Photographer John Ferguson has worked with some of the world’s top celebrities, but his latest project is very close to home – and explores what home means to people of the Black community in Suffolk. Here he explains how the eight-month project has come about
If you’ve been out and about in Ipswich town centre this week, you’ve probably noticed a rather eye-catching photographic exhibition in Cornhill. I’s part of Aspire Black Suffolk, the new six-month, Black-led cultural programme to celebrate the African-Caribbean community’s contribution to the county’s economy and culture – and all the while elevating the expectations of young Black people. Award-winning national press and documentary photographer, John Ferguson, has produced a remarkable collection of portraits, all based on the theme of ‘home’.
The images creatively explore this concept for a diversity of people from the African-Caribbean community who have made Suffolk their home, or who were born here.
The former Senior staff photographer at the Daily Mirror says: I’m a portrait photographer I love environmental portraiture – I’ve been doing it for a while. The original idea was to do portraits of individuals in the black community, but the idea was to get as many people as possible to come forward.’
However, as he adds: ‘I thought that idea was a bit wishy washy and not strong enough. During the concept phase I decided to turn it around and focus on home.’
The question he set out to ask was: ‘What does home mean, and what does Suffolk mean to the Black community?’ He then set about creatively expressing and exploring people’s experience and interpretation of what exactly is ‘home’ for the Afro-Caribbean community in the county.
‘It was a much more interesting premise,’ says John, ‘Home is a strong premise. It also allowed me to get some great stories and opinions. I got about 30/40 people applying for the project.’ They were whittled down to just 16. ‘I would’ve carried on and done at least 25 but there was only space for 16,’ says John.
They include celebrant Michelle; nine-year-old A’naiha Marie; Ambassador for Whitton United Football Club, Ruel; Suffolk Community Reporter for Archant,Tamika; session musician and composer, Affy; musician, teacher and mentor, Carnell; burlesque dancer, fire performer and jewellery designer, Shona; Barrington, who is retired; 83-year-old Derrick, who moved to England from Guyana as part of the Windrush generation; musician and radio presenter Angelle; dancer Kanika and aspiring dance therapist Taquan; DJ Mervin Henry (aka Daddy Turbo) and rural postman Gary, who has worked for Royal Mail for 33 years.
John says: ‘Every single image was a challenge – you have to make it as interesting vibrant colourful and exciting as you can. All were tricky in their own way.’ But he knew what he was doing. As soon as he walks into a home, he says, ‘I can scan the room and see where the light is coming from.’ Sometimes the humble kitchen table turned out to be the best setting.
The result of eight months work is 16 large images, currently being displayed on outdoor public billboards at the Cornhill. Mounted on ‘cubes’, these images showcase the diversity within Suffolk’s Black community, instilling a greater sense of pride among the community, and to help to break down racial barriers.
The exhibition launched at the weekend. How did it go? ‘It was fantastic – over 100 people came as well as local press and radio,’ says John. ‘It’s also been featured in The Guardian – that was massive.’
John has also just published the second edition of a new online magazine, Manumission. This latest one is all about his years working with some of the world’s top celebrities and what life and work was like during those hectic days. In his time, he’s photographed the likes of Michael Jackson, Ozzy Osborne, Jon Bon Jovi, David Bowie and Pink – to name but a few.
Photographing celebrities and photographing locals must be quite a contrast, one would imagine? ‘There’s a massive difference between photographing Elton John and a postman from Suffolk,’ says John. ‘The postman is much easier and much more casual.’ John got used to management telling him he had five minutes – if that – to do the job, not that it ever fazed him. ‘I know how to cope with those situations. I do know what I’m doing.’ In fact, the only time he has been fazed was when his equipment failed during a shoot with David Bowie. At the end of the day, people are people. ‘After a while Elton John was just the same as the postman,’ says John.
‘I’m more of a commercial photographer now, rather than editorial,’ he says, but that his work can involve anything from large corporates to smaller concerns such as the Suffolk Wildlife Trust.
And, in this very visual world we live in nowadays, he specialises in personal branding photography. ‘With branding, people need to be seen, companies need to be seen and websites need to be seen. They want strong photographs that stand out.’
The second edition of Manumission magazine is now out and it sounds as though John is not quite finished with the Aspire Black Suffolk exhibition. ‘I still intend to expand the project and make it up to 20.’
The launch weekend was topped offed with ‘some very serious reassurances’ of other exciting creative collaborations for the future. ‘It all looks quite exciting,’ says John. ‘All good things lead to other good things.’
Main image (picture credit John Ferguson) – H. E. Ross, 76:
‘I was a sailor who writes and now I am a writer who sails. Born in San Francisco, I’ve had many homes. I started out as a driver, then I was a Marine from 1963-67. I was in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and got my head beat.
In 1967, I started sailing and a year later I was sailing professionally. For a long time, I lived in Mexico writing for magazines and newspapers. In 1973, I started writing for Pulitzer Prize-winning small press, Pt Reyes Light.
I kickstarted the Bay Area Marine Institute a year before leaving for the Cayman Islands to continue working as a journalist, and published the first maritime heritage books for the Caymans. I also lived in Haiti and the Turks and Caicos Islands, where I started three maritime preservation organisations and an inter-island lifestyle magazine which developed into the Islands Chronicle.
I met my wife while shipwrecked and together we created the Turks and Caicos Maritime Federation. After two hurricanes destroyed our boat, we moved to London where I ran maritime heritage presentations for London Bloods. Now, home is our 1890s barge. Life here in Suffolk is simple with supportive people, where I can finish writing my second novel.’