An old cache of black and white photographs were discovered by Kieran Connell, a social historian who was preparing an archive as part of the 50th anniversary of Birmingham centre for Contemporary Cultural studies where the photographer and documentary film-maker Janet Mendelsohn had arrived from Boston to study for a MA in 1967.
The images tell a story of Varna Road, at the time a notorious street in the slums in Birmingham. At the time it was thought that up to 200 prostitutes worked in the area and Mendelsohn’s images show life for the residents and workers on the streets, in their houses and in the pubs and cafes in Balsall Heath.
Mendelsohn became particularly close to a sex worker who is referred to as Kathleen and she and her baby and partner who also operates as her pimp become the subject of a number of Mendelsohn’s images.
“Mendelsohn was encouraged by Stuart Hall and Richard Hoggart – then deputy and director of the Centre for Cultural Contemporary studies in Birmingham – to explore ways in which photography could be used in field research. The resulting archive of 3,000 photographs and interviews are now held at the Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.” An extract taken from the exhibition catalogue, (Mendelsohn, J. (2016) Varna Road. Birmingham: IKON.
The exhibition proved to be a timely case study in critical analysis of documentary photography having just been reading the carious critical debates proposed by the likes of Susan Sontag, Martha Rosler and Abigail Solomon-Godeau.
The original photographs were part of an academic study as oppose a specific campaign for social reform. As a study for a contemporary culture student then life in the inner city slums in the 1960s was a major topical subject and so the attraction is obvious. The images are balanced, subjects dealt with honestly but also empathetically. Kathleen’s state of mind is implied in a number of haunting shadowed portraits but these are balanced with images of her laughing with her baby and her partner / pimp also holding the baby. In Solomon-Godeau’s mind the images tell ‘a truth’. (La Grange, A. 2005).
Mendelsohn took over 3,000 images from which 53 were exhibited by the IKON gallery so clearly there is an interpretation and selection process which has been administered to present the final collection to meet the needs of the narrative. Susan Sontag states, “the work that photographers do is no generic exception to the usually shady commerce between art and truth.” (Sontag, S. 1977)
Are the street workers the new exotic birds having their pictures taken by social anthropologists, with the images destined to end up in an art gallery much in the same way as a stuffed bird from an exotic Island would have ended up in a glass case in a Museum in the 18th or 19th centuries.
In terms of winners and losers there is no suggestion that any of the subjects benefitted from this experience, indeed Kathleen’s partner Salim was murdered not long after this period. (Khaleeli, H. 2016). Mendelsohn’s career has passed but she eventually gains some sort of recognition in an exhibition although due to a major illness she could no longer recall or remember taking the photographs. The photographs now sit in the University of Birmingham so the academic network has a valuable asset in the recording of the City’s and, indeed, England’s history. A society, which creates the environment and subjects for the photographs, ultimately reap the benefits.
For a full review on the exhibition you can visit
La Grange, A (2005). A basic Critical Theory for Photographers. (9th ed.) Abingdon: Focal Press.
Khaleei H, (2016) The wickedest road in Britain: the photos that told the truth about red light Birmingham The Guardian 11/01/2016
Mendelsohn, J. (2016). Varna Road. Exhibition, Birmingham: IKON.
Sontag,S. (1977). On Photography. Reissued, London: Penguin.