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Celebrating a Birmingham community’s ‘selfies’ from 40 years ago

14 March 2019

A 1979 photography project asked passers-by to take snaps of themselves using a makeshift studio built on a street in a multicultural Birmingham suburb. A new exhibition of the Handsworth Self Portrait images showcases how people interacted with the idea of the ‘selfie’ 40 years ago.

Esther and friends, 7 October 1979; Kulbinder, 1979; Untitled, 1979 | © Derek Bishton, Brian Homer and John Reardon

Running on weekends from August to October 1979, the Handsworth Self Portrait project, by Derek Bishton, Brian Homer and John Reardon, saw more than 500 people taking photographs of themselves in a range of poses – from more formal to outright playful.

The project was a fun way for local people of various ages and backgrounds to take a snapshot of their community, but photographer Derek Bishton believed there was also a more serious intent behind the idea.

He said: “We wanted to challenge the negative representation of Handsworth people in the local and national newspapers and give people a chance to literally and figuratively put themselves in the frame, to represent themselves.”

Handsworth Self Portrait: 40 Years On is at the Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham, from Saturday 23 March to Sunday 2 June. All images © Derek Bishton, Brian Homer and John Reardon. All rights reserved.

Afrikan Star reggae band, 7 October 1979
Steppers, 18 August 1979
Raj and friend, 7 October 1979
Julie, 1979

Grove Lane’s ‘selfie’ studio

The Handsworth Self Portrait pop-up photography studio on Grove Lane, Handsworth

A simple set-up of a 35mm camera on a tripod with a long cable release allowed the subject of the photograph to decide how they wanted to be seen.

Derek Bishton explained that it was the intention for him and the other photographers to have minimal interaction with the shots being taken.

He said: “We did check the framing and focus, but then we stepped away.”

Bishton also explained how the idea of the plain white backdrop was an intentional decision “to show people without the stereotypical inner-city backgrounds – the rundown streets, the clutter.”

Sohan Lal, 22 September 1979
Untitled, 1979
Tony, 1 September 1979
Untitled, 1979
Derek Bishton and his sister Judi, 1979

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