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Queer and Black Photography in 1980-1990s Britain


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 7
  • Tutor: Theo Gordon
  • Assessment: a 5000-word essay (100%)

Module description

In this module we will examine how photography informed and overlapped with new positions in queer and black cultural politics in the UK at the end of the century. The 1980s and 1990s witnessed dynamic photography practices developing in response to multiple enmeshed historical contexts: racism, racial unrest and black uprising in the postcolonial state; the HIV/AIDS crisis; the emergence of ‘queer’ identifications out of an increasingly thwarted gay liberation; and the crises of leftist politics under the implementation of neoliberal economics by successive Conservative governments (1979-97).

We shall explore how, in these straightened circumstances, photographers applied the insights of poststructuralist theory to use the medium to create alternative representations of marginalised experience and social movements. Inherited traditions of ‘documentary’ were challenged by investigations of fantasy, subjectivity and desire as political forces. Artists and activists circulated photographs across gallery spaces, popular print media and public health ephemera to intervene in hegemonic conceptions of sexuality, gender and racial difference. We shall see, then, how photography played a central role in creating the sexual and racial politics of contemporary Britain, and how this history informs our understanding of photography theory and practice more broadly. Transnational links to photography and politics in India, Nigeria, South Africa, the United States and Canada, amongst other contexts, will be a persistent theme.

Indicative module content

  • Artists and photographers may include: Poulomi Desai, Chila Kumari Burman, Sunil Gupta, Joy Gregory, Maxine Walker, Lola Flash, Jill Posener, Jean Fraser, Tessa Boffin, Rosy Martin, Jo Spence, Stuart Marshall, Ingrid Pollard, Pratibha Parmar, Sarah Pucill, Maud Sulter, Lubaina Himid, Yve Lomax, Mary Kelly, Isaac Julien, Mumtaz Karimjee, Ajamu, Del LaGrace Volcano, Rotimi Fani-Kayode and Alex Hirst, Allan de Souza and Rita Keegan
  • Writers and theorists may include: Jo Spence, Laura Guy, Flora Dunster, Mandy Merck, John Tagg, Victor Burgin, Roberta McGrath, Steve Edwards, Stuart Hall, Kobena Mercer, Deborah Cherry, Val Williams, Simon Watney, Homi Bhabha, Paul Gilroy, Jeffrey Weeks, Jacqueline Rose, Gail Lewis, Juliet Mitchell and Parveen Adams

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will be able to:

  • demonstrate knowledge and understanding of key debates in photography in Britain in the 1980s and 1990s as informed by queer and postcolonial politics, in particular how wider issues in the medium (e.g. documentary vs. ‘constructed’ images; image-text relationships) were rethought in this period
  • demonstrate an awareness of current approaches and debates in feminist, queer and postcolonial theory and how photographic images function both to demonstrate and actively produce theoretical insight
  • demonstrate an understanding of the specific cultural contexts of selected case studies, and of ethical issues of institutionalisation and display of previously marginalised and politically contentious work
  • critically analyse visual and textual sources related to queer and black photography.