When does a photographic ‘project’ come to an end?
Perhaps they end when deadlines approach?
Or when, well, people get pissed off with you. No longer taking the calls of the weird photographer doing their ‘project’. Tiring of the man who is always there. Just at the edge of the frame, forever trying not to stand out, but, you know, always standing out, camera in hand.
In the late summer of 2008, as the world slid into recession and as some spoke of all being in this together, I began to photograph in Handsworth, Birmingham. Initially, as part of a commission from an art organisation called Multistory.
The commission sought to explore notions of community in Handsworth and I found that specifically within a group of late teens and early twenty-something’s in Crookery. An area which they had self defined just off Rookery Road. They had chosen this name, as many outside of their ‘community’ had believed this group of young men to be, well, crooks.
Nine months later, in 2009, the faux deadline of the commission approached and the project in that first stage at least ended.
In the intervening years I always wondered what had come next for those I’d met. So, in 2016, the strange man, always at the edge of the frame, forever trying not to stand out, but, you know, always standing out, camera in hand reached out to people in Crookery and I began to photograph their lives again.
5 years later, and people still haven’t tired of me and I haven’t tired of them. Distance has made this relationship difficult, but fortunately though I had 4 months in England between March and July to make new work, yet I know that the deadline for this project is finally approaching on the horizon, even if I’m not really sure that I want it to.
Perhaps this work, and it's prolonging, is an attempt for me to continue a Black British identity, which is absent in Canada? Who knows? *Gets up off therapists couch and dusts self down*
Anyway, as those I met in 2008 approach the end of their youth in these last days of summer, as post-Windrush has become post-Brexit I know the final deadline approaches.
Photo: Marcelin, Handsworth, Birmingham, UK. June 2001
This ongoing work explores the intersection of Britishness, class and masculinity as much as it does the lives of the Black people depicted or the physical spaces of Handsworth in Birmingham, United Kingdom, in which I made the images. These elements are inseparable; we can read no element without the other. The Black people depicted here are individuals and not representations of a monolithic notion of Blackness. My notion of Blackness, as a Black man born in the West Midlands of England to parents of Jamaican heritage, who now lives in Canada, cannot be the same notions of Blackness as a Black man who has been born and lived all of their life in Nigeria, for example.
Blackness is subjective; it is personal; it is individual.
The white gaze has, since photography first aided the colonial project, been complicit in constructing a dehumanised notion of Blackness. In this light, my images face a long history of ‘outsider’ interpretations of Black people designed not for the consumption of a Black audience but solely to maintain a demonising of Black bodies as inferior and perpetually in crisis.
From the depiction of the Black ‘brute’, in the 19th and 20th centuries, to the 21st century incarnation of the ‘thug’, the white gaze has foregrounded the reading of images of Black men. These images therefore swim in a white sea and are taken by its current.
This unresolved work began in 2008 as an observation of a group of young men in Handsworth. Eight years later, in 2016, at the tail end of what might be referred to as their youth, the documentation began again to observe how their collective masculinity manifested itself within the boundaries of space and time. As the work progressed, this concept of the end of a chapter mirrored a confrontation with change in the wider society of Britain.
Whereas I initially believed these men were exiting their acceptance as young people, I realized that they were also exiting an acceptance of being seen as British citizens. This was especially true in the minds of those whose Brexit ‘leave’ vote was steeped in a desire for a monocultural Britain found within a renewed commitment to branding Britain as historically white.
To conclude, this work, the second chapter in a trilogy exploring migration between Jamaica and the UK, represents a personal and societal grappling with change. Change which manifests itself as one that increasingly excludes these individual Black men from Britishness.