Stuart Hall and Black British photography


The death of Stuart Hall on the 10th February was marked by worldwide praise for ‘Britain’s leading cultural theorist’. (2014. Stuart Hall – obituary, Daily Telegraph, 10th February, line 3) It is rare for an academic to receive accolades in the mainstream press, and this perhaps reflects how Hall presented his ideas, not only through academic books, but through newspaper articles, periodicals, on television, conference talks and by attending ordinary public meetings.

My own introduction to Stuart Hall was made by staying up after midnight to watch him present Open University talks. This was in my teens, and even though I didn’t really understand his talks, what I wanted to watch was a radical perspective on black lives in Britain, a perspective that was not articulated in the mainstream television programs.

Stuart Hall would be first the point out that using the term ‘black’, in relations to one’s identity is not straightforward. Throughout his life, Hall engaged in a continual process of defining and then re-defining his own identity. It is interesting to note that some of the inspiration for this preoccupation with identity derived from his discussion with black artists. In an interview with Maya Jaggi he explained ‘I was writing about identity, and they were practising it, it made me more alert to the way artistic work is an exploratory space in which ideas work themselves out’ (Jaggi, 2000. Prophet at the margins. The Guardian, 8 July).

There is not much written specifically about Stuart Hall’s relationship with photography, even though he wrote prefaces for numerous photography books, and helped launch Autograph ABP (Association of Black Photographers) at the Photographers Gallery in 1988. He was also the Chair of both Autograph and Iniva (the Institute of International Visual Arts), the two leading organisations who promote photographers from ethnic minorities in Britain.

Stuart Hall’s writings about class, race and identity and his own relationship to social history is well documented, and often his writings are spoken in the first person, relating theory to his own autobiography. His personal journey from a radical writer of the ‘New Left’ in the 1960’s, to Black activist in the 1970’s, to Multicultural citizen in the 1980’s to somebody with a global diaspora identity in the 1990’s is well charted in his own writings, as well as the recent films like ‘The Stuart Hall Project’ (2013)

His writings have also charted a history of black artists in Britain, including photographers, in a number of different books, and periodicals. (for example, Different(2001), Black Diaspora Artists in Britain (2006) and The Vertigo of Displacement(2003)) It is interesting to note that the art history he presents in these publications closely mirrors his own personal journey.

Early days

It may seem that I am stating the obvious, but I should start by saying that Britain in 1951, when Hall first arrived from Jamaica, as a Rhodes graduate to Oxford University, and Britain in 2014 are very different places. Although there have been black people in the UK since the 1600’s, (Fryer, 1984) during the period from the 1950’s to the 1970’s black people’s lives were marked by the absence of their presence in history books (Fryer, 1984)(Visram, 2002), discrimination in education, housing and employment resulting in patterns of segregation (Smith, 1989) and widespread racism and racial violence (Bowling, B. 1999). However during the period from the 1980’s to 2000 political campaigning led to enactments of legislation to tackle racist violence and discrimination, (Solomos in Stevenson, 2001) the expansion of the owner occupier housing market led to dispersal of black communities away from inner city ghettos, and globalisation and the expansion of education meant black employment opportunities widened. This process led both to the growth of the black middle classes, but also to a process of intense concentration of poverty for some in black communities. (In appendices 2, I have outlined a more detailed chart of the main events in the history of black peoples lives in Britain during the period from 1950 to 2000)

It is very likely therefore that had Stuart Hall arrived on a scholarship to Oxford University in 2014, he would not have met or lived with the black community, as he had done in 1951, and this is related to material factors as much as it due to people having an international diasporic identity.

Hall wrote, “Identity is formed at the unstable point where the ‘‘unspeakable’’ stories of subjectivity meet the narratives of history, of a culture” (Hall, 1987 pp17). The struggle between the psychological and autobiographical and the historical or political is the basic fodder for many artists, however Hall speaks about the ’unstable point’ where artistic work is produced, and ideas are actually thought out. He is therefore suggesting that the artistic process consists of three elements, social history, ones personal psychology and also the unconscious mind interacting with these factors.

In his writings, he identified four stages in the history of black British artists as follow;

  • Artists who grew up under colonialism but left their homeland to develop a modernist artistic practice in Europe. (for example Sher Gill)
  • Black photographers who started to document the lives of early black immigrants through a documentary style. (for example, Vanley Burke, Ahmet Francis, Pogus Cesear, Horace Ove).
  • The second generation who mainly came from art schools but had a clear outlook based on tackling racism, rather than the anti-colonialism of the elders. (David Lewis, Keith Piper, Ingrid Pollard, and Rotimi Fani-Kayode)
  • A younger generation of artists from the 1990’s onwards whose ideas are not dominated by radical politics, but by a global network of galleries, curators and television. (for example, Mitra Tabrizian)

He also explains that the 1980’s represented a ‘conjuncture’, a turning point, as it was the point in history when the first generation and second generation of immigrants discussed their artistic practices, their differing views of modernism, and their differing views of anti-colonialism and post-colonialism. These debates, and their responses to the social climate during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s transformed their artistic practices. In his view this conjuncture manifests itself within the Black photography community in three ways. Firstly, the debates between pure abstract art and pure documentary are challenged and a new form of constructed image making is developed. Secondly, the recognition of the black body as a racial signifier, partly in response to the work from the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, such as ‘The Empire Strikes Back’. Thirdly, black women begin to examine their own lives, and the influence of black feminism begins to examine the black body, family albums and private lives through photography. “Without this conjuncture of feminism and black politics, the outstanding work of the period by Sonia Boyce, Claudette Holmes, Lubaina Himid, Maud Sulter, Mona Hatoum, Sutapa Biswas, and others would simply never have appeared.’ (Hall, in Bailey, 2005, pp10).

Role of art schools

It is interesting that Hall recognises that the early black settlers came to the UK with a European modernist art perspective, but then he very much underplays the relationship between art schools and black photographers in the subsequent stages.

I would agree with him that it is important to mention how artists under colonial rule were treated, and especially their approach to modernism. Colonial subjects were not permitted to teach or practice the fine arts, only traditional crafts. Fine arts, such as painting, were the realm of the colonial master, and although some subjects did paint, draw and write, this history has been largely hidden. One outcome of this policy has been that ‘artists from the third world had to fight notions of authenticity that froze them in history and enflamed them in dead and distant past’. (Saadar, 2000, p12) As Hall also points out, ‘the attitude today, that modernism somehow belonged intrinsically and exclusively to the West, was in effect part of a wider conspiracy to entangle artists in the Western “grand narrative,” and that salvation lay in the return to neglected indigenous cultural traditions’ (Hall 2005, in Bailey, 2005, pp 7)

For example, Olu Oguibe records the struggle Aina Onabolu faced when developing his fine art practice in Nigeria in early 1900’s. (Saadar, in Areen, Cubitt and Sardar, 2002) Kapur explains, in the same collection, that this colonial policy then encouraged the anti-colonial independence movements to use the ideas of heritage and tradition as an oppositional idea in order t challenge and fight colonial rule. A clear example of this tactic can be seen in the political campaigns started by Mahatma Gandhi to defend the crafts and clothing industry in India, as a oppositional force to the global clothing manufacturing. Kapur argues that ‘we have to bring to the term modern a less monolithic, a less formalistic, indeed less institutional, status so as least to make it what it once was, a vanguard notion leading to a variety of experimental moves’. (Kapur in Areen, Cubitt and Sardar, 2002, pp21)

The legacy of these debates from the colonial period has been that black artists and photographers have often addressed the themes of history, memory, belonging, and identity. In photography, we can trace this back to the beginning of photography with the early colonial subjects such as Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, who developed a photography practice in the 1890’s very much in an anti-colonial humanist modernist tradition. His self portraits, depict himself as a Yogi reworking stereotypical Indian imagery.

In the work Sher-Gill, (left) we see the beginnings of the photography being used to explore the intersection of the personal and the political. His daughter, Amrita Sher-Gill (who was nicknamed the Indian, Frida Kahlo), was a famous painter who was educated and worked in Europe and India during the 1920’s and 1930’s, but who eventually moved back to India and showed by anti-colonial radicalism by painting traditional images of India.

The photography of Umroa Singh Sher-Gill, and the painting of his daughter Amrita, as well as the references to Frida Kahlo, highlight how black photographers and artists have often referenced both ideas from art schools, and the notions of modernity and tradition in a manner, which was relevant to their time.

In the UK, many photographers have used photography to examine their own identity, whether this identity rests in being black, their class, gender, sexuality or disability. In the period from the late 1960’s to the 1970’s many ‘white’ photographers also explored the social changes in Britain. This was a period when Britain began to loose its Empire, when decay and industrial decline were prevalent, which led to conflicts (industrial, racial and in Ireland) and the impact of immigration saw a rising tide of overt racism. (Sandbrook, 2012)

John Roberts identifies this shift on the ‘radicalisation of a younger generation of photographers in the wake of May 1968, and the entry of working class and lower middle class students into higher education with no attachment to the virtues of high culture’. (Roberts, 1998, pp145) In his view this led to ‘a powerful radicalisation of the critique and realism, and as such a powerful hegemony.’ (Roberts, 1998, pp145)

The works of Bill Brandt, Chris Killip, Graham Smith, Ray Jones, Ian Berry, Chris Steel Perkins and Brian Griffiths all touched upon the ‘national crisis of identity’ (Mellor, 2007). The images being produced at the time were very much in a documentary tradition. Black photographers such as Vanley Burke, Ahmet Francis, and Horace Ove also worked in a similar style, and therefore the question is, what constitutes black photography during this period? Is it just that the photographers are black, or is therefore something specific in the style of the photography?[1]

In ‘Photographing Handsworth’(Connell, 2012), Kieran Connell compares the studio based self portrait project of Derek Bishton, Brian Homer and John Reardon to the documentary realism of Vanley Burke and Pogus Caesar. All of the photographers wanted to capture the everyday textures and realities of the local black communities in Handsworth, near Birmingham. ‘Handsworth has its share of problem.. but we were looking for images which challenged the simplistic arguments which blame certain sections of people for those problems’. (Bishton quoted in Connell, 2012) Connell notes, ‘For Burke, the recording of such stories is ‘vital’ not only, as in a conventional family album, in order to create visual mementos of important events, but also to ‘pass on the message about the experiences these people have had’. (Connell, 2012, p146)

As he compares the different styles of images from the two projects, Connell notes that photographs which present the lives most sympathetically as those where the photographs are staged in the studio, or taken out of context of their daily lives, in factories, the streets or in the presence of police. In this sense the most authentic photographs are really not authentic at all. Once you add the elements of real life into the photographs, then the images are very difficult to separate from the usual images you would see in any newspaper. This is simply, one of the reasons why black photographers began to move away from the documentary style. For me, this point is highlighted in the book, ‘Black Britain – a photographic history’. (Gilroy, 2008), in which a document which charts the history of Black Britain, takes almost all the images from the Getty image library.

The decline in the popularity of documentary photography in photography schools also occurred for two other reasons. The first was the reappraisal of the reliability of documentary photography to document objective reality. As Roberts points out wriers such as John Tagg and Victor Burgin effectively used post-Althusserian and post-Structuralism analysis to question the relationship between the photograph as an object of objective realism and art as an object of subjective expression (Roberts 1998). Secondly, the influence of feminism and psychoanalytical theory, and Stuart Halls own work in ‘Policing the Crisis’, resulted in many photographers rethinking how documentary photographs objectify is subjects. Many photographers therefore began to move the camera lens away from their subjects, shown by the work of Paul Graham and Nick Waplington.

As we can see, Hall’s argument that the 1980’s represented a ‘conjucture’ should also take into account wider developments within the practice of photography which affected both white and black photographers.

The writings of Stuart Hall have helped bring greater awareness of ‘race’ as a signifier. This has been widely written about through the comparison of the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe, and Romi Fani Kayode. Both are gay men exploring black male sexuality, and both men produce highly fetishised photograph of the black male nude. Fani Kayode reworks Mapplethorpes images through his references to his Yoruba heritage. There is no doubt that, part of the power of Kayode’s photographs partly rest in their relationship with the images of Mapplethorpe, which in turn relate to a series of images of masculinity from as far back as the work Caravaggio. Hall argues that Mapplethorpe is ‘voyeurist’, whereas Fani-Kayode ‘subjectifies’ the black male. (Hall and Bailey in Wells, 2003)

For Kobena Mercer, Fani- Kayode’s heritage is crucial to his work, ‘born into a prominent Nigerian family in the prelude to political independence, Fani-Kayode grew up across three continents – Africa, Europe and America – during the three decades from the 1960s to the 1980s that saw the world transformed by the emergence of the postmodern and the postcolonial. His biography was thus shaped by the characteristic diasporic experiences of migration and dislocation, of trauma and separation, and of imaginative return’. (Kobena, 1999, pp3)

Fani Kayode is acutely aware of his background. When asked why he never displayed his work in Nigeria he explains, ‘As for Africa itself, if I managed to get an exhibition in say Lagos, I suspect riots would break out. I would certainly be charged with being a purveyor or corrupt and decadent Western values. However, sometime I think if I took my work into the dual areas, where life is still vigourously in touch with itself, and its roots, the reception might be more constructive’. (Fani Kayode quoted in Reid, 1997 p91).

There are three lessons from Kayode works that are worth mentioning. The first is the ability of black artists to disrupt an iconic stereotype through references of their own background, secondly the impact of diaspora, which Kobena refers to ‘a rupture caused by dislocation and emigration’, (Kobena, 1999, p5) and thirdly the ability of black photographers to question notions of modernity and tradition not just in the West but also, in the case of Fani-Kayode, in Nigeria.

It is interesting to compare the work of Fani Kayode to that of Mitra Tabrizian. Whereas the work of Fani Kayode mainly focuses upon the black body, Tabrizian places the gaze of the subject centrally in the images to make us question race, gender, and class. For example, in Tehran (2006) she constructs a large-scale town landscape in which the subjects seem to be conducting everyday business but without an apparent working infrastructure, lighting or roads. In ‘Leicestershire’ (2012), she uses ‘landscape’ and ‘documentary’ genres to address issues of migration, exile and the impact of post Fordist deindustrialisation by photographing former factory workers against the closed factories they once worked in.

Pollack notes that Tabrizian, ‘Across her many projects, which are often practices on photography as practices within it, we note. .. Tabrizian questions the masquerades which our identities and sexualities are currently but precariously held.. the game is not to strip the veil and expose the truth.. (but) to know what masks we wear, to define the texts we performs and to accept the necessity for critical knowledge’. (Tabrizian, 1990, p11)

Tabrizian’s work takes what Kobena earlier described as the ‘ruptures of migration’, and is able to engage both with the ideological background but also provide a commentary on how we construct the modernity. As Gilroy wrote ‘What was initially felt to be … the curse of homelessness or the curse of enforced exile … is reconstructed as the basis of a privileged standpoint from which certain useful and critical insights about the modern world become more likely.’ (Gilroy, 1998, pp111)

Although Hall seems to suggest that the more recent photographers are influenced by commercial factors, rather than social history and politics, I think we can show from Tabrizian’s work that this is not the case, but neither is the work weighted downs by racial signifiers. In his paper, ‘New Ethnicities’ (1989), Hall moved is own identity away from an essentialist black identity, but in the process he also moved away from many the black community groups. [2]

It is important to recognise that although identity is fluid, it is also rooted in something, either a place like Belgrave Road, or Tottenham or some locality, or a religion or family connections, or cultural connections. These helps provide a sense of ‘belonging’. Bell Hooks in her book ‘Belonging’ reflects upon her home state of Kentucky, America, and her adult cosmopolitan life in New York. She notes that the countryside where she grew up was important for her sense of identity, despite have a clear cosmopolitan outlook in New York.

The nobel prize winner, Amartya Sen in his book, ‘Identity and Violence’, (Sen, 2007) argues people have a multitude of identities, but often policy makers tend to herd people into boxes and in the process they take away the complexity of their identity. For example he argues that the Bangladeshi community in Brick Lane, came from a secular democracy in Bangladesh, a state formed from a bitter war with the Muslim state of Pakistan. However policy makers in Britain treat everyone as ‘Muslims’, and therefore the younger generation have developed a strong Muslim identity, much more stricter than their parents generation. The writings of Bell and Sen therefore offer a different perspectives which takes into account local histories and culture.



In this article, I have tried to examine some of the issues raised by Stuart Hall’s history of black photography which are relevant to black photographers in this essay, show some of the difficulties in balancing between assessing the artistic object, examining the ethnicity of the artist, and assessing the relationship of practitioners to the art establishment.

As long as black people are marginalised in the UK, and people migrate between nations, people will feel dislocation and have some sort of diasporic identity. There are people are have a global outlook and feel dislocation, and there are also people who feel quite happy living in their locality, but feel dislocation because of marginalisation or a sense of powerless. Where people feel they belong, and where they feel dislocated from will vary.

Hall’s work doesn’t necessarily help us understand this aspect of modern Britain. As Glen Doy’s statement that ‘if we do not listen to the voices of the creators of black culture, attempting to understand why and how they represent things then we play a part in suppressing active subjects from history and culture’ (Doy, 2000 pp48.)


[1] Val William notes that magazines Creative Camera, CameraWorks and Ten 8 all together as they all were concerned with the notion of Britishness, and people such as Martin Parr and Daniel Meadows specifically moved from the middle class southern homes to photography the changes in northern Britain.

[2] For example the writer Sivanandan wrote, ‘All that melt into air is solid : The Hokum of New Times’, in Sivanandan, 1990 criticizing Hall’s New Ethnicity paper. Hall also wrote in‘From Scarman to Stephen Lawrence’, (1999) about the death of Michael Menson in 1998 who was thrown into the Thames in a race attack as a example of the complacency of the Home Office. Menson was not thrown into the Thames, but died from burns in Enfield. (Student found guilty of Micheal Menson murder, 1999, The Guardian, 21 December)The case was recently highlighted as a serious case and the family was put under surveillance and authorized by the Home Office. (Stephen Lawrence Independent Review, 2014) These mistakes can be compared to his close involvement in the Independent reviews of both the Handsworth Riots (1985) and South riots (1979)