Last Thursday evening in London’s Portobello Road brought out the great and good to enjoy an evening walking down memory lane with photographer and cultural historian/activist, Charlie Phillips.
As I enter Portobello’s Pop-up cinema, the first person I encounter and greet is Horace Ove, the Trinidadian born Brit filmmaker, writer and painter who is best known for his seminal Black Power film ‘Pressure’ (http://tiny.cc/horace) and ‘Playing Away’ starring the late and great Norman Beaton. I then bump into Michael McMillan, academic and curator of “The West Indian Front Room” exhibition (http://tiny.cc/thefrontroom). Seeing Horace and Michael is testament to the respect that Charlie Phillips carries in the London creative and cultural activist community.
Ethnograph, cultural activist, photographer
Charlie’s work documents the social implications of immigration in the 1950’s and 1960’s in Notting Hill as well as the style and social cultural traditions that the immigrants brought with them. His work also gives us a unique insight into how Ladbroke Grove became a hotbed for political and community activism amongst the Black people and the working classes that dominated the area then. Kwame Ture was among many of the activists that visited the area at the height of the Black Power movement.
The main event
The main event, the screening of ‘Rootical’, an autobiographical short by Nike Hatzzidimou, (Best First Film, Portobello Film Festival 2006) was then interrupted by technical gremlins. But like a true professional Charlie keeps it flowing by entertaining us as the ‘Toaster’ (emcee) of a slide presentation – exemplifying the importance of the oral history for passing on our cultural heritage – done with humour, candour and sentiment.
The ‘Dead Mans’ photographer
Many of my childhood memories (being of Jamaican parentage) came flooding back. He had us all ‘rolling’ with laughter in our seats at the story about the UK celebrity chef, Gordon Ramsey and the £12.50 pig trotters – you had to be there! He also lamented on how many of our cultural traditions have disappeared – in particular practising the cultural rites of West Indian funerals. Sometimes called the ‘Dead Mans photographer’ his work has captured the essence of Black style and tradition and the mood of these occasions – if there is a funeral in the community guaranteed Charlie will be there.
In the final part of the evening, Charlie shared intimate memories about the challenges he faced as an African-Caribbean photographer trying to break into the mainstream in Britain. Things were so bad (culturally) a lot of his work appeared with the name credit of his Italian agents from Milan – who recognised his talent and took him on. His work appeared in publications such as Italian Vogue, Stern, Harper’s Bazaar and Life magazine. A card carrying member of the ‘sex, drugs and rock n roll era’ Charlie ended up a party where got to photograph Jimi Hendrix but ironically couldn’t get any British news editor to publish them.
Self-determination to achieve success
Charlie’s determination to succeed in an industry that rejected him solely on the basis on his cultural origin and skin colour I believe was a motivating force him to use his camera as a tool to the tell the stories of the people who had no one else to tell them and to inspire people from working class backgrounds to achieve success no matter the obstacles.
I for one have known Charlie for nearly a decade, after first meeting him at a cultural event at the Mayor of London’s City Hall. As we chatted he shared with me how he had pursued his ambition to become an opera singer in Italy – but that story will have to be told another day.
Written by Ameena M. McConnell for Black Art in America
All Rights Reserved (c) Copyright 2011 Ameena M. McConnell
To view the trailer for ‘Rootical’, click here to watch a clip,http://tiny.cc/rooticalclip
Images in slideshow were taken from the publication ‘Notting Hill in the Sixties’ by Charlie Phillips and Mike Phillips