"So much things to say right now. We’ve got so much things to say." Bob Marley

Keeping you up to date with the latest Jamaica Society Leeds news, blogs and guest writers.

Picture this: Vanley Burke

Photo by Candice Nembhard

Vanley Burke is regarded as the Godfather of Black British photography for his beautiful and painstaking curation of the Black British experience.

Some of his stunning work is currently on display at Leeds Central Library as part of the Rebellion to Romance exhibition, which charts the lives of second-generation Jamaicans and West Indians who came of age in the 70s and 80s.

Vanley’s contemporary portraits hang alongside photos showing the then young people back in the day, and help tell the story of their experiences and the people they became.

Vanley grew up in St Thomas and came to Birmingham when he was 14-years-old, with the connection to his mum maintained by the parcels she sent back to Jamaica.

“My photography started when I was a young lad living in the foothills of the Blue Mountains and I received a camera, a Kodak 127 Brownie camera that was sent across to children that were left behind,” he recalled.

“My mother came here in 1956, I think it was, when I was still quite young.

“I grew up without her and there was always that yearning, where were these people?

“The camera came in one of the many parcels that we had.”

That camera led to decades of capturing both the best shots and the often-untold stories of Black communities in the UK.

Their importance isn’t lost on Vanley; he says:

“I think everyone’s stories need to be told but what has happened in the past is that our stories were never told by us, it has always been narrated or curated by someone else.

“Somehow in the 60s, when I first really became interested in photography, the camera and how it worked, we had a shop in Birmingham and I was quite interested in the conversations that people were having when they came in.

“The conversations might be how long they had worked and the racism they had found, my interest was in their life, in their stories and I would ask them about it.

“While all of us have stories not all of us are story tellers so I really wasn’t hearing what I liked to hear and I decided I would start by documenting our unique position in history.

“I felt that what I couldn’t take I would collect.”

Despite the quality of his work making a living from photography didn’t always prove possible.

“Taking photographs doesn’t always pay, at that time I would take the photograph turn up to wherever the location was, spend time in the darkroom, buy paper, take it to them (the client) and they would say ‘Sorry the paraffin man just come, I had to pay him so you have to come back next week.’.

“So that wasn’t working for me; what I decided to do is I would dedicate my life really to telling our stories and from then I haven’t looked back in terms of photographing, preserving, archiving and making available the material for the use of every one of us about our experience here in England and not just in England but abroad.”

On being part of the Jamaica Society Leeds’ Out of Many Festival with an In Conversation event taking place on Wednesday, 26th October, Vanley says:

“Jamaica is important for a small country with such a big footprint – I don’t think you can ignore the importance of it in terms of cultural impact in the societies we live.

“Who else is going to tell your stories if we don’t record them, if we don’t write them, if we don’t write poetry, if we don’t write books, if we don’t collect all our voices, if we don’t collect our stories it’s not just important it’s imperative.

“One of the things I’m working towards in Birmingham (where he lives) is to find a place to house the archives, I feel we should be the custodians of the things we collect because we understand it and the interpretation of how it should be presented to others.

“Likewise, I feel when material is held in institutions and other places I think it is imperative that we engage younger Black kids to engage with that material in terms of understanding it and how best to present it to themselves and others.”

Vanley Burke will be In Conversation on Wednesday 26th October at Leeds Central Library, Room 700, First Floor, Leeds, LS1 3AB.

Tickets are free and can be booked here.