Vanley Burke was born in the parish of St. Thomas, Jamaica, in 1951. He was sent a camera from his parents, who were living in England, for his 10th birthday. In 1965 he came to England to join his parents and had a choice between leaving his aunt his radio or his camera as a parting gift. He left her his radio. He began photography in earnest from around 1967 and made a conscious decision to document the black community.
The photographs capture his own experiences of being newly arrived in Britain, his encounters with the different landscape and ways of living, and the experiences of the wider African Caribbean community. It was also created to counteract Burke's perception of negative and stereotypical images of black people found in mainstream media. The photographs represent the black community back to themselves in an intimate portrayal and are taken from his perspective as a member of the community, rather than as documentary images taken from an 'outsider' perspective. Recently, Vanley's interest has expanded to include the experiences of other communities in the city.
Although Vanley’s work has been exhibited internationally it is also used in community exhibitions, in venues as diverse as clubs, churches, schools and public houses. It has been used in documentaries (such as Handsworth Songs), television, books and record sleeves. During two visits to South Africa, in 1990 and 1996, Vanley respectively photographed life of black South Africans shortly after Mandela's release from prison, and the ANC celebrations hosted and attended by Nelson Mandela for the Anti-Apartheid veterans.
The Vanley Burke Archive is a constantly developing photographic and documentary community resource of huge range and depth. To complement his photographic documentation, Vanley collects material which samples and evidences the developments and activities of the black community in Britain. The material comprises things such as posters or fliers and funeral cards that may have been seen as disposable at the time of their creation but take on greater significance when seen in the context of his archive. They provide valuable insight and evidence of the everyday lives and daily activities, cultural and religious life, arts, politics, health and many other issues affecting the black community and others in Birmingham and elsewhere in Britain.
"It's just about the ability to see something others may be unable to see, in terms of the value. Then show people. They need to see their contribution to this community. I mean, they have been contributing to this thing from the 50s and it's gone beyond, but there is no reference anywhere. It's about having themselves reflected, they are so desperate to see themselves. But this will be there, it isn't going anywhere..." Vanley Burke, September 2005.
A detailed catalogue of this collection is available in Birmingham City Archives, collection reference MS 2192.
You can also download pdf versions of the catalogue to the collection below:
Vanley Burke Catalogue - Introduction and Contents
Vanley Burke Catalogue - Photographic Work
Vanley Burke Catalogue - Documentary Material