For those out there who may not have heard about you, tell us a little bit of the story of the man behind the lens.
I’m an immigrant, a Ten Pound Pom, one of the last wave of Brits that made it to Australia a few months before the end of the ‘assisted package’ scheme (that literally cost adults ten pounds a ticket, kids five pounds, to travel one-way to Australia). I arrived here when I was 5 years old from England, although I was born in Malaysia and spent the most of the first years of my life in Malaysia and Singapore. I still think of myself as part-Asian, although I’m pale-skinned and blue-eyed.
As an outsider with a funny accent, and a few odd quirks (I walk with a strange bounce caused by pigeon-toed feet and slight scoliosis of the spine, and I probably have undiagnosed ADHD), I got bullied a lot at school.
Through playground anxiety I learned to keep my mouth shut and my eyes opened, a helpful trait if you’re a professional observer, like a photographer, journalist or Documentary filmmaker.
With an incredible photographic and journalistic CV under your belt, it would be difficult to deny there is an innate, almost insatiable involuntary need to share with the world what you see whether it by frame or articulated by word. Where do you think this came from? Nature? Nurture? Or was there a pivotal moment that pushed you on this path you are now rather delightfully travelling?
I read a lot as a child, but learned that people seldom listen to you when you’re a nerdy bookish type, especially if you have a foreign accent, so instead I developed my abilities to communicate via the written word – hence how I ended up a features writer.
The photojournalism came about from a need to document the world I see (as the son of a librarian I’m programmed to archive!), and also as a response to dealing with bigots who deny things until they see ‘proof’. (This later motivated me to visit Auschwitz extermination camp. I also made 15 trips to Northern Ireland during ‘the Troubles’, and five treks to the Palestinian West Bank to record people and the problems they faced.)
Early plans to go to uni and become a journalist were thwarted by high school bullies, so I left school at 15 and drifted for a decade, doing low-skilled menial jobs and hanging out with the punk rock scene until I found myself back in England.
There I washed dishes for another decade and also worked as a chef, but at the same time I photographed and reported on the activities of the ‘counter-culture’. This included hunt saboteurs, environmental activists, squatters and assorted revolutionaries. I occasionally got arrested or caught up in a riot, all the while donating my photos and articles to small publications run by independent media. (I still give away most of my photos and articles!)
After 10 years I approached a regional newspaper publisher with my portfolio of images and, luckily for me, they’d just parted with one of their regular photographers, so I filled the vacancy as a freelancer.
I soon began writing and photographing leisure & cultural features to fill gaps in their entertainment supplements, which included undertaking fun activities like flying lessons, helicopter rides, visiting wildlife centres, and reviewing movies, theatres and restaurants, and that led to full-time work as a features writer and editor.
From shooting punk gigs in small, dimly-lit venues whilst jostling with aggressive ‘slam-dancers’ I graduated to concerts and music festivals.
In my career I haven’t had a single minute of journalism training and I still can’t type or write shorthand, but fate gave me a break. Instead of years studying in university then slogging it out as a cub reporter, I leap-frogged to a position many journalists take years to achieve. I explain to the skeptical that the back door was left unlocked – the nerdy photographer who covered for other snappers that were off sick or on holiday found a vacant desk and started writing.
Not wanting to bring political stances or viewpoints into play (for they are contentious at the best of times) is there a gig or topic that for you is a deal breaker: the one line (in spite or despite the opportunity to capture what could be quite possibly a once in a life time moment) you cannot cross.
I refuse to report on celebrity gossip and lifestyles, especially their dull sex lives, something which dominates mainstream media – especially the Rupert Murdoch-run publications. I worked one night unpaid as a paparazzo for Big Pictures in London, which involved standing for hours outside the Ivy Restaurant in London’s West End on the false promise that actor Al Pacino might dine there (instead, he was across the other side of town at a hotel function).
It was voyeuristic and humiliating and all I caught was a nasty cold. The agency called the following day but I turned down their request to pursue Paul McCartney, who by chance was courting Heather Mills in a terrace house opposite my flatmate’s watch repair shop. I never worked paparazzo again.
Your photography portfolio is, if nothing else, one that others can only hope to aspire. How have you seen yourself evolving with this craft and can you give us a highlight and let’s not forget the “what the fuck was i thinking saying yes to doing this” lowlight.
I’m training as a documentary filmmaker, inspired by the need to ‘upskill’ when the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic closed entertainment venues and other activities that photojournalists document for a living. I’ve done a bit of filming in the past – some video footage of mine appeared in the documentary movie The Corporation. It featured a group of ‘eco-warriors’ who visited the home of Shell CEO Mark Moody-Stewart with the intention of protesting about the oil corporation’s nefarious activities in Nigeria. Instead they were greeted by his wife with tea and biscuits and had a picnic on his front lawn while they engaged in polite debate with Moody-Stewart. It was very surreal!
You have recently been to some “fun time” new C-normal gigs: the seated gigs. Nothing says joy than having to sit in one place, trying to be creative but knowing you are simply taking shots of the same people from the same angle. How frustrating has that been for creatively and do you ever see live gigs returning to what they were.
I love live music, and I generally prefer to shoot bands and artists I admire, so as frustrating as it is being stuck in a chair and prevented from photographing different angles of a performance, I can still appreciate the event as a civilian. Australia’s live entertainment scene will return to ‘normal’ soon, but it will take awhile before foreign artists can tour here again, not unless they factor a fortnight’s quarantine lockdown in a hotel when they first arrive!
In this digital age with everyone apparently now being a “photographer” or a “writer” what does the future hold for people such as yourself
The media world’s transition to multi-skilled worker in the 1990s initially helped me. I could write and photograph at a time when most people in the industry did one or the other. Unfortunately, I was only paid once, whereas previously most magazines and newspapers had separate budgets for photography and writing.
Now the industry is saturated with people who can multi-task several disciplines as well as utilise sophisticated software whilst standing on their head.
I’m hoping documentary filming will provide me an alternative creative outlet, whether it be working on projects with others or eventually making my own films. That might mean documenting live music, making music videos or perhaps writing scripts and working with actors.
all photos used are copyrighted to Alec Smart and may not be reproduced or used without expression permission