But will these were the days when people worked mainly in studios and everything was beautifully, lit and greek touched and organised
These were simply documentation and recordings. What was going on this kind of report remember tat. I know of no additional light. Everything has war, and and the models moving not not pose, no, no other models moving. Instead, you know preparing and putting on their make up and their wigs and doing whatever they were doing was it so very different in terms of the image I mean I've seen the pictures, your tournament, fabulous, was kind of sachet towards you. Wasn't she with with with these wonderful clue? She was in motion now and that was not what hand you would always say, hold bit if europe security on photographing, a model it was always posing. It was always contrived whereas it was natural and because I, I didn't know it shouldn't be done that way. I did it my way, so it was available light. It was when you were off the tripod. It was handheld handheld, which was incredibly. God really was a few years,
snow in common, the visual language, ronald speaking, to sue in nineteen. Ninety six there are over two thousand more wonderful castaways housed in the desert. Island discs back catalogue. You can download all output casts and listen wherever you want next time. I guess we'll be hella pick she'll be ninety next year and spent thirty five years is a generous with the guardian. She was witnessed some of key events and interviewed some of the pivotal figures of the past century. I do hope, you'll join us, the The the hello I'm matthew price and, alongside tina to Healy, I hosted beyond today, podcast from the bbc each week day we're going to be
tackling some of the biggest news stories with help from some of the best and most informed journalists in the bbc. It's the news, podcast that jumps writing to give you that little bit more so Make sure you had over to the BBC sounds app search for beyond today and subscribe, and if you'd like to join in the chance use the hashtag bbc beyond.
Transcript generated on 2022-06-12.