Bank Top

The award-winning portrait series dispelling myths about Blackburn’s segregation problem
Art | 19 April 2021
Above:

Mohammed Afzal, the Birdman of Bank Top, Blackburn, 2020. © Craig Easton, United Kingdom, Finalist, Professional, Portraiture, Sony World Photography Awards 2021

Above image: Mohammed Afzal, the Birdman of Bank Top, Blackburn, 2020. © Craig Easton, United Kingdom, Finalist, Professional, Portraiture, Sony World Photography Awards 2021

In January 2018, BBC’s Panorama aired White Fright: Divided Britain, a programme that claimed Blackburn to be the most segregated place in the UK. The picture they painted was of a fraught and divided community, where white British neighbourhoods had become entirely segregated from their Muslim Asian counterparts to create parallel worlds, each increasingly suspicious of the other. Upon its release the programme was met with strong opposition. From the town’s bishop to its local councils and community organisations, the response from local people was largely one of dismay. Not only had the programme unnecessarily stoked tensions with the one-sided nature of its findings, it had completely ignored evidence that proved contrary. 

Among those left bitter was photographer Craig Easton, who, despite being born in Edinburgh, spent much of his early life in the north of England. Panorama’s portrayal of Blackburn bore little resemblance to his own memories of the place and he felt compelled to set the record straight. In 2019 Easton began Bank Top, a portraiture series that took its name from the area of Blackburn where Easton chose his collaborators. Working together with local academic Abdul Hafiz (whose words and poems accompany Easton’s photographs), the series was Easton’s way of reclaiming what he saw as an incendiary media narrative, a chance to portray the area’s residents with an authenticity and depth absent from reductive media narratives.

The result is an affirming and uplifting celebration of a vibrant community. At a time in which we are supposedly more divided than ever as a country, Bank Top offers welcome proof to suggest otherwise. After the series was unveiled as this year’s winner of the Sony World Photography Awards Portrait category (with the excellent Jane Hilton in third), we caught up with Easton to hear more about making the work.

Nader Khan, Bank Top, Blackburn, 2020. © Craig Easton, United Kingdom, Winner, Professional, Portraiture, 2021 Sony World Photography Awards

Finn Blythe: What makes Bank Top an interesting area?
Craig Easton: What’s interesting about Blackburn in general, but Bank Top in particular, is it came up around the time of the Industrial Revolution. A lot of people came from Ireland and rural Lancashire to work in the factories and mills, so the immigration started then and it’s remained like that ever since. You can see it in the architecture of the houses and in the relics of the mills and canals. British industrial wealth was built on this kind of place, places like Manchester and Bolton and Blackburn.

After the Second World War that industry was really on its knees, particularly the textile industry, so in order to support that a lot of south Asians came over in the 60s and 70s to work in what was a dying industry. The reason it died of course, is because a lot of these factories have moved to Bangladesh and places like that, so it’s gone full circle. Young people in Bank Top are wearing clothes that are made in Bangladesh by people who are not dissimilar to their parents, who would have made them in Blackburn 30, 40 years ago.

FB: How did you first come to know Abdul Hafiz and what were your initial conversations leading up to this project?
CE: I got to know him through an initiative by Blackburn museum called Kick Down the Barriers. They invited a number of artists to respond to this representation of Blackburn by Panorama, [Hafiz] is an academic researcher and we just hit it off. I think my pictures are different because of his involvement and his work is because of my involvement.

It’s about celebrating that community and that immigrant innovation. We’re very well known for people coming over here and being really entrepreneurial and starting businesses and making a thriving community – those stories aren’t told. We just hear these jaundiced views about Asian communities, and of course the whole point of Bank Top is that it’s not just about Asian communities, it’s a very mixed community. There’s a lot of Polish people there and a lot of white British people and people from Africa. But it was always a place where people came. 

“We’re very well known for people coming over here and being really entrepreneurial and starting businesses and making a thriving community – those stories aren’t told.”

FB: And it’s not just the entrepreneurialism it’s the social support networks, the community care systems.
CE: Well that’s not just a function of communities in the north of England I think it’s the function of a lot of working class communities. When you go to Bank Top and speak to some of the older residents, they talk about the fact that you never needed to go into the town centre, you could get everything you needed in Bank Top. They say it’s still all like that now, the fact that they’re all halal butchers or Asian hairdressers is neither here nor there, the community still exists and still supports itself and is thriving because of it. I just don’t think that’s the story we hear.

FB: These images were shot in black and white and on film, could you explain the decision behind that?
CE: Shooting on film is more to do with the fact that they’re shot on large format. So I’m shooting on a 10×8 camera, a great big wooden thing that takes me 20 minutes to set up. So I’m hanging around in the street and then it becomes a very collaborative process, people understand that I’m not just wandering around taking reportage pictures. There’s all sorts of reasons for using that camera, part of it is you take different pictures with it and the relationship you have with people is different. But one of the big things is when you’re focusing it, you’re looking through the back of a camera, the ground glass screen, and you’ve got a dark cloth on your head.

You get this real intimacy with somebody because you’re looking straight at them and often they’re about 12 inches in front of the lens. But when you take the photograph you’re not behind the camera, you come out to the side, and so they’re looking at an inanimate object. They’re not looking through an SLR into your eyes and so I think the dynamic changes a little.

“You get this real intimacy with somebody because you’re looking straight at them and often they’re about 12 inches in front of the lens.”

© Craig Easton, United Kingdom, Winner, Professional, Portraiture, 2021 Sony World Photography Awards

FB: You mention the scale of the photographs which is obviously hard to appreciate online but why choose the large format?
CE: I’ve been to the National Portrait Gallery and I’ve stood there and looked up at these paintings of who we’re told are the great and good. Thinking about that dynamic – this little person looking up at this great big picture on the wall – that relationship between the viewed and the viewer is what I’m trying to subvert because people I’m working with are ordinary working people. I want to celebrate them and it’s really interesting how you might view a photograph of a 16 year old Asian teenager if they’re presented beautifully, in a frame, the same way you would see a portrait in a museum.

FB: What kinds of conversations did you have with the sitters in that period of setting up the camera?
CE: Often during that time there’s a lot of silence. I mean what I’m not doing is walking around the street with the camera and stopping people to ask for their photograph. What’s actually happening is I’m hanging around and chatting to people and then we arrange to do a photograph. So I’ve usually had all the conversations and decided what we’re going to do before we do it. Sometimes I make appointments to go and see someone, like the man with the pigeons –

Carol Imasiku, Bank Top, Blackburn, 2020. © Craig Easton, United Kingdom, Finalist, Professional, Portraiture, Sony World Photography Awards 2021

FB: That’s a real favourite of mine. Can you give a bit more context to it?
CE: Well his name is Mohammed Asal and I had seen this pigeon loft on the back of his house months earlier. I’d knocked on his door and he agreed to have his picture taken but every time I went to see him he wasn’t there. The reason was because he worked in a poultry slaughter house on a zero-hour contract and he didn’t know when he was working or not. So it it was like eight months later that I finally managed to hook up with him. He’d just come back from work and he was covered in whatever the detritus is from his work. I’m not ashamed to say so but at the time I thought, ‘This is a great photograph, he looks perfect.’ And he said, “I’m going to go get a shower,” and I was a little disappointed.

But when he came down in his clean tracksuit top and his best jeans I thought, ‘No, that’s a much better way to portray him, because that’s the way he wants to be seen.’ And actually the picture was much stronger because of that. Then Hafiz brought another layer to it because we know that pigeon fancying is a big thing in working class communities, Charles Dickens described it as “release from the drab”, but Hafiz knew the connection with the Punjab, that it’s actually a really big pastime there, too. So here’s this south Asian guy, born and bred in England, doing what we think of as northern English pastime but actually relaying back his cultural history in the Punjab.

“We know that pigeon fancying is a big thing in working class communities, Charles Dickens described it as “release from the drab”, but Hafiz knew the connection with the Punjab, that it’s actually a really big pastime there, too.”

© Craig Easton, United Kingdom, Winner, Professional, Portraiture, 2021 Sony World Photography Awards

The Sony World Photography Awards 2021 virtual exhibition, documentary and free book download are available via www.worldphoto.org

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