“There are so many gut-wrenching and emotional moments I’ve experienced with families and tragedy and death, it’s hard to put a camera in their faces and take a shot. People ask if it’s hard to train yourself not to shoot the image, but I always say that you actually have to train yourself to shoot these moments,” Alex Smailes revealed. The British-born photojournalist was addressing his audience at Medulla Art Gallery, Woodbrook, as his recent exhibition ‘10’ came to an end.
Smailes celebrated a decade of imagery and photo-documenting Caribbean culture from 2002 to 2012. The exhibition also culminated with photo-books, also titled ‘10’, as he fielded questions from those interested in his days of dodging bullets as a photojournalist in Europe and the Middle-East as he removed the cloak of his personal lens to the world.
Smailes, British-born, divulged, “My mum was from here and I literally learnt to walk on Maracas Beach. Trinidad means so much to me. The bad things we hear about Trinidad always bombard us but there’s a lot of good and creativity here. Whether it’s through photography or the media, we actually do have a voice. That’s where the passion comes from,” stated Smailes. “I loved traveling this region and garnering incredible stories. I grew up in Europe and my family was always taking us on long, hot, miserable trips to Italy’s Sistine Chapel and the Athens Acropolis, and I can recall the texture and scent of all those trips vividly. They’re engrained in me and led me down this path back here,” he recounted.
He attained a book deal and Macmillan published ‘Trinidad and Tobago’ in 2004. This was the book that returned him from perils of Pakistan in 2002, where backlash of America’s invasion of Afghanistan was perpetuating. “Fear is always there in these situations. Whoever said they aren’t afraid when bullets are whizzing past their heads or buildings are being bombed… is lying. It’s about self-preservation,” he stated on the last fifteen years, when embroiled in war-torn areas such as Pakistan, Kosovo and Bosnia. Following such tumultuous days in the line of fire, he was eager to return to his Trinidadian roots to etch his name into the Caribbean’s photographic landscape.
Manifesting political turmoil, social uprisings and varying cultures in a constantly evolving regional canvas became his forte as he placed behind him the days of stray bullets. Smailes was now totally devoted to the Caribbean.
The director at brand engineers, Abovegroup Ogilvy, deemed the chance to capture the fabric of the Caribbean as an honor and responsibility. “I remember one time there was some incident in Laventille and there were people setting fires. I saw the smoke and rushed back into my office at Fernandes compound, and without knowing anyone in that area, I ran against the crowd to take images. Everyone looked at me like I was crazy but I felt I had a duty. You have to gauge the situations and move easily from block to block…just like the early days when I had to dodge snipers,” he revealed.
“Now we see a lot of people taking pictures of themselves and back then, photographers weren’t into self-portraits…photography wasn’t used like that. It was actually considered obscene. I guess they wanted to keep it an art back then. Now it can be used for so much more,” continued the illustrious worker for BBC and Corbis in the past. His mother’s social issue slideshows for ActionAid piqued his curiosity and he saw photography as an intrepid tool that could make a difference.
Just after 9/11 Smailes found himself in the crosshairs of Pakistan’s military as he discussed his stay with their British-influenced soldiers, watching USA invade Afghanistan. “Cell-phones were being smuggled in so I got to call my family now and again. They didn’t hear from me often when on assignment and in Pakistan, I was lucky to bunk with their army… and we didn’t know the scale of Afghanistan’s troubles in 2001. People were trying to flee there and come into Pakistan. I got offers to go over to Afghanistan but then I got word that my ‘Trinidad and Tobago’ book deal came through…so I wanted out of that warzone and then, it was off to TT,” he confessed. “I don’t miss those days…not one bit,” he added.
One of the most resonating experiences that affected him was 13 year-old Laventille youth, Kaleem ‘Billy’ Danglade, gunned down in Morvant in front his mother, Patricia Danglade, in 2005. Smailes became close to the family as he was documenting various hot spots in the country. “People asked me if I was crazy or if it was dangerous or scary just taking my camera out and heading into Laventille, but that’s what I do. There are relevant issues that need to come out and it’s not just Laventille I focused on, but Sea Lots and Beetham too. People associated dark, brooding and dystopian communities with everything bad in the country but there is a lot of brightness present in these areas. But sometimes the bad stands out most,” he stated. He conferred how much he struggled to document this, as he was close to the people involved.
Mark ‘Ataklan’ Jiminez, a close friend of Smailes, meshed him into Laventille until Smailes actually befriended the community. Smailes described as Patricia and Ataklan as family. “Kaleem’s death hit us all hard. He was so young and bright and a talent on the football field. This was very hard to stomach. He really was gone too soon and it still haunts us to this very day,” he reiterated.
“Photography’s not a part of me…it’s my passion. It is me. There are so many intelligent and creative people here in Trinidad and I see a bright future for us all,” he revealed. “I’m glad to be here to see this photographic revolution in the Caribbean and I can’t wait to see the new era riding this digital wave. The Internet changed things forever for us and I hope to be documenting a further ten years of the Caribbean. I want to play a big role as we move forward. We need to come together as creatives and forge this new path,” Smailes ended.