Birmingham seen through a photographer’s lens is a vibrant, gritty, misunderstood city.
“Birmingham’s always had a bit of self-image problem,” says Jay Mason-Burns an amateur photographer who describes himself as an “ever-chipper Brummie”.
“For years, people couldn’t abide living in the city, but now Birmingham’s learning to love itself, embracing its working class heritage and its ethnic diversity.”
We asked Mason-Burns and six other amateur photographers, all of whom are part of the BirminghamWeAre platform that shares people’s passions and hobbies, to pick their favourite photo they have taken of the city and explain what it means to them.
Fay Loewy: “People see Birmingham as dull”
“I think people see Birmingham as a dull, lifeless concrete jungle with not much going on, which couldn’t be further from the truth,” says Fay Loewy, who is 35 and has lived in the city all her life.
“Birmingham is a vibrant city with so much to offer. There are a lot of independent bars, shops and restaurants. There’s the brutalist architecture paired with modern beautiful buildings, and Brummies are proud of its diversity and its heritage.
“There’s a great young, creative population in Digbeth with its vibrant street art and amazing street food. People also don’t realise that there are a lot of fantastic green spaces in and around Birmingham too.”
Loewy took this picture of two canal boats either side of the Regency Wharf ‘ghost sign’ at Gas Street Basin on only her second trip out with a camera, in May 2017. “I felt quite proud that I managed to capture the scene with the Regency Wharf sign so clear in the reflection,” she said.
“I thought the contrast between the old and the new boats was interesting and reflects what’s happening with the city centre.
“It says that Birmingham is a city of reinvention. The canals tell the story of its industrial heritage, but now play host to a booming social scene, upcoming businesses and other developments.”
Jay Mason-Burns: “The city is full of small stories”
Jay Mason-Burns, 50, says his picture of the view down Cornwall Street in central Birmingham from a high rise car park has “a real New York vibe to it.”
The scene has two abseiling window cleaners high up on a building in the foreground, and a busy street below and the domes of the Council House in the distance.
The snap, taken in June, “reflects the Birmingham I saw that day,” he says: “Hot, bright, busy, full of small stories of work and industry.”
Mason-Burns works at the Lapworth Museum of Geology and is from Selly Oak.“I think my picture says, in a small way, that there’s more to Birmingham than what people traditionally expect. We’re famous for being the city of a thousand trades, the city of bad roads and an awful nasal drone. And yet, when people come here, to visit or to live, they’re more often than not surprised at how rich and varied Birmingham’s cultural and architectural landscape actually is.
“Birmingham’s always had a bit of self-image problem, never comfortable with what people said about it and how 1960s planners wrapped its heart in concrete.
“For years people couldn’t abide living in the city, but now Birmingham’s learning to love itself, embracing its working class heritage and its ethnic diversity.”
He started taking pictures just over a year ago as a diversion from a life-changing spinal injury. “I was faced with a long recuperation period where I wasn’t allowed to do much aside from walking.
“So I took to mooching amiably around the city taking pictures of architecture and in the process met other photographers who’ve since become great friends.
“I love sitting in a cafe watching people go by, with my camera close by to snap interesting moments, animated conversations, people with funny hair.
“The people of Brum are constant, despite all the change, they’re warm, friendly and frequently daft!”
Damien Walmsley: “I took this with an iPhone in a puddle”
Damien Walmsley took this picture of the iconic Selfridges building in central Birmingham early on the morning of 1 June. There had been thunderstorms the night before.
“It is one of the most photographed buildings in the UK. I was so pleased with the result especially as it was from putting my iPhone in a puddle.” (The phone still worked after the picture had been taken.)
Walmsley, a 60-year-old professor of dentistry, said it was important to him to get the reflection of St Martin’s church - a well-known building that survived WW2 bombings - in the picture.
“The city is both bold and resilient. It maintains links with the past in St Martin’s Church and it embraces the future with the striking architecture of the Selfridges building.”
He added: “Birmingham is changing and is such an exciting city. International visitors are amazed with the buildings, different activities taking place and the friendliness of the people.
“People in the UK of a certain age may think of Birmingham as drab and dull. They are very wrong and luckily the majority view of young people is overwhelmingly positive.”
His interest in photography started years ago with a black and white Kodak camera, followed by colour prints and slides. “I was influenced by my father who was a keen amateur photographer who loved slide and cine film.
“But it was the digital age combined with the reach of social media that opened my eyes to a new world of photography, and I am still learning my hobby.
“I am director of internationalisation for the Medical and Dental Sciences College at the University of Birmingham. Many international colleagues comment on how beautiful Birmingham looks in my pictures and this has to be good for the city.”
Tammie Naughton: “It’s a beautiful place to visit”
Tammie Naughton took this picture of the Birmingham Gas Basin area late last year, just as it was starting to get dark.
“It’s where all the canals are and boats. It’s everyone’s favourite place to visit, especially during the night time, because you can get some really cracking photos. It’s very popular in the daytime but in the night time it’s all lit up as well.
“The best time to take night photography is normally October when the darkness start earlier, and there are a lot of people around. As a female photographer you’ve got to be careful in the night times.”
Naughton, 43, is a Brummie and uses her photography to show off the city: “It’s showing people some of the best places, in a different light. Int he past it’s had a lot of negative remarks made about it, but it’s actually a beautiful place to visit if you know the right places.
“From the moment I knew what a camera was at an early age, I’d take my mum’s and take pictures,” she told HuffPost UK.
“One of the things I love about Birmingham is all the events: you get your Chinese new year, Jamaican festivals, Birmingham Weekender... I don’t think that people are fully aware of how many things are on.”
Mac McCreery: “This is memory lane”
Mac McCreery often photographs this road. “It is a street very close to home and one that I photograph in both black and white and colour.
“This day I wandered down the road with my camera and spotted the person crossing the road. Snap! I had always wanted to include a person for scale. I was chuffed.
“I love this street because it encapsulates the city in a certain period of time, yet a tower block rises in the distance. Modern architecture is yet to intrude. It is memory lane.”
“It speaks to me of a city that still clings to some heritage, gritty as it may be, and maybe only because of lack of interest. But HS2 is five minutes away from here and change is imminent.”
McCreery, 50, started taking pictures as a child with a 110 film camera in the 70s. “It has always been important because, as a long time anxiety sufferer, it really does take me out of myself. As a child and young man it was pure escapism - and still is.”
Barry Whitehead: “Photography is my recovery”
“This photo was actually only taken this week,” says Barry Whitehead of his shot of the Selfridges building. “I have a fixation on trying to get some unusual angle photos of this building and I am well happy with it.
“It was not actually that hard to get, it involved laying on the pavement to create the angle, which caused much merriment to passers-by!”
Whitehead, 64, was raised in rural Yorkshire and has lived in Kings Norton, south Birmingham, for five years. “I miss the fields and trees and the smell of pig muck, but living where I do I am only about a mile from fields,” he told HuffPost UK.
He’s a bus driver but has recently been off work after a heart attack.
Photography has become an even bigger part of his life since then: “At the moment my walks with my camera are my exercise to recover.
“I have met a few other photographers who have now become life-long friends. If it were not for a couple of these, I would be still sat on the sofa and not getting out to recover.”
He feels his photo shows that Birmingham is a thriving and modern city. “There is a lot of regeneration going on which is good, as it will bring in much needed business and jobs for the city.
“I think on the whole Birmingham has a fairly tarnished reputation which is unjust. We are very much a multi-cultured city and on the whole the city is very friendly and has pockets of thriving communities that all intermingle excellently with each other.”
Daniel Sturley: “It’s more than a hobby”
Daniel Sturley, 50, has this picture on a canvas on his wall. It shows the area just below the Bullring where there are outdoor and indoor markets.
“I’ve composed it so that the First World War blitz memorial, which is a pair of hands holding a globe, is juxtaposed next to the copper tree,” he told HuffPost UK.
“They were holding a festival called the City of Colours at the time and they’d put up a massive inflatable paintbrush with red paint dripping down.”
I just love it because people look at it and think ‘What on earth is going on there?’”
As a person with autism, he says his photography hobby is his special interest. “A lot of people with autism have a thing that they are passionate, or even quite obsessive about - it’s more than a hobby. I certainly do see things differently from other people, I can see photographs when I look around.”
Sturley moved to the city after growing up in Kent. “Although I’d never been to Birmingham I had that kind of negative jaundiced view of the place, as a post-industrial wasteland.
“Of course, when I found myself here I quickly realised it’s actually a really fantastic, vibrant, diverse happening city. Of course it’s got it’s problems like any city but there’s a vibe about it. It’s a lot more chilled out than London and people don’t fuss about, they just get on with things.”
He was inspired to get into photography after a visit to Chicago: “I’d never been to the US before and after going back to Birmingham I was moved to have a better look around the city.”
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