Benjamin Zephaniah by Pogus Caesar

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[IMAGE] A Black man, wearing a canvas or denim jacket and a rastacap, looks directly at the camera while resting his face in his hands.
Benjamin Zephaniah, one of Britain’s best-known poets, by Pogus Caesar
Benjamin Zephaniah
by Pogus Caesar
digital gelatin silver print, 1986
11 1/8 in. x 11 1/4 in. (282 mm x 287 mm) image size
NPG x200723
© Pogus Caesar/ OOM Gallery Archive. All Rights Reserved. DACS/ Artimage

Benjamin Zephaniah (1958–2023) was a writer, Dub poetry A form of poetry performed over a dub backing track. Dub is a form of Jamaican reggae music which has no lead vocals and emphasises the drums and bass. and musician. His powerful poetry represents the everyday lives of people in Britain. It is strongly influenced by the music and poetry of Jamaica and what he called ‘street politics’. He was a pioneer of the performance poetry scene in the 1980s and became one of Britain’s best-known poets.

Pogus Caesar (born 1953) is a photographer, artist, filmmaker, and author. His black-and-white photographs document the lives and experiences of people all over the world, from ordinary members of his local community in Birmingham to global figures such as Stevie Wonder.

This portrait reflects Zephaniah and Caesar's shared experience as Black men living in Birmingham, and both artists’ belief in the importance of Black self-representation A movement to encourage Black people to represent themselves and their own interests. to empower and amplify Black voices.

Analysing the portrait

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[IMAGE] A Black man, wearing a canvas or denim jacket and a rastacap, looks directly at the camera while resting his face in his hands.
Benjamin Zephaniah, by Pogus Caesar, 1986

Look carefully at the portrait. Take your time – look at it for at least a whole minute. What can you see?

    • Benjamin Zephaniah is shown as a young man, resting his head in his hands.
    • He is looking directly at the camera and at us, the viewer, with an open and alert expression.
    • Head-in-hands poses such as this often suggest that someone is thinking or watching something.
    • He is dressed in a canvas or denim jacket and wearing a watch on his wrist.
    • A badge is pinned to his jacket, showing a black and white yin-yang symbol. The symbol comes from Chinese philosophy and represents the interconnectedness of the world. 
    • He also wears a rastacap, a head covering worn by Rastafarians. Zephaniah became Rastafari A religion, social movement and way of life that began in Jamaica in the 1930s. as a young man. 
    • The portrait is a close-up, head-and-shoulders view of Zephaniah. 
    • His head and shoulders fill the frame of the photograph, and the background is plain. There is nothing to distract us from looking at Zephaniah’s face.  
    • Caesar placed the camera at eye level with Zephaniah so that he looks directly at the camera and at us.
    • The portrait is a black-and-white photograph shot with an analogue camera on 35 mm film A standard format of photographic film used in non-digital (analogue) photography that is 35 mm wide. . Caesar has said: ‘I prefer to shoot in Monochrome Using only black, white and shades of grey in a photograph, illustration or other type of image or design. as with black-and-white your eyes make up the colour.’
    • Zephaniah is evenly lit from the front, and we can clearly see the details of his face. 
    • The lighting, close-up view and direct Gaze The relationship of looking between sitter, artist and viewer. make the portrait seem intimate, as if we are sitting opposite Zephaniah, close enough to have a conversation. 
    • Zephaniah and Caesar knew each other well and their friendship and closeness comes across in the photograph. 
    • Caesar presents Zephaniah as a thoughtful, confident Black man. He appears at ease with himself and his close-up, open Gaze The relationship of looking between sitter, artist and viewer. seems to invite us, as viewers, to engage with him.
I just knew I was suffering racism, I was suffering police brutality, our schools were run down, our houses were run down, and I wanted to speak about it.
Benjamin Zephaniah, 2010

Who was Benjamin Zephaniah?

  • Benjamin Zephaniah was born and grew up in Handsworth in Birmingham.
  • He had a difficult time as a child and left full-time education at the age of 13.
  • He was passionate about poetry from a young age. He started to perform his work as a teenager and by the age of 15, he had a following among local communities. His work was heavily influenced by the music and poetry of Jamaica.
  • He felt that the people he saw on television and in the media did not speak for him. He understood that Black people needed to represent themselves to make their voices heard.
  • He used his poetry to voice his concerns, and those of his community. He talked about feeling frustrated ‘by the conditions we were living in, by the way we were policed, and just the general standard of living.’
  • Zephaniah moved to London in 1979, which helped him reach a wider audience.
  • His Dub poetry A form of poetry performed over a dub backing track. Dub is a form of Jamaican reggae music which has no lead vocals and emphasises the drums and bass. performances injected new life into the British poetry scene and attracted the interest of many mainstream publishers.
  • In the early 1980s, during a time of high unemployment, homelessness and the National Front A far-right fascist political party with racist and other extremist policies. , Zephaniah’s poetry spoke to people and reflected their concerns. He became well-known and was invited to appear and perform on TV programmes, bringing dub poetry straight into British homes.
  • Zephaniah’s personal beliefs were an important part of his life and work. He became Rastafari A religion, social movement and way of life that began in Jamaica in the 1930s. as a young man and was a vegan.
  • In 2003, he publicly refused an OBE Abbreviation of ‘Officer of the Order of the British Empire’, an award given by the British king or queen for a special achievement. , saying: ‘I get angry when I hear the word “empire”; it reminds me of slavery, it reminds me of thousands of years of brutality.’
  • Zephaniah became Professor of Creative Writing at Brunel University, London, in 2011.

Who is Pogus Caesar?

  • Pogus Caesar was born in St. Kitts in the Caribbean. He moved to the UK with his family as a child as part of the Windrush generation The people who emigrated to Britain, mainly from the Caribbean, between the arrival of the ship HMT Empire Windrush on 22 June 1948 and the Immigration Act of 1971. .
  • He began taking photographs that captured the everyday lives of people in his local community in Birmingham.
  • He was influenced by the work of American photographer Diane Arbus. Her photographs helped him realise that images don’t have to be perfect and that it’s important to be bold and brave about what you choose to capture.
  • In 1985, Caesar documented the Handsworth riots – two days of violent unrest in Birmingham that were sparked by the arrest of a Black man for a minor driving offence.
  • Caesar saw the riots as ‘the result of frustration built up over years of people suffering from poor job prospects, poor housing, poverty, harassment, racism, and a “them-and-us” situation.’ He wanted to present the riots from the point of view of local residents.
  • As well as documenting the experiences of Black communities, Caesar has also photographed Black leaders and celebrities including Jay Z, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Desmond Tutu and Stevie Wonder.
  • Caesar shoots on an analogue 35 mm film A standard format of photographic film used in non-digital (analogue) photography that is 35 mm wide. camera. In a world of digital photography, where people can access images immediately, he enjoys the traditional Darkroom A room that can be made completely dark, where you can take film out of a camera and develop photographs. process, and the ‘magic’ of not knowing what you’ve got until you process the film.
  • He is interested in ‘truth’ and doesn’t like the way portrait photographs are often edited afterwards to get rid of flaws or wrinkles.
  • He believes that it is important to build a relationship with the person he is photographing and sees his portraits as a collaboration.

Why is this portrait significant?

  • This powerful portrait expresses the trust between Zephaniah and Caesar.
  • It was made on the firs day they met, a year after the Handsworth riots in 1985 in their home city of Birmingham.
  • Caesar has said, ‘I asked and he gave me one the most beautiful portraits I have ever taken.’ 
  • The portrait reflects both Caesar and Zephaniah’s belief in the importance of Black self-representation A movement to encourage Black people to represent themselves and their own interests. – for Black people to document and voice the experiences of other Black people.
  • The artists went on to collaborate on several other creative projects.
  • In 2011, Caesar published Sparkbrook Pride, a book of black-and-white photographs celebrating the diverse people who live and work in Sparkbrook, Birmingham, where he grew up. The book featured an introduction by Benjamin Zephaniah.
  • In 2019, Caesar and Zephaniah collaborated again and launched Handsworth 1985 Revisited. Caesar’s photographs of the Handsworth riots were displayed alongside poems by Zephaniah on a series of billboards and street displays.
  • Caesar and Zephaniah's final collaboration was the short film, A Tiny Spark, which was released in 2023. It explores the 1985 Handsworth riots through powerful poems and rare archival photography.

Questions

  1. What impression do you get of Benjamin Zephaniah from this portrait?
  1. Pogus Caesar says that he is interested in truth. How do you think this applies to this portrait?
  1. Who might you photograph in your own community? Why?
  1. How might you go about building a relationship with your sitter before you photograph them? How might this influence the photograph?