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Photographing Handsworth: photography, meaning and identity in a British inner city

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‘If you say “Handsworth”’, the novelist Salman Rushdie remarked in 1986, ‘what do you see? Most people would see fire, riots, looted shops … and helmeted cops … a front page story.’ In the 1980s, ‘front page’ images of violence and disorder had come to define areas of black settlement such as Handsworth. However, for both Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy, photography has the potential of unearthing alternative histories of black people in Britain. Connell explores how this might work in practice by taking Handsworth, an inner-city area of Birmingham, as its case study. Following the Handsworth riots in 1985, a photograph of the ‘black bomber’ appeared on the front page of every national tabloid newspaper, and Handsworth became conceptualized by the media as ‘Frontline Britain’. At the same time, there are numerous examples of photographs from within Handsworth that attempt to present a different view of the community: images taken at high-street portraiture studios, community photography projects and the documentary work of the professional photographers Vanley Burke and Pogus Caesar. What such images offer the historian, it will be shown, is not clear cut. Photographs from within Handsworth are suggestive of possible themes in any alternative history of race in Britain, particularly in their emphasis on everyday life. However, Connell shows that it is also necessary to understand what is often the unacknowledged politics behind these images, something that makes them—in differing ways—as problematic as the stereotypical narratives presented on the front pages of tabloid newspapers.
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Keywords: Handsworth; Pogus Caesar; Vanley Burke; black history; everyday life; photography; representation

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2012-05-01

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