Listen to Vanley's story, as part of The Making of Black Britain oral history project.

By The Making of Black Britain

Vanley, London (2021)The Making of Black Britain

Vanley was born in Jamaica and is of Jamaican heritage. 
He came to Britain just before his 15th birthday in 1965. 
Vanley Burke – known as the ‘Godfather of Black British photography’ – learned to be observant from an early age.  

Vanley was interviewed for The Making of Black Britain on 2nd September, 2021.

Vanley (2019)The Making of Black Britain

Vanley discusses his early life in Jamaica

I have been known to call it five years of hell.

She had a number of children in her house. She sort of collected other people's kids. And there were a number of us there, and we just sort of helped around the place, you know, from time to time, but if you imagine you live rural as I described earlier on, there were no cars. That means, you can imagine, there are lots of trees in Jamaica you can just put your hand outside and find the biggest piece of stick to beat anyone, but she would go as far as to buy a cane, you know, which would come home in the groceries. 

Vanley at home, Jamaica, 1960, From the collection of: The Making of Black Britain
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Vanley (2019)The Making of Black Britain

Vanley talks about being disciplined

So pretty much anything you do, there's a 'lick' for it.

You know, if you fall down and bruise your knee, you get beaten. You know, there are various ways of doing this. You know, there's a strap, which is the leather strap. If you and I are in class, and I've done something wrong, and they're gonna beat me then, they send you to go and get the stick or whatever it is, and you will come back with a best one.

Vanley talks about coming to Britain

Is it going to be cold when I land?

Seeing the houses for me was quite strange. I think that most people you wonder, why there's so many houses? We don't have two-storey houses in Jamaica, where I came from at least, perhaps some shops but no, no houses. So imagine my surprise when you came and you saw, you know, as far as your eyes can see, just chimneys of houses. And, you know, it just looked quite bleak. And grey, really, I think I came here in May as well, which wasn't a very good time.

Vanley in Handsworth Park, 1976, From the collection of: The Making of Black Britain
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Vanley (2019)The Making of Black Britain

Vanley discusses reverse racism

Can a black person be racist?

So there was always this inferiority aspects, you know, we've been placed in this not, working class, but sort of “underclass”. And I think, you know, when you're in that position, any form of racism, you know, it hurts particularly well.

Vanley talks about his experiences with racism

I didn't really encounter a lot of racism

You encounter some aspects of racism, but we became conscious when we came here of the plight of racism, generally, you know, we were able to look, I have an overview as to what was happening in Africa and the Caribbean, in Britain, in America, and so on.
I started working at the Polytechnic, and I had some skills. And that was – I was a studio attendant. So I was working in a print department and with photography, and so on. So I had the ability to make silk screens. And so I started making Malcolm X t-shirts.

Vanley talks about chores back home

There were also lovely humans in it, you know.

I'm not equating my mother as being so violent, but she once told my younger brother to water the front garden and he didn't, and she came back and woke him up, and it was raining, and he was in the night watering the garden in the rain. 
You know you must do what you're told, sort of thing you know. 
"If you can't hear, you will feel."

Vanley and his mother Edna Mae, 2010, From the collection of: The Making of Black Britain
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Vanley (2019)The Making of Black Britain

Vanley discusses showing his emotions

They've gone. You can't cry over spilt milk.

There's no communication, there's no dialogue sort of thing going on. It is you just pick up whatever you hear. See, children are supposed to be seen and not heard. So you don't ask questions. 
You just get little bits of conversation and then even if it's not true, you can't verify it.

Vanley talks about how he started taking photos

I used to stand outside that camera shop...

In fact, I didn't even know it was documentation. I didn't call it documentation. I just said I was going to photograph my people. I felt that history has a starting point. And I was quite fortunate to have been in England at the time to witness the arrival of people from the Caribbean.

Vanley at the school of photography, Birmingham, 1972, From the collection of: The Making of Black Britain
Vanley with his Camera, 1993, From the collection of: The Making of Black Britain
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Vanley (2019)The Making of Black Britain

Vanley talks about African Liberation Day 1977

...An event that would take place in any major black city.

There wasn't a single white person in the park on that, on that day. And for me, you know, African Liberation Day is a day when we have people from, let's say, the black world internationally.
So we'd have people from the Caribbean, Africa, the Americas, and so on, who would come to tell their stories as to their struggle in you know, their own land. It's a place where culturally we would all meet.

Ashley and Vanley (2021)The Making of Black Britain

Vanley and Ashley met after telling their stories for The Making of Black Britain, 2021

Now listen to Vanley's mother, Edna Mae, tell her story for The Making of Black Britain.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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