Window reflections of murals in downtown Birmingham

Better Together – A City with a Complicated Past – By Billy Stanford

I walk. And sometimes whilst walking I take pictures. Not professionally. No, professionally I act as an intermediary of sorts between technical and non-technical people. I explain to non-technical people what went wrong when something breaks and I explain to technical people new features in their work that would add some sort of value to the business. Or at least that is my goal. It’s not as though I am a disinterested third party. Quite the contrary. I am dependent on everyone else in order for my own work to be successful. Individually we all have our strength and purpose, but we are better together.

When communicating ideas between people, brevity can be a valuable tool. That is why I walk. I have a lot of thoughts and walking as I mentally prepare for a meeting can allow me time to cull and organize my thoughts. Clarity is also particularly important. If you can show someone how something works versus explaining it to them, many tend to catch on more quickly. So for my work I rely heavily on flowcharts and poorly drawn decision matrices on corporate whiteboards. For my work involving communication, I often ask myself “How can I present this visually?”. This is also why I take pictures. Seeing helps me understand the complexity that lies beneath the surface. A picture is worth a thousand words, right?

My city has a complicated past. It only exists because of a geological oddity whereby it is the only place on earth where limestone, coal and iron ore are available naturally in ample supply and in close proximity. As the country began to recover after the Civil War and the industrial revolution kicked into high gear; the ability to forge steel without the need to source materials from disparate regions made Birmingham a logical spot to build a steel-making empire. Limestone and coal and iron ore have strength and purpose individually, but as the constituent ingredients for making steel, some would argue they are better together.

Sloss Furnace in downtown Birmingham
Historic Sloss Furnace in downtown Birmingham

Making steel at the beginning of the industrial revolution was a valuable business. Birmingham grew so quickly that it became known as the Magic City. The explosive growth offered a war-torn region an opportunity for purpose and recovery. Jobs were available and workers were needed. There was opportunity. The opportunities were not equally distributed though. The higher paying jobs, shopping in the finest stores downtown, eating in the best restaurants, staying at the nicest hotels, even more basic amenities like drinking from a water fountain or using a restroom – were segregated. And not in a subconscious way. In a legal way. It was a small step forward from where the region had been, and an uneasy peace in the steel city was forged for a time. But it is hard these days to imagine that anyone would objectively observe the situation and call it equal.

Magic City sign in downtown Birmingham
Magic City sign in downtown Birmimgham

Change is inevitable. It may come along quietly or with much fury, but it will come. Martin Luther King was in jail in Birmingham in April 1963 for breaking a law against parading without a permit. Some local religious leaders asked why he was in Birmingham at all, and why he was breaking the law as a man of God. Surely there was change that would make things more equal coming anyway, so why ‘stir up all the trouble’? In the letter he wrote in reply to them, he explained that “There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair”. Generations of even an easy peace cannot hold back the momentum of change. An uneasy peace pushes forward with all of its might.

Historical marker for Kings Letter from Birmingham Jail
Historical marker for Martin Luther King’s letter from the Birmingham Jail


Economic boycotts were organized against some of those stores and restaurants that were denying service. Peaceful marches were met with firehoses and police dogs. Children participated and were jailed. Houses were bombed, and sadly, churches were also. Just five months after Dr. King’s letter, the 16th Street Baptist church bombing killed four little girls as they prepared for their Sunday service.


16th Street Baptist Church and 4 Little Girls Memorial
The 16th Street Baptist Church and the Four Little Girls Memorial in Birmingham

These events all happened before I was born, but they have left their mark on the city. Memorials of lives lost, remembrances from those involved. I can only imagine that during those times there were some who did not understand what was happening or why. After all, the Civil War was over and slavery was ended. The Civil Rights Movement, then, was a second hard-fought battle from which the city had to find the opportunity for purpose and recovery.

It was against this backdrop that I watched the events of May 31, 2020 unfold on television amidst a global pandemic. As had happened in many cities, people had gathered in downtown Birmingham in the wake of George Floyd’s death to protest against social injustice. The cup of endurance had once again overflowed. Over the ensuing days, many of the businesses downtown boarded up their windows. Many of them were former locations of those stores and restaurants that had been targeted by the boycotts in the 1960s.

Sometime later once the lockdown restrictions were loosened, I walked. Downtown. To organize and cull my thoughts. And whilst I walked, I took pictures and asked myself “How can I present this visually?”. What picture could convey the thousand words that would help the city move forward towards the opportunity for purpose and recovery?

Mural that says better together
Mural in downtown Birmingham saying Better Together

Beyond how photography as a visual medium relates to the communication responsibilities in my work life, it is also very much a cathartic process, a way of interacting with the world in my everyday life and in examples such as this fostering empathy for my fellow man. The evidence suggests that the visual arts in general – be it murals, sculptures or memorials – serve a similar general purpose for others. During normal times, I click the shutter to capture a moment and then the moment and I are connected in time. During abnormal times like these, trying to relate to the people that have come before by visiting the places where they walked the path before me offers me the opportunity to engage with humanity, see different perspectives and learn. All of this I get through photography.

Thank you for reading.

You can find me on Twitter and on Flickr.



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About The Author

14 thoughts on “Better Together – A City with a Complicated Past – By Billy Stanford”

    1. Thank you Graham, I very much appreciate it. It is such a difficult time for so many people for multiple reasons. I’m grateful for photography and how it helps me personally process things. And humbled that anyone else would consider my words and images as part of the conversation.

  1. Thanks for the piece; I had to read the first half a couple of times, though, before I worked out you were talking about the US. Birmingham and Industrial Revolution to me say UK – and there has been more than one cvil war in the world. I only put it together when you mentioned Dr King! Please done’t take this the wrong way, I’m from neither the UK nor the US and while many people jibe those in the US for viewing their country as the centre of the world that is not my intention at all. I just could not help but notice that your very thoughtful piece on communication had this unintentional irony in it. There’s a further message and goal for us all I guess – communication to reach those whose cultural experiences are different from our own. Hope this comment does not sound smarty-pants; it’s not meant to.

    1. Thank you David, that is an excellent point and I appreciate the feedback. To your point, it is always helpful to know when communication can be better, so I appreciate it.

  2. Great job on this piece Mr Sanford. it’s real talk and I appreciate how its not watered down in any way. as a black man its almost a serious reminder of where weve come from and where we still are, respect

    1. Thank you very much for the kind note and for taking the time to read my article Mr Anderson. I’m happy to hear that feedback and hope that I’ve added something positive to the conversation so that we might all be able to relate and empathize. From my personal perspective, I’m grateful that photography can offer that to me (the attempt to see the world through others eyes and experiences) and I hope that others can take something from that as well.

  3. Thank you for writing! The pictures certainly do help with understanding — putting the Civil Rights movement and its still-unfinished business in the context of economic and social history, and of ordinary life. Better Together indeed!

    1. Thank you for the kind words, I very much appreciate you taking the time to read it. It is nice when we can each contribute our individual strengths, support one another and be better together.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read it. That seems to be a phrase that very much applies to my approach. Of course there are some things that it can’t ‘solve’, but I am very grateful that photography gives me personally the opportunity to connect.

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