Birmingham’s People: How do you represent Birmingham?

The Birmingham Photospace team spent most of this weekend preparing for our latest exhibition, Birmingham’s People, which launches at The Drum on Wednesday night.

Birmingham's People flyer

Birmingham’s People is made up of photographs of people who visited this year’s Artsfest in September. The Birmingham Photospace team set up a small studio in Victoria Square and invited anyone and everyone to have their picture taken by professional photographers (and team members) Matt Murtagh and Jennifer Peel.

There are 170 portraits altogether, 15 of which have been printed larger-than-lifesize (20″ x 30″) and the rest of which are printed smaller and mounted onto massive photoboards.

Like the Flashswap that we ran in March – and everything else that Birmingham Photospace does – this exhibition is to raise awareness of the fact that Birmingham needs a space for photography.

We’re really proud of the Birmingham’s People show, not just because the photos are really good (and they are) but because we’ve proved to ourselves that it is possible to put on a photographic exhibition to a professional standard without a great deal of cash (Birmingham Photospace is completely self funded).

But on to the real point of this blog post.

To promote the exhibition, Matt Murtagh was interviewed for BBC WM radio last week by DJ Loyd Williams. We were really pleased to get the coverage – not least because, despite the 10pm Saturday night slot, the blurb on WM’s site promised a programme dedicated to “showcasing local artists and keeping you up to date with the region’s arts scene”.

I was a little disappointed, then, to hear Matt – sandwiched incongruously between the “dance anthems” – subjected to a rather bizarre line of questioning.

Near the beginning of the interview, Loyd said, “So, you’re focusing on Birmingham’s People. I have to ask this – presumably, you’re local?”

Now I don’t know if I’m making something out of nothing here, but the way this question was framed (“I have to ask this…”) sounded to me like he was expecting a different – perhaps more controversial – answer. Matt doesn’t have much of a Birmingham accent, so perhaps Loyd was surprised when he answered, “yes, certainly – I was born and raised in Yardley.” He certainly sounded surprised, because after a pause, he answered: “OK. Oh – the posh part of Birmingham.”

Ye-es. I know Yardley isn’t the poorest area of the city, but it sure ain’t no Harborne.

Perhaps this could be put down to the fact that Loyd himself isn’t local, coming as he does from Burnham On Sea. But what of the next question?

Matt was explaining what the exhibition comprises. “Over the weekend we managed to take 170 portraits, which was an average of one every six minutes, I think. And we pledged that we’d have everyone’s portrait go up. So we’re going to have 170 prints and 15 large prints, which we’ve decided to be… well, the best photographs we took.”

“So tell the truth then,” began Loyd, “what was the criteria for choosing them? Was it based on attractiveness?”

Matt was, quite reasonably, stumped. “Well… it depends how you define attractiveness, I think,” he said. He got a guffaw in response. “Really? Tell the truth!”

Now I, along with the rest of the team, was part of the panel, so I know the truth. I know that we chose the photos based on… the best photos. How would anyone choose? The best photographs Matt and Jen took, of the 170 taken, were naturally going to be chosen on an aesthetic basis. Which 15 portraits would represent the 170-picture exhibition as a whole? Which were the best composed; the best directed? Which were technically of a particularly high standard? Would they work together as an exhibition, hung slightly away from the other 150-odd?

The best photos would naturally have to include the old, the young, the ugly, the pretty; people with props and without (there were plenty of other artists at Artsfest, so many had brought their art with them); black, white and Asian people; single people, heterosexual couples, same sex couples and families – because these were the people who came through the door. We wanted the large pictures to demonstrate all of this – to demonstrate the huge variety of people at Artsfest: and by extension, Birmingham’s People.

“There was a small panel of people choosing, but we chose the ones that we thought were most representative of what our vision of Birmingham is,” said Matt, finally. “And our vision of Birmingham is one that’s… it’s multicultural, it’s across all age groups, it’s… a perfect mix, I think. Which is what gives Birmingham its strength.”

Obviously Loyd had been waiting for the M word. The reaction was immediate. “Well you say that,” he began, “but some critics might say… because you touched on the word there: ‘multicultural’ – and as soon as you start sort of bandying words like, I don’t know, ‘ethnically diverse’, ‘multiculturalism’… people get a little bit scared and think that often it’s going to be a little bit… worthy. Have you had any sort of criticisms of that nature at all?”

Matt ummed again and Loyd continued, “’cause I’ve looked at, you know, the promo stuff, as I say, and there is a mix of ‘us ethnics’ in there [laughs] – which is good, that’s not a bad thing – but it does leave yourself open to criticisms of ‘is this really representative of Birmingham?'”

I have to admit to being saddened by this line of questioning. I love Birmingham because of its diversity and I don’t see an opportunity to put that across as “being worthy”. Multiculturalism in this sense doesn’t just mean “including black and Asian culture” – after all, a young girl with tattoos and piercings is definitely going to be representing a different culture to an elderly man in a crisp white shirt and tie – and that’s what the exhibition tries to show.

To put it another way, the fact that not everyone is like me – and my appreciation and love of that fact – is definitely representative of the way I see Birmingham.

I don’t know why it upset me, really. I just think it was a bit sad to bring it down to that level, although maybe it’s been good for us to think about it.

What I do know is that the photographers took pictures of everyone who came through the door volunteering to have their portrait taken. Every picture taken is going up on the wall at The Drum. And the fifteen portraits chosen to go up as large prints were chosen because they were representative of the 170, and look great together as an exhibition.

Click here to listen to the interview and hear how Matt actually answered the question (very sensibly and philosophically, of course… the star).

And if you’d like to come along to the Birmingham’s People launch night for the Artists’ Talk (with a glass of fizz!), to view the exhibition for yourself and find out a bit more about Birmingham Photospace, don’t forget to reserve yourself a place on our Eventbrite page.

4 thoughts on “Birmingham’s People: How do you represent Birmingham?

  1. Last time I was interviewed by WM for what I was proud to think of as the exciting and cutting edge comedy club I was running at the time, the interviewer ran a quiz for free tickets in which she did an impression of Jimmy Cricket. Which I didnt recognise.

    Never mind, Birminghams people sounds like a great project – good on yer.

  2. I think it’s an inherent problem with anything that makes (even a passing) claim to represent people of any community that there’s tension between the direct “numbers” of representation. Birmingham’s People doesn’t do any of that — it’s inclusive of the group that took part, which selected itself.

    Maybe Lloyd may have a irritation with other work he’s encountered, and not done too much thinking around this one?

  3. To be honest, why the hell do you need to justify the choices? We find ourselves setting the bar so high and trying to please everyone. The fact is that this is a fantastic, inspiring project, which really shows the best of Brum. I don’t think the level of scrutiny Loyd gave was really warranted. Bringing it down to ‘us ethnics’ is really lazy journalism.

    Instead someone who heads a programme dedicated to “showcasing local artists and keeping you up to date with the region’s arts scene” maybe he could have, you know, focused on the real issue – the lack of photographic exhibition space in Birmingham?

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