Paul Mark Smith
Above: Ledbury · 1983 – Animal rights demonstration. My first credited published photograph.
photographer · Medellín, Colombia
I was born in the UK (Leicester) and grew up in Northampton in the Midlands. I acquired my first camera, a Kodak Brownie Twin 20, which was gifted to me by a psychiatrist in the local private mental hospital – my then best friend’s father – who specialised in cocaine addiction. When I was 11 years old I worked a Saturday job in the town’s largest hotel, the Saxon Inn, and soon after I bought a second-hand Yashica Electro 35CC on the cheap. My career in photography had begun and I shyly photographed the world around me. I don’t think I was particularly good but I persisted and learnt how to process and print (badly) and started entertaining the idea that photography was what I did. 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 or 14. It was a Pentax ME super that accompanied me through my adolescence and many formative adventures until it was stolen from me at knifepoint during a mini riot in Notting Hill, London when I was 21.
At school I aspired to join the Royal Air Force. I had joined the in-school RAF cadets where I took orders, marched, shot guns and, sometimes, flew planes. However, by the time I was 16 I was out of school and studying at college, involved in the peace movement, animal rights activism and the post-punk scene. In activism and music I began to photograph and document the world in which I was involved for release to the press and my own amusement. Northampton remained my home base, but I would regularly travel from the town, which often asphyxiated me, to hitch-hike around the UK to visit friends, attend protests and concerts. At 17 years of age I was hitching around Europe too, as curiosity carried me to Germany, East Berlin, France, Spain, Denmark and Holland. I was though still timid in my approach to photography but this changed when I was taken on a youth employment scheme photographing the County of Northamptonshire. It was my first academy and my first tutor and guide was Ross Boyd to whom I am eternally grateful for encouraging me to pursue photography seriously.
I dared to start photographing on the streets and when the scheme ended I went on to study under Gerry Broughton in Leicester for two days a week. It was a commercial photography course but I was left to my own devices and pursued documentary photography. I had no money for transport to attend the course, nor was public transport a particularly viable option, so I would hitch-hike the forty miles to and from my studies beginning at the crack of dawn and returning in the late evening. It was during this period that I began to put together my portfolio of photographs to try and gain access to the internationally renowned Newport School of Documentary Photography in Gwent, South Wales. Often I would hitch-hike, bike or take cheap train travel to photograph at different events and places, and sometimes I would sleep rough when I couldn’t get back to my home base.
I did get into Newport School of Documentary Photography. I was allowed in as a special case as I had abandoned academia for a few years to pursue activism. The School was a great place to learn and push oneself – the emphasis was really upon self discipline and critique. I hardly attended Newport for the last year of studies as I worked on stories in various parts of the country far from Wales. I did finally get to join the UK’s armed forces, but as a student nosing in on Army basic training. My work with Alma Platoon won The Observer’s David Hodge Young Photographer of the Year Award the same year I left Newport, but I didn’t get to collect the prize as by then I was in Nicaragua, where I had began to work as an independent photographer.