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Young photographers reshape our visions of ‘English’ heritage

·3 min read

“I wanted to show people the black Britain I know,” says portrait photographer Kemka Ajoku of his new series, Finding Common Ground.

Ajoku is one of four young photographers selected to reimagine the idea of Englishness at heritage sites across the country, as part of the England’s New Lenses exhibition launched by English Heritage.

His project opens with Gestural Greetings, a defiant image depicting the cultural clash between different waves of migrants to Britain. “The man on the left wishes to greet with the traditional handshake of the Igbo people, while the man on the right goes in with the more informal fist bump,” says Ajoku, 22, who is of Igbo – an ethnicity native to south-eastern Nigeria – heritage himself.

The work will be exhibited from 5 August at Wrest Park, a stately home in Bedfordshire, where Finding Common Ground was shot. Other sites displaying photos are Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, Middleham Castle in Yorkshire and Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland.

England’s New Lenses is English Heritage’s first contemporary photography exhibition since it became a charity in 2015, and is overseen by Shout Out Loud, its national youth engagement programme, in partnership with arts non-profit organisation Photoworks. English Heritage has fallen under scrutiny in the past year about some of its sites’ links to slavery and colonialism.

Ajoku said he “wanted to highlight the lives of black British citizens from the Windrush era to the later migration of west Africans after their emancipation from the British empire”.

He took inspiration from how Gordon Parks and Dawoud Bey reflected African-American culture and history in their work: “It made me realise that there was a lot of black history that hadn’t been incorporated into UK art before.”

Ajoku was helped by established photographers Mahtab Hussain and Ingrid Pollard. He says: “They not only broadened my knowledge but taught me how to use photography with intentionality, how to pay attention to every detail to provide the greatest possible meaning.”

Each of the photographers taking part in the project used their own experiences and identity to challenge the definition of heritage.

Abena Appiah’s series, From the Maghreb, highlights Africa’s connections to English history by capturing the landscapes surrounding Hadrian’s Wall through the eyes of a north African Roman, while Mia Parker-Tang’s work, There Lies the World, focuses on her own relationship with England, past and present, via images taken at Tintagel.

Leeds-based photographer Megan Dalton set herself the ambitious goal of retelling the Wars of the Roses at Middleham. “I wanted to look at how the past has reverberated and how the narratives of the 15th century still resonate today,” said Dalton, 22, a recent graduate of Leeds Arts University.

“The conflicts seen throughout the period of the Wars of the Roses largely stemmed from socioeconomic breakdown and a lack of government leadership, which has a parallel with what we’ve seen in the pandemic.”

For the project, Dalton worked with models from around Leeds in order to “reflect the people you see every day”. She adds: “I wanted my audience to be able to connect with the people in the photographs.”

Kirsty McCarrison, project manager of Shout Out Loud, said: “Young people have unique perspectives on heritage, and England’s New Lenses is really about trying to harness their creativity to tell the stories that inspired them – especially those that have been overlooked or left out of the history books. They’ve done a fantastic job of conveying the stories they wanted to tell, as well as the beauty of the heritage sites.”

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