Oak Road, 1990

This image was originally included in the exhibition ‘Sandwell in Black & White’ – the UK’s largest photo show at the time with 174 images. It has always proved popular with audiences and has been reproduced a number of times. Let us share the story behind it. The project was part of a photographic series called ‘The Peoples Portrait’, intended as a challenge to a long history stereotypical representations of local working class people in the Black Country. (For a contemporary take on this, see Black Country Stories by Multistory.) From the beginning, Jubilee had always handed out cameras, following the classic community arts dictum of self-representation and giving access to the means of production, emerging as they did from the counter-culture and social movements of the 1960s and 1970s. For this particular project, they handed out cameras and rolls of film over a period of 12 months, inviting local people to document their week and then to select the key image they wished to be exhibited in the final show. (The project explicitly referenced the work of Wendy Ewald at the Mountain Photography Workshop at Appalshop in Kentucky, whom Jubilee had visited in 1986).

The Khan family lived in West Bromwich, and had attended some summer festivals organised by Jubilee in the gardens of the 17th century Oak House. Initially, they had asked Jubilee to take a family photograph of them, in front of the resplendent rose bushes. They wanted to send this photo back to their family in Mirpur, Pakistan. There were two brothers who were twins, and there were also sets of twins in their children. They ran a corner shop over in Walsall. Most of the conversation was mediated by the younger girls, who were tri-lingual and thus acted as translators.

Subsequently, Jubilee asked them participate in ‘Sandwell in Black & White’. The kids explained to their family members and the adults agreed. Some weeks later the camera, with the project information, was dropped off at their house – only the kids were in at the time and they promised to give their camera to their Dad and Uncle when they came back from work.

When Jubilee went back to pick the camera up, one of the Mr Khans asked why they hadn’t dropped the camera off, they’d been waiting. Finally the children admitted they’d kept the camera and hadn’t given it to their parents, shooting off a couple of rolls themselves. He was very angry with them and offered to pay for the film they’d wasted. There were arguments, there were tears. However, when he saw how the photos turned out he soon changed his mind. And this was the main photograph they chose to be printed up for the final exhibition.

You can read the full story of  ‘Sandwell in Black & White’ here…  

Mathilde Bertrand writes about the development of community photography here, using Belfast Exposed as her case study:https://lisa.revues.org/8770

Some background on the politics of the community arts movement can be read here, in this article by François Materasso: The depoliticisation of community art in Britain 1970-2011