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Vanley Burke, photographer

Lauren Laverne interviews photographer Vanley Burke, known as the godfather of black British photography.

Vanley Burke is a Jamaican-born photographer often described as the Godfather of Black British Photography. His body of work is regarded as the greatest photographic record of African Caribbean people in post-war Britain. He is motivated by a desire to document culture and history.

Vanley was born in 1951 in St Thomas, Jamaica. When he was four, his mother emigrated to Britain to train as a nurse, leaving him in his grandparents’ care. His mother sent him a Box Brownie camera as a present when he was ten, and his interest in photography was born. When he was 14 he left Jamaica to join his mother and her husband and their children, in Handsworth, Birmingham, where they ran a shop. Vanley’s fascination with photography continued and he began taking photographs of every aspect of the life of his local community. He also started collecting relevant objects to provide more context for his photographs, gathering everything from pamphlets, records and clothes to hurricane lamps. His archive became so substantial that it is largely housed in Birmingham’s Central Library.

In 1977 he photographed African Liberation Day in Handsworth Park, documenting what is thought to be the largest all-black crowd ever to assemble in Britain. In 1983 he held his first exhibition, Handsworth from the Inside, at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, and in 2015 the entire contents of his flat was relocated to the gallery for the exhibition At Home with Vanley Burke. His images have appeared in galleries around the UK and abroad. Earlier this year, he was commissioned to mark the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush, creating the installation 5000 Miles and 70 Years at the MAC in Birmingham.

CASTAWAY'S FAVOURITE: Blue in Green by Miles Davis
BOOK CHOICE: Encyclopedia of Tropical Plants by Ahmed Fayaz
LUXURY ITEM: A Machete and a Crocus bag

Presenter: Lauren Laverne
Producer: Cathy Drysdale

Available now

40 minutes

Music Played

  • Field Recording of Jamaican Folk Music

    • Folkways Records.
    • FW04453, FE 4453.
  • Burning Spear

    Man In The Hills

    • Jack Ruby Presents.
    • Universal-Island Records Limited.
    • 1.
  • Millie Small

    My Boy Lollipop

    • Hard To Find 45s On CD Volume 6: More Sixties Classics.
    • Eric Records.
    • 6.
  • Linton Kwesi Johnson

    Sonny's Lettah (Anti-Sus Poem)

    • Independant Intavenshan: The Island Anthology.
    • Universal-Island Records Limited.
    • 4.
  • Haile Selassie

    Haile Selassie's address to the United Nations, 1963

  • Miles Davis & John Coltrane

    Blue In Green

    • Kind Of Blue.
    • Sony Music Entertainment UK Ltd.
    • 3.
  • Nina Simone

    I Wish I Knew (How It Would Feel To Be Free)

    • Silk And Soul.
    • Sony Music Entertainment UK Ltd.
    • 6.
  • Leo Graham

    Not Giving Up

    • Not Giving Up.
    • Belmont.
    • 1.


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