Origins

The Origin story of someone who should have carried on studying biology.

You can e-mail me – paul@paulmarksmith.com

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I was born in the UK (Leicester) and grew up in Northampton in the Midlands, which I like to brag is the home of scientist Francis Crick, graphic novel writer Alan Moore, the 19th Century melancholy and environmentalist peasant poet John Clare and Bahaus (the band). I acquired my first camera, a Kodak Brownie Twin 20 made of bakelite, which was gifted to me by my then best friend’s father, a psychiatrist in the local private mental hospital who specialised in cocaine addiction. I would end up in Medellín, Colombia, where I still live today.

Left (or above): Alan Moore (Portrait for “Tripping Yarns” fanzine) · Northampton 1987

My youth was not misspent and when I was 11 years old I worked a Saturday job in the town’s largest hotel, the Saxon Inn, picking up rubbish, cleaning bottles and carrying bed linen down from the rooms. With the proceeds of my part-time child labour, I bought a second-hand Yashica Electro 35CC on the cheap. With it, I began to shyly photograph the world around me – starting with ducks and cats – and took particularly unspectacular photos. I persisted though and learnt how to process films and print (badly). I was all self-taught and it noticed.

“ME Super”

With my meagre but steady income, I saved for more than a year to buy my first reflex camera, which I purchased when I was 13. It was a Pentax ME super that accompanied me through my adolescence: photographing friends, punk bands, demos, peace camps, hunt sabbing and animal rights direct action. My first published photographs I would take clandestinely, invariably whilst wearing a balaclava and, obviously, for I was neither credited nor paid for my pictures. The UK’s lack of a statute of limitations (other than for financial crimes I understand!) rather limits talking about this period, for a little longer at least.

The camera accompanied me on my erratic hitch-hiking around England and also a few times on escape from the known world trips – still hitch-hiking as there was money – to Europe as far as East Berlin; Denmark to the north; and Andalucia to the south. I came to work on a youth training scheme for unemployed youths in my home town which was ostensibly to photograph the facades of Northamptonshire county’s buildings, which is where I finally found some guidance in the form of Ross Boyd, a professional and impassioned photographer, who thought that I had “an eye” and liked the fact I would photograph complete strangers. During the scheme, the team we formed would do the job and supplement those pictures of daily life and portraits in the county. It was fun but only lasted six months!

London

After that, I would photograph with a little more purpose and drift in and out of alien worlds, such as those of homeless people in shelters, mental patients in halfway houses and also into a cult of evangelical Christians (the Jesus Army). On reflection, all of these groups were those that would be thankful for having someone who would stay and talk to them about what interested them. I didn’t take too many photos but lived lots of experiences and learnt a bit more about my fellow human beings – their dreams, demons, histories and everyday banalities.

Ross had introduced to to the idea of studying documentary photography (I had not even known such a thing was an option) and steered me towards it. First, I started to put together a portfolio and went to study photography in Leicester (my birth town) under the tutelage of Gerry Broughton. Gerry was an art photographer who also had to earn a living through teaching commercial photography. He would just let me get on with my own thing in my own way and give me encouragement when I would come back with my 35mm and 6x6cm films to process. Most of those I would photograph I would meet on the streets whilst taking portraits and in the places people gathered such as markets.

Getting to the University two days a week was not straightforward, as taking the double-decker green bus involved getting up at 4 a.m. and getting back home around 10pm to repeat the journey the following day. Hitch-hiking turned out to be the solution, which I would do with a friend, Phil, who soon dropped out of the heavy schedule. Eventually, luck came in the form of a kind man who sang in a choir and owned a small factory in Leicester and would travel there daily. Each Tuesday and Wednesday he would pick me up by the racecourse, a park where once upon a time they would have public executions (hangings) before they had had horse races, and my days would start with classical choral music and the bass-baritone voice of that kind man as we drove through the lifting morning mists of the English countryside.

Wandering the UK with travellers – Winter Solstice · Stonehenge, 1986 / Stock-car meet · Brayfield-on-the-Green, Northamptonshire, 1985

The ME super accompanied me around the country as I put together my portfolio for the Newport School of Documentary, which I did by hitchhiking to locations I wished to photograph, sometimes sleeping rough as there was no money to pay for accommodation. The Newport photography school allowed me onto the course as a “special case” – I hadn’t the qualifications necessary as I’d ditched academia for activism – and studying there was a kind of photo “boot camp” where we would have to eat humble pie and return to photograph the same people and the same things, as the idea was that we could always do better than we had already done.

Notting Hill · London 1985

At the end of the first year of study, I finally parted with the ME Super when I was robbed at knifepoint in the middle of a little riot during Notting Hill Carnival in London. It was the first time I had been robbed (but not the last) and perhaps the beginning of another era. I had to get another camera and only rarely returned to Newport to show the progress of the projects I was working on which included doing basic training with the British Army (see “Platoon”); the poorest community in England (“Jaywick the Sands of Time”); and alternative youth culture and the city of Milton Keynes (“Counter to the Dream”).

Alma Platoon (Army Basic Training) · Litchfield, 1988
The Observer David Hodge student first prize 1989

After my studies, I travelled to Central America for the last months of the Sandinista revolutionary government and the end of the conflict in Nicaragua. I was now a photographer, of sorts.

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