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The Black House: photographer looks back at 1970s black youth project

Colin Jones reflects on the project that became one of the most controversial exhibitions of the 1970s

22 September, 2017 — By Koos Couvée

The Holloway Road project, called Harambee, was home to up to 50 young black men and women. Photo: Albumen Gallery

WHEN photographer Colin Jones was tasked by his editor to “go and find out who is doing all the muggings”, he went to Brixton.

It was the early 1970s and the press was hyping up a moral panic over inner city muggings by black youth.

But the activist and poet Linton Kwesi Johnson and his Black Power comrades, influential in the south London neighbourhood at the time, didn’t want to get involved with a project for The Sunday Times Magazine, a publication far from sympathetic to black youngsters.

“The project was called The Edge of the Ghetto,” Jones says. “The editor said: ‘Go out and find out who’s doing all the muggings’. That was easier said than done.

“People said: ‘You should try this place in the Holloway Road’. It was very difficult getting in because I was white, took me ages. But we kept going back.”

Colin Jones

This week, the photographer behind The Black House, a series of photographs taken in a halfway house for black youth in Holloway Road, which became one of the most controversial exhibitions of the 1970s, spoke about the enduring appeal of his work.

The house was set up by youth worker Herman Edwards – better known as Brother Herman, in the early 1970s. Funded by the Islington Council, the project was known as Harambee, meaning working together in Swahili.

However, it became tagged The Black House by the media because it was near the so-called house of Michael de Freitas, a self-styled black revolutionary and criminal who was hanged after being found guilty of murder in Trinidad in 1975.

“[Herman] didn’t want us, but in the end he let us in”, Jones, now 80, says. “They [the youngsters] were also very suspicious,” he said. “It was a time when the police were very anti-Black. But after a bit I got to know the people who lived there and with some I got on with very well.”

Photo: Albumen Gallery

The white photographer, who had previously worked as a professional dancer with the Royal Ballet, developed an uneasy yet compelling bond with the Harambee inhabitants and carried on taking photographs there until 1976, creating a series of images which continue to attract interest 40 years on.

“I felt it was such a good thing to do that I carried on going up there in my Volkswagen camper van,” he adds.“Sometimes I used to go in there and not take any pictures because the atmosphere was too tense. In the end was I picking up the kids to and from the court. I still see a couple of them.”

Jones come into close contact with the youngsters at a time when the job opportunities their West Indian parents in various niches of the labour market had enjoyed had dried up.

Large numbers of black boys had been abandoned, thrown out or simply left their parents’ homes. Some had left school with no qualifications and few prospects, and were in and out of jail.

They were subjected to vicious racism, while police used the controversial sus laws to stop and search young black men. When they did get into trouble, as the Harambee residents often did, judges tended to hand out maximum sentences.

Photo: Albumen Gallery

They essentially lived between two cultures, Jones says, adding: “A lot of them got kicked out by their parents. They were the second generation from who’d come out of the West Indies, they were born here and saw their parents as very subservient.

“There were a lot of conflicts with the parents because of their behaviour. There was one boy there who was in a state of depression after he blinded his father with a bottle in an argument. The effects of that on him were terrible.”

The photographer says: “They also smoked a lot of ganja [cannabis]. The girls would go with a pram to supermarket and bring booze back and they’d have a party. And that was not the time to be there.

“Herman used to help them with lawyers for the boys that were in trouble and helped them. And gave them some money if they were broke.”

Jones developed his passion for photography while touring with the Royal Ballet. He landed his first professional work as a photographer at the Observer in 1962. Four years later he photographed The Who were at the beginning of their career.

Photo: Albumen Gallery

The Black House photographs became one of the most controversial exhibitions of the 1970s. It was vilified at the time for making heroes out of criminals – and at the same time condemned within the black community for being exploitative.

“Some of them resented the fact that I was making money out of it,” Jones says. “I suppose in a way, my profession does exploit. I’ve been told I have a ‘cowboy approach’ to life, that’s the sort of thing of with the job really. You get involved in something but you’re not really involved.”

The photos were republished in a 2006 book, copies of which sold online fetch as much as £200. They have recently been on display at Tate Modern, and individual prints are available to buy at the online Albumen Gallery.

Asked why he thought the photographs continue to attract interest, Jones says: “I knew that what I was doing, for a white person to get inside that place, was a privilege. Though it was frightening at times, I knew that as a long-term project though I didn’t think of a book at the time. It was like you found something that was unique and you stuck to it and no other people had done it.

“When I finished, I said I never want to go back in a situation like that again. It was exhausting. I mean I slept there one night and somebody said to me, sleep but put your shoes and cameras in the bed, don’t leave anything on the floor.

“When I finished the thing I was so knackered and spent so much money on it. I nearly had to sell my house.”

Many ended of the boys ended up in jail, though most of the girls did better, Jones says. In the end Brother Herman’s health declined, funding ran out, and the project folded.

Jones says: “The nicest thing that happened was that I wrote about it [the project] and one of Herman’s daughters got in touch. He had about 10 kids, and they all thought he was a villain. But he was actually a really good man.”

Prints by Jones’s from The Black House and other series can be purchased from Albumen Gallery.

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