Laminated in Time
A Brief History of Community Photography in Birmingham
by Pete James
It's strange how quickly your past catches up with you. Over the last few years - in my job as curator of the photography collections held at Birmingham Central Library - I have helped organise the deposit of archives relating to a number of now defunct Birmingham-based photography organisations which, in one capacity or another, I previously worked for or with. One feature that seems to re-occur throughout these archives is portable, lightweight laminated exhibitions. The images and texts preserved between sheets of plastic now appear like insects preserved in amber, marking out signs of a period of prolific life in the stratigraphy of recent photographic history. In today's world of digitally output images, these laminated panels now seem incredibly outmoded. However, in their own time they provided comparatively cheap and easy ways of exhibiting photographs: a radical alternative to the traditional framed exhibition. They enabled photographs to be seen by audiences beyond the traditional museum or gallery setting and made it possible for exhibitions to be toured with ease. They therefore helped take photography out of the gallery and into the community. But it was not just exhibitions that were reaching beyond the traditional settings of the institution. The teaching of photography skills was also being taken into the community, enabling people to represent themselves and not be dependent on others to do it for them. The term most commonly associated with this area of photographic activity is 'community photography'.
In order to get some understanding of exactly what we mean when we use the term 'community photography', we need to establish some basic terms of reference. In an essay entitled 'Documentary Photography: Some Background Notes' (Sharp Voices, Still Lives: Birmingham Photography in the 1980s, Cornerhouse, 1990), Terry Morden suggests that community photography evolved in part in response to some of the perceived contradictions of documentary practise in the 1970s. He wrote that 'documentary's democratic politics held that it should take on two main tasks; firstly the dissemination of information (either a general social knowledge or information about specific social ills)' and secondly that it 'should be a channel for the "voice of the people".' However, these principles were undermined because 'control of knowledge and access to channels of communication were given to a privileged few.' Morden states that 'one answer to the problem of restricted access was community photography - the training of ordinary people in the skills and techniques of photographic communication'.
Writing some years earlier in 1979 ('Photography for the Community' Camerawork No 13, 1979), Paul Carter suggested that community photography was a practise that sought to make 'photography relevant to local people by making them the main subjects, audience and users of the photographs produced'. However, according to Carter the work involved in this process fell into 'three overlapping areas - "alternative" photojournalism; locally based documentary projects; and photographic activities which involve and serve the needs of local people.' He pointed out that none of these were in themselves new. Most were 'simply extensions of what documentary, High Street and local press photographers have done for years'. Similarly concerns 'to make photography and the arts in general more accessible to working people' were not new either. However, for Carter what was significant was the scale on which community photography was being done.
Taking on board Morden and Carter's ideas leads us to ask questions about the social and cultural forces that brought community photography into being. In her 1990 essay 'The Birmingham Context' (Sharp Voices, Still Lives: Birmingham Photography in the 1980s) Philippa Goodhall suggested that community photography evolved from the confluence of a number of factors. She listed these as the social movements of the period including the anti-racist and anti-apartheid movement, ecology, feminism; a shift towards regionalism and democratisation of community life, and the founding of the Regional Arts Associations (RAA). During the late 1970s members of West Midlands Art's Photography Panel laid out the policies and funding programmes that provided the foundations for a variety of photographic work in the city. Most significantly in this context, they provided support for organisations, projects and the creation of publicly funded magazines such as Ten.8 (founded in 1979), and exhibition spaces such as the Triangle Gallery (founded in 1983). Ten.8 and The Triangle Gallery were both committed to exploring critical and theoretical debates on photography and initially shared some common ground with the London-based publication Camerawork and the Half Moon Photography Workshop.
Using Morden, Carter and Goodhall's models it is possible to begin mapping the presence of organisations in Birmingham who worked within the broad spectrum of community photography: that is to make photography available to local groups and communities, to demystify photography and encourage its use as a social practise by devising projects with participants that reflected their concerns and interests. Names such as Sidelines, WELD (Westminster Endeavour for Liaison and Development), SPAM (Saltley Print and Media), Maypole Photography Project, CAWS (Community Arts in West Smethwick), Wide Angle, and Building Sights, will be familiar to anyone involved in photography in the region at the time.
Two organisations, WELD and Wide Angle worked to increase access to photography through the establishment of community darkrooms. At WELD's base in Handsworth the use of photography began as a recording medium-promoting community housing, action programmes and documenting children's play schemes. WELD did much to provide novices with the training, motivation and self-esteem to forge a career in photography and some of its members went on to exhibit and publish work in Birmingham and beyond. Based on the opposite side of the city in Small Heath, Wide Angle ran training courses in video, film and photography as well as a membership scheme where people joined to use the facilities. Located within Birmingham Community Association (BCA) Wide Angle facilitated traditional types of photography and experimentation with both materials and techniques. In 1991 members of Wide Angle organised the first exhibition outside the BCA showcasing their work. As its title suggests, Birmingham Insights took the city itself, in a variety of guises and forms, as its subject. Building Sights, a community education and photography project based in Tindal Junior and Infant school, Balsall Heath, in inner city Birmingham was slightly different. It began by providing exhibitions for Workers Education Association social and educational groups in community settings such as community centres, schools, churches, libraries and health centres, and it was here that the laminated exhibition came into its own. In addition to producing its own exhibitions - such as Age of the Elders (1985) about the elderly in inner city Birmingham and Nine Months (1986) about women's experiences of pregnancy - and important publications - such as Whose Image? Anti-Racist Approaches to Photography and Visual Literacy, edited by Michele Fuirer, 1990 - it also sought to bring externally produced exhibitions that addressed local issues and communities to Balsall Heath.
Although there was a great deal of mutual support and exchange between organisations working in the sector, there were also differences and debates about how to best achieve their aims and objectives. For example, Sidelines, a Handsworth-based design group formed in 1977 were primarily engaged in designing publications, exhibitions and projects of their own, many of which dealt with issues relating to the black and Asian communities in Handsworth. They published books on Rastafari, a report on police/young black relations and numerous booklets leaflets and newsletters on subjects such as racism, unemployment and inner city decline. Two of the most significant projects produced by members of this group were the exhibition Handsworth Self Portrait (Bishton, Homer & Reardon) and the exhibition and publication Home Front (Home Front, images and text by Derek Bishton and John Reardon, Forward by Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Cape, 1984). Some of those involved in Sidelines went on with others to become founder members of Ten.8 magazine. Writing about the Handsworth Self Portrait project (Handsworth Self Portrait, Ten.8 No 4 1980), one of their members, Derek Bishton, declared that 'the trouble with community photography is that it presents photography as a relatively easy way of confronting the system. It's easy to take a picture, and therefore it's easy to demystify the structures which control our lives, is how the argument tends to run.' The 'grim reality' he suggested was otherwise. Furthermore, he stated that whilst much energy and inventiveness had gone into 'making the technology of photography more accessible', rather less had gone into 'what happens when the cameras are handed out.' He concluded that 'no-one wants to admit to the nagging doubt that community photography may just be another false dawn, serving only to allow people to recreate themselves in the image of their oppressors.'
Could the fact that the majority of community photography organisations in Birmingham had short life spans be read as some kind of evidence for Bishton's argument? Perhaps we should not place too much importance on the work they actually produced? Perhaps the real importance of the movement and its work can be seen in the way that the principles and practises of community photography can be found in the mainstream of local authority arts policies today. There is only one way to find out: by preserving the records and products of these community photography projects so that a proper documentation and re-assessment of this period of recent photographic history can now begin.