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Handsworth Self Portrait: 40 Years On - Midlands Arts Centre

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by dpm (subscribe)
dpm is a Birmingham-based freelancer with experience of arts and lifestyle features.
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An exhibition in Birmingham this spring will bring alive the streets of one of its inner-city communities in 1979. 'Handsworth Self Portrait: 40 Years On' opens at MAC on March 23 and features more than 200 photographs taken in a pop-up photo booth in Grove Lane.

The project is the brainchild of a trio of local writers and photographers, Derek Bishton, Brian Homer and John Reardon, who were aiming to encourage people to create their own self-portraits without any perspective from an external photographer.

Derek Bishton Handsworth Self Portrait 40 Years On
Taking pictures in Handsworth


Derek, now 70, recalls: "One Saturday we set up some signs asking people to come and do their self-portraits for a family album for the community that was the concept. We knew we were in an incredibly diverse community and we wanted to somehow reflect that diversity. Those photos were taken on the street. When people see the photos there's a plain background so they think they were taken in a studio but it was actually just a blanket that we pinned on the bay window of the house. And then we put the camera on a tripod with a cable release and I was there asking people if they wanted to take their pictures."

Each person was promised a small print of the picture and after the first Saturday the trio had around 50 photos. Derek says the team were surprised at the quality of the images. "When we saw the photographs we realised just what we had got. The photos from that first week were so amazing. We pinned up the pictures in the window and everyone was saying 'when are you doing another one?'"

And so they gradually upgraded the photo booth with five sessions over a number of weeks in the spring of 1979. Central to the project was the idea that the subject of the photograph was also the photographer. "It was huge fun but it was also an experiment to give people control," recalls Derek who grew up in Hall Green but worked largely in Handsworth. "It was exciting to see how composed people become when they control the shutter. People expressed their own personalities they felt empowered."

Handsworth Self Portrait 40 Years On
Handsworth Self Portrait 40 Years On


The team were so impressed with the results they wanted to share the images so selected 44 to be displayed at local schools and community centres. The exhibition was taken up by Birmingham's Ikon Gallery, was displayed in Nottingham and was featured in the Sunday Times. The collection of 44 was then sold to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery but with 2019 being the 40th anniversary of the project, Derek approached Midlands Arts Centre with a proposal for a new exhibition four decades later.

Handsworth Self Portrait: 40 Years On is a free exhibition featuring not just the original 44 prints but also an additional 200 digital images in a tableau of faces. The exhibition has been curated by Derek who later worked for other publications including The Telegraph. Brian went on to specialise in self-portraits and jazz photography and continues to work as a writer and photographer largely in Birmingham. John Reardon worked as a documentary photographer covering conflicts in Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Afghanistan and Kosovo and was the picture editor at The Observer but died in 2018.

Derek hopes people who visit the exhibition will see the beauty and character of Handsworth both then and now. "Handsworth was such an extraordinary place and still is," he says. "I hope people will come from this exhibition with the realisation that all these people lived within a stone's throw of our little place in Grove Lane. They were just local people walking past and when you see that, you realise how interesting and diverse that community was. It was about the community as a whole. There was a moment when we felt more together, as a group rather than as individuals that is what I recall from that time."

As part of the project, Derek is also sharing images online through Instagram at www.instagram.com/handsworthselfportrait where he is posting a #photooftheday. He and MAC are keen to hear from anyone who recognises themselves, friends or family in the images.

'Handsworth Self Portrait: 40 Years On' is at MAC between March 23 and June 2. There's a free opening event in MAC's Arena Gallery on Saturday March 30 between 2-4pm and a celebration event on Sunday June 2 between 2-4pm in the Theatre and Arena Gallery, where people can join the artists for a closing celebration of the exhibition. This will be a free ticketed event with details on the MAC website macbirmingham.co.uk nearer the time.

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Why? Photos of a community in time
When: March 23 to June 2
Phone: 0121 446 3232
Where: Midlands Arts Centre
Cost: free
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