Photographer Merlene Dunkley captured a snapshot of the city on one famous bus route, writes Alison Jones.
They are strangely private moments in a public space. A point where members of the community come together yet only occasionally interact, instead staying within their own personal bubble, keeping their heads down in a book/bag of chips/can of lager.
Documentary photographer and artist Merlene Dunkley has been viewing life through a lens on Birmingham’s 11C bus, famous for being Europe’s longest urban bus route.
The 11C takes about three hours to wend its way clockwise round 27 miles of the city’s outer ring road (the 11A runs anti-clockwise), picking up and dropping off at 266 stops in a service used by 50,000 people a day.
It was a project Merlene started as part of a visual arts and design degree at Birmingham City University. Although she has now graduated, she has continued with the project and is putting the pictures up on a blog.
“I am interested in the public, how they portray themselves in society. They seem to do what they want, even though they are in a public environment.”
Some of their activities are typical of bus travel, from gazing out at the scenery to ignoring it in favour of a good book or taking the chance to catch up with the news.
Others are intimate, a young girl applies make up and a young couple cuddle close, their hands entwined.
Some are unusual, like the man who appears to be using the bus ride as an opportunity to do a spot of carpentry, sanding down a carved piece of wood.
“You do see all sorts,” says Merlene. “People with marijuana, others who are messing about. Sometimes you will get the odd one or two who will want to talk to you and you can find that strange. You get used to there not being a lot of communication with people on the buses.
“There was one man though who was very spiritual, a church man, and he was singing and all the kids at the back of the bus were singing along with him.”
When Merlene started the project she was just taking quick snapshots but didn’t find them to be intimate enough.
“I was too far away so I started asking permission so I could get a bit closer and see what they were doing. I tell them what I am doing and what my project is about and they have been quite good about letting me take their photographs.
“A lot of people said they are surprised I haven’t been swiped or had a smack from it but they probably don’t understand I have actually asked them and it is okay.”
Merlene, started the blog to create a platform for her work.
“I have exhibited at The Works Gallery. That was my Broad Street project, taking photographs of what I saw during the day and on a night out. But it is hard to exhibit your work unless you know the Ikon or Birmingham Museum, so you have to get yourself out there.”
Merlene, who is 34, was a mature student.
“Before I went to university I worked in restaurants and as a bartender. But this is always something I had to do, I had to go for it otherwise I wouldn’t have been happy.”
She lives in Harborne, on the 11c bus route. At the peak of the project she was boarding it three or four times a week with her camera, hopping on and off, although she has done the whole three-hour route.
Now she is looking to go further afield than just a loop round Birmingham.
“I feel this could go on, I thought about travelling a little bit. Perhaps going to Europe and going on different types of buses there.”
* Look up Merlene’s blog at http://merlenedunkleydoc.blogspot.com/