Deep friendship is an extremely important source of support, respect and cultural understanding in our lives. It is something to be treasured.
As communities become ever more cosmopolitan, friendships also challenge social stigmas.
This series is about how individuals cultivate friendships amidst diversity.
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[See The Long-Awaited Full Discussion And The Photo Series Below]
Stephanie Burns and Almaz Ohene lived just around the corner from each other for 19 years. Their mums used to take them to the same toddler group; they went to primary schools within a stone’s throw from each other and together they spent all of their years in secondary school ‘not fitting in’. Steph and Almaz felt that the values of their small town were stiflingly parochial and weren’t representative of the wider world. Of course, there were others who felt this suffocation, too.
Steph and I asked Kate Bradley to shoot a series of photos that illustrate the friendship we share because of our differences. Steph has the longest most flowing locks a lot of people have never before come across and a very fair complexion. I made a reckless decision to shave mine down to a grade one, so was virtually bald for a while, and am one of only a few dozen black people living in a commuter town with a population of about 26,000. We took this to opportunity to show how two women with such radically different exteriors can still share a close friendship.
We had a chat about our shared history, first discussing the concept behind the shoot.
Almaz: Well we deliberately wanted to portray ourselves in terms of stereotypes in the shoot.
Steph: But I don’t always flounce around in floaty dresses, but I suppose that was an easy image to portray. Well I am generally quite the wallflower, quite vanilla really.
Almaz: And now I look rather aggressive with this hair do. People do find me intimating. Appearances count for some of that, but also because I’m quite a direct person. Some might even say blunt.
Steph: So you don’t think that it’s because you’re black?
Almaz: Well no. Not now, anyway. But in this town if I was white with the same personality I wouldn’t get the same response from people. I’d be perceived as confident rather than intimidating.
Almaz: How did we start hanging around together?
Steph: Well I think I knew you by sight before you knew me because you were one of the few black people around. Not in a horrible way. Not like ‘Oh, look she’s the brown girl’, but you were easily recognisable. At secondary school you were friends with some people who had different musical tastes to the mainstream and I suppose as ‘alternative’ people do, we gravitated towards each other.
Almaz: We all realised at a much earlier age than many other people that school is just about keeping children following the maimstream blindly like sheep. Everyone was just so superficial – we broke off from everybody else and followed our own interests.
Steph: I mean the town is almost wholly white and so was the school. It’s not a diverse place in the slighest.
Almaz: Looking at the 2001 census data of the constituency area of North East Derbyshire, there were 95, 867 people and only 114 of those people were Black or black British. My family really are a teeny, tiny minority. That said, I’ve never really experienced any blatant racism. In year 7 a guy called me a N*gger once, but nothing else.
Steph: Does it bother you being such a minority?
Almaz: Not really as it’s all I’ve ever known. I now am continually frustrated at the small-minded nature of the town, but it’s not their fault that there aren’t any minorities here. When I was little I used to paint myself with pink paint for my skin. All of the other children would paint themselves with pink paint and since I could only see pink-skinned children all around I didn’t realise that some people had brown skin.
Steph: The town still doesn’t really have any minorities.
Almaz: It was only after I left school that I had black friends. None are from round here. The interesting thing is that in this small commuter town we have so many international employees at the factory bakery. Even though they’re in the town every day of the week, the average person wouldn’t see of any of them.
Steph: Yes, we only see them on the bus to and from the factory. And people are always wary of getting the bus at the times when they’re going to and from work. You always hear people grumbling about them. And yet once there was a big group of Chinese students going back to the city one day and the locals were all cooing about them.
Almaz: Do you think that’s because the Chinese have a ‘good’ reputation here?
Steph: Yes, I’d say so. Africans and Asians are still steorotyped badly here.
Almaz: In the big cities it’s been common place for a long time to have a diverse spread of people, but it’s taking a lot longer for this to spread to suburbia.
Steph: Here, people still think of black people in terms of the ghettos they see on TV. As soon as you step out of here and into the real world, you meet all kinds of people.
Almaz: It’s going to take a long time for this town to become cosmopolitan – let me know if you make friend’s with another black person in this town, won’t you!
Images: KATE BRADLEY