India Sleem’s dad learned how to ride a bike by traversing the corridor of a tiny flat above a shop in Manchester’s Moss Side in the early-60s. She believes that it is those inner-city limitations which shaped the future of her father’s dreams, dreams which came in the shape of “three kids, a car, and a hose pipe to wash it with.”
Like most of us, India found that making an effort to really speak with her dad took, well, effort. “Growing up, I knew we were really similar and my friends would call him the cool dad’, but we still weren’t that communicative and I wouldn’t share much with him.” As a teenager she made a conscious effort to get to grips with who her dad was and what drove him.
Her most recent project Small Town Country Boy is an intimate portrait of the part-time model and full-time DJ that she calls dad, a man who dared to dream of a rural idyll so different from the life he’d known.
“We spent a lot of time driving up to Derbyshire as a kid at the weekend because my parents loved it so much, but we didn’t completely move there until 2006,” India tells It’s Nice That. “I did most of my growing up in a little village called Whaley Bridge.”
Inspired by everyone from Martin Parr to Janet Jackson, Claire Denis to Lily Allen, the Manchester-born, Brooklyn-based photographer and director’s series blends familial intimacy with a sense of slight estrangement. After all, black men raised in Moss Side don’t tend to rebrand as tweed-clad country gents. And that’s the point. It is, India says, visual proof that, “it’s starting to feel like people are pushing through stigmas that society have put in place for us.”
India says that she’s “pretty sure my dad is still the only black guy in the village,” before adding that “I don’t think he even noticed how he was received when he moved to the middle of nowhere, let alone cared. Instead, he embraced country life for himself. We had a field with cows and goats, we bought a dog, and dad would come home from work at night, put his wellies and headphones on, and mow the grass until it got dark.”
She saw her dad turning 60 earlier this year as the perfect chance to memorialise the process of self-invention and self-actualization that he’s undertaken in the past few years. She promises us that she’s working on a filmic accompaniment to the series as we speak.