Derek Bishton was born and educated in Birmingham, won a scholarship to Cambridge,where he studied English, and worked as a journalist before he set up theSidelines alternative design and photography agency with Brian Homer in 1977.He was one of the founding members of Ten.8 and continued working with the magazine up to its closure in 1993. He worked for many community groups in the 70s and 80s and helped his wife Merrise Crooks to establish Handprint, a community publisher specialising in books for Afro-Caribbean students. In 1993 he became a member of the launch team of electronic telegraph, Britain’s first internet newspaper, which he edited until 2005. In 2011 he won a British Press Award for Supplement of theYear for his work on the MPs’ Expenses scandal. He now works freelance and is currently working with Autograph ABP in London as a digital media consultant.
1. How would you describe your photography?
First up I have to admit that I don’t really think of myself as just a photographer – or even primarily as a photographer. At heart,I’m more of a journalist than anything else, someone whose main skill is in gathering, assessing, creating and presenting information. In terms of my personal politics, I’ve always been hugely motivated by the idea of giving a voice to disenfranchised people and communities. That was my motivation for quitting mainstream journalism in the 1970s and why I went to work in Handsworth, helping to set up Sidelines with Brian Homer, and then Handprint with Merrise Crooks. In as much as photography has played a part in that journey, and sometimes a very important part, I have been at best a part-time photographer.
2. When did you first realise you wanted to be a photographer?
Well, I realised I wanted to take photographs quite early on in my career as a junior reporter on the Evening Chronicle inNewcastle, because most of the staff photographers at that time – the early1970s – were still trudging around with Rollieflex twin lens reflex cameras. Great cameras, but they could only get very static portraits, and two shots and they were finished. I was very much under the influence of the kind of documentary work that the Sunday Times Magazine published then – Don McCullin, gritty 35mm stuff, getting into people’s faces on the front line. I longed to see that kind of approach taken with some of the subjects I was writing about – the start of the industrial decline that swept over the UK in the 70s. You know, this was a time when pits were closing,villages in Co Durham were literally turning into ghost towns, the shipyards on the Tyne were contracting, everywhere was in crisis. I didn’t actually buy my first 35mm camera until a few years later when I started working with BrianHomer and we set up the Sidelines design and photography agency.
3. What has been the most valuable lesson, training or mentoring that you’ve received?
That would have to be the experience of helping to start the photographic magazine Ten.8. When that happened, I had no formal photographic training, no real knowledge of photographic history – I studied English Literature at university – so I was on a very steep learning curve. We ended up with a magazine because West Midlands Arts (WMA) were not interested in funding a photographic gallery, which was what Brian, myself and the other people involved at the start really wanted. They offered us some money for a magazine, and the Photography Panel at WMA (which was basically the staff at Stourbridge College of Art) came on board to help us get it going. That’s when I met people such as John Taylor and Nick Hedges, who both had a massive influence on how the magazine developed. We met every Tuesday at our little office in Handsworth, and that was my training really. Through editing and working on that magazine for 15 years I came into contact with virtually every significant photographer, writer, and cultural theorist of the period. They were my mentors.
4. Who has inspired you most in photography?
It might sound odd, but the most important and inspirational figure for me was nota photographer, but the greatest public intellectual of the 20th century, Professor Stuart Hall. I first worked with him directly in the early1980s when John Reardon and I edited an issue of Ten.8 called Black Image in 1984. I wrote to Stuart to ask him if he would write about images of post war black settlement, and were searched images from personal archives (my wife Merrise has some wonderful studio portraits taken shortly after she first came to the UK from Jamaica),from picture agencies and everything in between. Stuart wrote the most incisive and perceptive essay which we called ReconstructionWork , and which has been reproduced many times in books about photography.What Stuart showed was how the meaning of an image was never fixed, that there was never one essential truth to be revealed. Even images which we felt might have been used in a racist way – like the photos used in the Picture Post article ‘Would you let your daughter marry a Negro?’ - could be recuperated.
5.What are you working on right now?
Right now I’m working with Autograph at their building in Shoreditch, helping to put their incredible archive of black images online. I urge you to take a look at http://imagebank.autograph-abp.co.uk/.It’s an incredible resource and I’m putting more material online all the time. In my spare time I’m revising my book BlackHeart Man which was first published in 1986 and which I hope will be published again in an updated form.
6. What do you have in your camera bag?
Like many people these days, my main camera is my iPhone. If I take out my camera bag, it has a Nikon D600, an old Leica D-Lux point and shoot and a digital voice recorder. When the Nikon comes out, folks know I mean business. It’s a fabulous camera but very big and the older I get the less I use the big guns. The Leica is great but its getting a bit cranky so I may have to consult my friends BrianHomer and John Hodgett to find out what I should be replacing it with. They are the experts.
7. What has been – or is - the biggest obstacle that you’ve had to overcome in your photography?
My own insecurities have been the biggest obstacle I’ve had to overcome. You know,I never set out to be a photographer, I came to it by accident almost and the moment I did I was swamped by all kinds of theories and analysis which suggested that as a white man, I was conditioned to see in a particular way,that my ‘gaze’ was inevitably paternalistic, colonialist by inclination, rooted in racist ideologies and so on. Given that I found myself drawn to documenting ‘black’ issues, the black struggle in the inner city, and the fact that I have two daughters of mixed black and white parentage, this always presented certain conflicts. It’s one of the reasons I was such an advocate for our Self Portrait project, for example, because it meant putting our photographic egos to one side and allowing people to put themselves in the frame.
8. Which photograph do you wish you'd taken?
I don’t suffer from photo envy but I do wish I’d had the chance to meet and photograph Bob Marley.
9. Can you recommend a photographer’s work you think our readers should check out?
LeonardFreed’s Black in White America is a monumental work. Danny Lyon is another massively underrated photographer. His photos in The Movement: documentary of a struggle for Equality are so important.
10. If you could save one photography book from a fire which one would it be?
Well,in spite of what I’ve just said, I guess it would have to be Ten8 Critical Decade which I believe is the single most important photography book published in the UK in the past 30years. But I would say that, wouldn’t I?
The photo I’ve chosen for this interview is one I took in Shashemene in Ethiopia in2013. I first went to Ethiopia in 1981 to spend time finding out about the Rastafari who had taken up Emperor Haile Selassie’s offer of land and had gone there to live in the 1960s. One of the families I encountered were Clifton and Inez Baugh, who had left Jamaica with their own small child and Inez’s sister’s daughter Ann Marie. This photo shows Ann Marie Boyd in 2013 holding the photo of the house I photographed in 1981.
The reason I’m showing this photo now is because it demonstrates how a photographic intervention can have a resonance far beyond what you might expect. Clifton and Inez were members of theEthiopian World Federation and when I came back to Birmingham I showed my photos to members of the EWF Local 111 in Small Heath. The tangible evidence of their brethren and sistren in Ethiopia galvanized them into action. They sent barrels with food and tools, and eventually several brethren went to Shashemeneand built a fantastic, two-storey brick house for the Baugh family.
That same house is now used as a centre for children with HIV/Aids – The Yawenta Children’s Centre ( https://yawenta.wordpress.com/) and the little board house that Clifton built 50 years ago is still used as a classroom. But the story doesn’t end there. Last year, following the death of her husband, AnnMarie decided to return to Jamaica with her family. She’s there now and I hope to be able to meet with her when I’m next out there. So, what a journey she’s experienced. What an incredibly strong woman she is. I think the lesson to draw from this is: be careful what you get involved in when you take a photograph because the legacy you create lives on and you have to be prepared to accept that.
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