Photographing Handsworth: a new exhibition of photographic history

31 Aug

This September sees the launch of an exhibition that explores the way in which photography has been used to represent Handsworth, a district of Birmingham to the north west of the city centre. September 2010 marks 25 years since two days of disturbances in Handsworth caused two people to lose their lives, many injuries and much damage to property.  The events were an important contributor to powerful and negative stereotypes about the area whereby Handsworth regularly became associated with criminality and acts of violence.  As the novelist Salman Rushdie put it shortly after the disturbances: ‘if you say “Handsworth”, what do you see?  Most Britons would see fire, riots [and] looted shops’.

Rather than dwell on these negative images of Handsworth, the exhibition focuses on the ways in which different photographers have attempted to create a more accurate picture of life in the area.  The images shown at the exhibition are testament to the particularly rich photographic tradition that the Handsworth area has inspired.  This tradition stretches back more than fifty years and, when taken together, these photographs can be thought about as a sort of visual history of Handsworth and the people who live there.

On the one hand, the exhibition looks back at this visual history.  It showcases the work of documentary photographers such as George Hallett, Derek Bishton and Vanley Burke, artists whose photographs of Handsworth have gone on to receive international acclaim.

Photograph by Amzad Hussain, Holte Visual & Performing Arts College

But the exhibition is also about focusing on the nature of Handsworth in 2010, marrying Handsworth’s photographic tradition with an emphasis on the contemporary.  In the run up to the exhibition, Vanley Burke ran a workshop with a group of year nine pupils at Holte Visual and Performing Arts School in Lozells.  He showed them some basic camera techniques and gave them each a disposable camera with which to go about recording there everyday lives in Handsworth and Lozells.

Handsworth Self Portraits, 1979

In summer 1979, Derek Bishton and his colleagues Brian Homer and John Reardon set up a makeshift studio on the street outside their shared premises in Grove Lane, Handsworth.  Outside the studio was a sign asking passers-by to come in and take their own portrait; inside, the photographers attached the camera to a long cable release, thus giving participants control over how and when they took their photograph.  This was the final way the exhibition seeks to marry Handsworth’s photographic tradition with an emphasis on the contemporary in Handsworth: over two Saturdays in summer 2010 the self-portrait set up was recreated in Handsworth, both inside Handsworth Library and outside on the Soho Road.

Handsworth Self Portraits, 2010

Like the original project 31 years ago, what these photographs represented were snapshots of the diversity and true vibrancy of life in Handsworth.  It is important to recognise that these are histories that need to be told.  As each of the photographs featured in the exhibition show, photography is a good way of telling them.

Photographing Handsworth: Representing Handsworth 25 Years On is being shown from 2-14 September at Handsworth Library, Soho Road (Mon 9-5, Tues 9-5, Thu 12-7, Fri 9-5 & Sat 9-5) and from 22 Sept-29 Oct at the University of Birmingham, Aston Webb Rotunda (Mon-Fri 9-5).  Admission is free.

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One Response to “Photographing Handsworth: a new exhibition of photographic history”

  1. robin September 11, 2010 at 12:19 am #

    too bad I need to lectue and can’t visit this wonderful exhibition. Good luck and cheers. I am sure it will be great!

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