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Alex Smailes—Interview Portrait

“I used to remember that kind of fire! And that willingness to stand up for what was right. Really ‘bully the bully’.”

It’s a Tuesday morning on the hills of Saint Anns. While work, school and other everyday life continues just a few kilometres away in Port of Spain, Alex Smailes‘s living room feels far removed from the bustle. It’s a hot day, though breezy, and tropical birds of all types whistle their calls from every direction outdoors. Today is November 24th, 2015, and by the end of this week Alex will be on a plane heading to a new life in California, United States, ending his thirteen-year stint in Trinidad, West Indies.

Alex is a photographer, photojournalist, user-experience design consultant, student, husband, and new father. Since 2005, he has been partner to Abovegroup, an outstanding branding and design company founded in Trinidad and Tobago by designer, Gareth Jenkins. After what proved to be a disastrous ‘merger’ with Inglefield/Ogilvy and Mather in 2012, Abovegroup recently regained its independence and is working on restoring itself on its now limited, but growing, means. Alex will use his coming homebase in California to Abovegroup’s advantage, very much in Abovegroup’s, and Alex’s own, tradition of resourcefulness.

Alex’s mother is Trinidadian; he was adopted after being born in the United Kingdom. His father is British. Though primarily based and schooled in Bristol in his early life, he and his family would holiday in Trinidad from time to time, visiting extended family. While Alex was a college student and unsure of his future goals, his mother worked at ActionAid International, giving slide presentations on development projects to primary schools. “She’d always be sorting the slides. Going through them, making sure they’re the right way up and stuff like that. So I just saw a lot of really interesting imagery,” Alex says. “So I think that was one influence. But she’s also always stood up for what was right. You know, one of my earliest memories was when we were kids in Greece, there was a guy with a horse and cart… And he had these big, leather boots… And he was kicking the horse in the stomach, because it refused to move [or] something like that. The horse was kind of wincing. And [my mother] blatantly ran across the street, shouting and ranting at him! This tiny, little, Trinidad woman, ranting and raving in Greece, and I was terrified for her. I thought he was gonna do the same to her!” He continues, “I used to remember that kind of fire! And that willingness to stand up for what was right. Really ‘bully the bully’.”

“We were supported by the UAE Airforce [so] we had helicopters dropping us off into remote islands. It was a real adventure — ‘James Bond’ stuff.”

Alex’s fascinating career began in 1996. While still studying at Falmouth School of Art & Design, opportunity rang late one night. He was offered a chance to join a small group of filmmakers and marine biologists on an adventure to document sealife under the oil platforms of the Persian Gulf; The route somewhat retraced the steps of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, and examined the de facto, artificial reefs formed by the platforms. Thus Alex worked many odd jobs of varying savour (one of which resulted in regular bus-rides home smelling of an odious fish-shop), until he finally saved up for his underwater equipment.

“It was an incredible experience,” he says of the marine project, “We had this beautiful flat, and we got some vehicles supplied by various governments and industries and companies. […] We had a dive boat. We were supported by the UAE Airforce [so] we had helicopters dropping us off into remote islands. It was a real adventure — ‘James Bond’ stuff.” The two years of the project saw him visit Indonesia, Thailand, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands, photographing portfolio material for himself as well. During this time, many business contacts were also formed, with him meeting, among others, the head of World Wildlife Fund, the head of Greenpeace, and academics writing papers. “Suddenly, just being surrounded in that world, you start making possible business connections.”

“Environmental issues are social issues as well. They go hand in hand.”

While in Papua New Guinea, Alex’s gradual transition into photographing war and conflict stories also began, as the environmental contentions there grew into, “literally a war for the forests.” Papua New Guinea, the eastern half of the Oceanian island of New Guinea, is one of the most culturally diverse places on Earth, with over eight hundred languages, perhaps as many variations of community life, including some of the few, remaining ‘uncontacted peoples’ on the planet. (That last fact is why Paul Ekman chose there to conduct his research on human facial expressions.) Alex had become captivated by events unfolding on Bouganville Island, “…and what had triggered a civil war; fighting over [a] mine. An indigenous group of people stood up against the mining company and shut it down. They were demanding more rights. That had been going on for a decade, but what I was fascinated about was the lack of information coming out from there. […] So it literally was this ‘island that time forgot’, and I kind of thought ‘I really have to get that!’ […] So I guess that was the transition, and just realising [that] environmental issues are social issues as well. They go hand in hand.”

After the marine project ended, Alex returned to the UK and started hitting the streets intensely, trying to get his photographs sold. He sometimes had two or three meetings per day — talking to magazines, environmental and nature publications, editors, NGOs, and the pre-Corbis photo-agencies. He persisted through very limited success, until finally getting a break at Sygma Photo News Agency, who had a gap in their environmental section. The relationship proved mutually beneficial. With Sygma as a fifty percent partner, they distributed his work globally, got him press passes, and occasionally would fund part of his trips for topics or events that seemed saleable. This officially got him into news and journalistic work, as well as the syndication of his work. His growing list of contacts with aid agencies, NGOs, and charities helped him gain access into conflict zones, because they needed their efforts documented. Then Sygma would help resell those photographs later, offering him yet another revenue stream, and easing the great expenses of his trips and equipment.

“In the evenings, there’d be grenades thrown into bars or Kalashnikovs going off in the city. You just felt this kind of escalation of tension.”

His first taste of really heavy conflict happened during this period of his career. Luckily, he had a ‘soft entry’, as one of his earlier, agency assignments saw him visiting Belfast, Northern Ireland during the winding down of the official days of the Troubles. Soon after this he also experienced Bosnia in the aftermath of the Bosnian War, having the ‘surreal’ experience then of witnessing the consequences of the conflict from the northern, Serbian side. “That definitely was a kind of soft awakening to the ‘Balkans’ way of life’.” While at Bosnia, word arrived about the activity in nearby Kosovo picking up. Part of his assignment carried him there, and his agency access, as well has his European nationality, allowed him through to Pristina, just as the renewed conflict began in 1998. “[It was] very surreal. I mean, I was kind of torn because I was there on assignment with an aid agency; So one thing was giving out food and shelter and warm clothes. […] But then in the evenings, there’d be grenades thrown into bars or Kalashnikovs going off in the city. You just felt this kind of escalation of tension.” Over six years Alex experienced a whirlwind of difficult, life-threatening situations. He had seen and photographed, among other places, Caucasus, Eastern Europe, Haiti, Afghanistan, and Macedonia; where he and an Out There News journalist were pinned down by a sniper for two hours — the sounds of sporadic bullets whistling by and striking the ground or ringing off the nearby fence.

In 2002, it was time for a new chapter. Alex moved to Trinidad permanently, set on starting a longterm project about Trinidad and Tobago. He says, “[Even] back in ’96, when I was in the Middle East, when people asked me what I wanted to do, my immediate answer was, ‘Make a book on Trinidad and Tobago’… And their response was, ‘Where the hell is that?'” He snickers, “Exactly why I’m doing the book!” His first book about the islands was published by Macmillan Publishers in 2006. He says, “Well, I had a connection here [in Trinidad]. We used to come back every three years; Every three to four years we’d come back for family holiday. So I knew the place and the environment. It always held great memories. I came back when I was about eighteen / nineteen and that made a really big impact as well ’cause I’d started photographing in and amongst Trinidad, and realised it was a really unique place. [But] there wasn’t much imagery known about Trinidad outside. There was a National Geographic magazine article that really made a big impact when I was a kid. And so the book conversation had actually been going on for a long time. I mean, I’d been writing and researching, and sending out proposals and meetings for many, many years. And it was by pure luck that the paths crossed with Macmillan.”

“You can put yourself in the right place, and you can ready for that moment. […] That’s all about understanding human nature, human behaviour, psychology.”

The book took three years to complete; two of photography, and one year of production and design. The designer on the project was none other than his would-be business partner, Gareth Jenkins of Abovegroup. Alex and Gareth knew each other beforehand, as their mothers were friends back in the UK, but Alex’s book project became the first time they’d collaborate. At that time Abovegroup was a young, two-person team of Gareth Jenkins and Sam Clement, with a focus on design and technology. Alex, in need of a workspace, became a rental partner. Over time, this lead to the trio cooperating on projects. Then soon after that, in 2005, Alex was invited to become a business partner, thereby embedding commercial photography into Abovegroup’s line of services.

As time progressed, cunning business decisions, clever networking and outreach projects, and Alex’s drill-like perseverance, saw Abovegroup grow in client-base, size, staff, and reputation. The studio evolved into a branding agency, known for its thorough research and highly-skilled team of creatives. By 2010 it became ‘the’ place for young talent to work, learn, and grow in an open, but highly productive, work-environment. It was an exciting time for the company. Though Abovegroup would be later beset by a destructive merger with Inglefield/Ogilvy and Mather, along with the ugly separation thereafter, the company persists today, recovering from its lost time and resources, and aligning itself for new possibilities.

Alex sees the work he’s doing now as, “…a summation of the past.” He continues, “There’s no way I could be shooting the style or the approach that I do now if I didn’t have that decade of shooting diverse things before. So the journalism, the early days, gave me an awareness of what’s about to happen. Not what’s happening now, but predicting what is gonna happen. Which is why a lot of the images that I try [to] capture have that moment of ‘Wow! How did you capture that?'” Of the cliché about the photographer being in the ‘right place at the right time’ he says, “Well, you can put yourself in the right place, and you can ready for that moment.” He explains, “That’s all about understanding human nature, human behaviour, psychology. You know, [even] manipulating it; Asking them a question to trigger a reaction.” Added to that, his years of work for Maco Magazine, via Abovegroup, photographing beautiful and recognisable images of food, taught him studio lighting. He often says he lights food as he does models, “If you’re tasked to make ‘blue food’ look gorgeous and sexy straight out of the ground, you’re basically applying the same principles of fashion lighting, or lighting a model.” He snickers, “So if you’re doing a dirty, old, root vegetable and you make it look great, you can apply that to people and make them look great.” Lastly, he brings in the influences of his environmental work, “…with no flash and no lights. But it’s really understanding Light. And that came from the wildlife approach where you’re not supposed to manipulate anything in your environment.” Sometimes working in natural light can be a challenge, so rather than fighting against it, he embraces it and lets it add, “…that kind of layer of creativity, which I guess came from a really solid foundation of art school. So I learnt to see.”

Today, and for the foreseeable future, Alex sees his new mission as continuing to offer his expertise to the design and user-experience of his clients and colleagues. He intends to grow Abovegroup to the level where it can be passed onto a new team of talent, who can keep the meaningful work going in his stead. As he finalises plans to migrate to California, US with his wife and young son, he leaves behind a legacy for others to inherit. As well, another book about Trinidad and Tobago, ‘10‘, a collection of his journalistic photographs over his long and fruitful spell on the islands of his mother’s birth.