Origins

July 2022 • Gonopolis

Paul Mark Smith

Above: Ledbury · 1983 – Animal rights demonstration. My first credited published photograph, for which I was not paid, was taken with the ME Super.

photographer · Medellín, Colombia

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 (just another neighbour), the melancholy poet John Clare and Bahaus (the band not the movement). 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.

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 linen. 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 while wearing a balaclava and, obviously, I was not credited nor paid for my pictures.

The camera accompanied me when I used to hitch-hike around Europe, to places East Berlin, and northern and southern Europe. I still had the camera when I worked on a youth training scheme in my home town, where I finally found some guidance in the form of a professional photographer, Ross Boyd, who steered me towards the idea of studying and working in photography. He thought I had “an eye”.

School truants · Trevor on Exeter Estate, Corby · Taken during the Youth Opportunity work in 1983

I then studied, on a commercial photography course, for two days a week in Leicester (my birth town) under the tutelage of Gerry Broughton who would let me get on with my own thing of putting my portfolio together and nosing into everything that took my fancy. I had acquired a Rolleiflex TLR camera and would also use that as well as the Pentax. Starting to study in Leicester was tough as I had to get the bus with my friend Phil at before 5 a.m. and would get back home around 10pm to repeat the journey the following day. We later started hitch-hiking to be able to spend a little more time asleep. Phil eventually dropped out but I continued. Luck came in the form of a man who travelled daily to Leicester in his car who became a regular ride and eventually I nighted over with a friend’s grandmother who lived in Leicester.

Alma Platoon · Army Basic Training · Taken during my time at Newport School of Documentary Photography in 1988. The project won The Observer’s David Hodge student prize – my only real prize to date!

With the Pentax, I took the photos that got me to Newport School of Documentary – I would hitch-hike around the country taking pictures to put together a portfolio, often sleeping rough as I had no money to pay for accommodation. At Newport, it was my camera for the whole first year until it was stolen when I was robbed at knifepoint in Notting Hill, London, in a mini-riot during the Carnival.

After Newport, I started to learn Spanish on my own and then went to Central America to photograph the last months of the Sandinista government and the end of the conflict in Nicaragua.

Peasant mother and daughter w/ AK47 guns · Siuna, Nicaragua · 1989