Gary Mark Smith Critical Review 3

Where Journalists Won’t Go

Foreword to Gary Mark Smith’s Travelogueing the Dark Side (2018)
by James R. Hugunin

A lot of people think I’m crazy,
and some of them even say so out loud…

                                                           Gary Mark Smith

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Paris, 2015
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I’ve been following and commenting upon Gary Mark Smith’s life-project ever since I first met him during his final Master’s critique panel at Purdue University. I first became a fan of his images and his daring; he has a gutsiness that I admire and which has servedhim well during situations of maximum danger. I’d never met anyone like him before. The level of intensity he exudes is only matched by the extreme situations he manages to get himself into and out of. Smith writes: “I’ve been forced by my endeavors [global street photog- raphy] to perfect the practice of being prepared at all times to operate in a unique air somewhere between vulnerability and invincibility,” putting, as he says, “the need for artistic access ahead of the need for personal safety.”

Speaking of the global reach of his dangerous life-project, Smith says, “ There are numerous streets that aren’t even safe to hurry down with your hands in your pockets, much less saunter about with two cameras hanging around your neck, taking pictures of just about every- thing worthy of documenting in that place at that time.” He goes on to salute “travelers who go to so-called ‘risky’ places for “broadening their horizons in an aggressive and rewarding manner” and advises us to “throw caution to the wind and get out there.” So how does he get away with it, traversing, as he terms it, the “inaccessibly unsafe”? As Smith tells us, it’s sheer chutzpah — “Swagger is an asset among pirates” — gatecrashing, manipulating danger-world circumstances to meet his access needs. To make access easier, he always carries a laminated media ID card (real or imagined) “raring and ready” to throw around his neck at yet another roadblock-crashing encounter.

When I think of Gary Smith on one his well-researched, meticulously prepared-for danger missions, I think of him as one of those car- toon characters who, being chased, runs off a cliff and remains suspended in space before looking down and taking the plunge — but Garynever looks down. Had he been on the Titanic, he would’ve survived. Had he gone down in Pan Am flight 103, he’d have been the solesurvivor, turning up minutes later at a local Lockerbie pub with a camera and pint in hand. He’s that kind of guy. So again I am honored to speak on his behalf.

“I saw it.” (Yo lo vi.)
— Francisco Goya (Disasters of War)

Smith’s adventures recall stories found in editor Keath Fraser’s 1991 collection, Bad Trips: A Sometimes Terrifying, Some- times Hilarious Collection of Writing on the Perils of the Road: “The nagging rational voice inside my head kept cursing me over and over and over again . . . RUN AWAY FROM THIS THING! . . . JUST RUN NORTH RIGHT NOW.” So confesses pirate street photog-rapher Gary Mark Smith in his field notes for September 21, 1997, when confronting the most dangerous place on the face of the Earth at that moment — the Montserrat Soufrière Hills Volcano in the Caribbean, which was about to erupt, sending a pyroclastic cloud of hellfirehis way, a chaotic event in which this ExtremOphile photographer, holding his ground, hung out at a bar within the “death zone” gathering information and trading stories with locals. In his images, Smith found a visual order that emerged from the crazy disorder of destruction, pressing his shutter at just the right moment, from just the right angle. But just as amazing, are the stories Smith tells of these local bar-flies, “juiced volcano holdouts” with their “volcano-junkie eyes” (like his new friend “Style,” who tells him of surviving hurricane Hugoback in 1989), conversing about “the expanding catastrophe and their deteriorating predicaments,” . . . yet at the same time, “retelling of the miracles that they had all personally been given the opportunity to see that morning . . .”

This dance with death in the Caribbean is just one of many dire situations Smith has gotten himself into over the course of forty years of travel around the globe propelled by a vital need to overcome chronic pain from a leg injury by obsessively performing a scripto-visual dance among hazardous contexts, often remaining weeks (sometimes months) among the most miserable and dangerous streets on Earth“taking as big a risk as possible,” he writes, “to be able to adequately (in my mind) reach out and touch the flame of the place.”

Travelogueing the Dark Side: The ExtremeOphile Field Notes of a One-of-a-Kind Lifetime Art Project is a tome recording this intrepid photographer’s adventures across time and space, a sedimentation in paper and ink of his multifarious performances as a global street photographer, where danger is a key ingredient of such performances: “It’s something inside me that pulls me toward recording violent moments on ‘inaccessible’ streets”, areas Western photojournalists either won’t go or where they remain for just a short time. Hence, one must understand Smith’s accomplishments not just in an analysis of his superbly composed imagery per se, but of the whole performance of his global trekking activity into the world’s most dangerous places: Cuba in the 1960s; East Germany just after the fall of the Berlin Wall leading up to Reunification; Prague emerging from Communist rule; El Salvador during the bloody civil war (in 1982 for 3.5 months and in 1984 for two weeks), documenting victims of Right-Wing death squads; Rio de Janeiro’s infamous Rocinha favela, where he was roughed up by machine-gun-toting minions of the local drug lord, his camera grabbed; Peshawar near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, just after 9-11, with Taliban fleeing US attacks adjacent to Tora Bora into Pakistan’s tribal areas; and, more recently, life on the destitute streets of an impoverished Goma and in the Mugunga Refugee Camp in North Kivu in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, boldly ignoring a travel ban due to armed conflict in the area, which included the shelling of Goma itself, to “photograph people in the wild going about the poetry of their everyday lives.”

Smith embeds these diverse, probing images of his risky travel experiences in his highly readable, gripping, yet often humorous fieldnotes embodied in his books and on his comprehensive website www.streetphoto.com — billed as The Most Far-Flung Street Photogra- phy Website in All the Land. Not all of Smith’s trips are danger-filled. One field note entry reads: “My Impressions of Moscow: Despite Maggots in the Stew.” His field notes delight in recording ecstatic moments, like his presence in post-Communist Budapest on August 20, 1990 for the renaming of the Communist “Constitution Day,” back to its original pre-Communist St. Stephen’s Day, and the massivecelebration thereof: “Some estimates say that as many as five-and-a-half million Hungarians kicked up their post-Cold War heels under firework skies on a very special St. Stephen’s night on the banks of the Danube River.”

In Smith’s field notes we get inside information, and personal insights into, major global events that we would never hear from theusual news services. For instance, in “Basketball and Ball-busting on the Train Ride to Belgrade”, Smith serves up a dramatic story about Serb-Croatian tensions between Yugoslavian soldiers (this was just prior to the civil war there) he’s befriended on an overnight-train. Thenthere is his written record “Cologne SWAT Squad: Manhandled at the Reunification Opera Riot”: “Even when an authority stops me, I’mnearly always able to go over that authority’s head to his or her boss and get where I need to go to get the pictures I want to get. However,an exception to that standard occurred on the night of October 3, 1990, German and European Reunification night in Cologne. That night I found myself caught in a demilitarized zone between a huge angry mob of raging M-80-tossing German anarchists and about a hundred camouflaged and fully-armed (rubber bullets) West German SWAT team members.” What ensues is a chilling tale of extreme street wis- dom in avoiding potential harm.

Smith’s scripto-visual production recalls 1970s conceptual art in its wedding of text to image in ways that both anchor and relay mean- ing through various contexts. Therefore, to understand the most unique aspect of Smith’s accomplishments, his life-work should not be seen simply as a collection of street photography à la Garry Winogrand, but as an extensive body of document-travel-survival over time; a performance shaped into a Gesamtkunstwerk (a total artwork).

Smith writes about how he was “challenged by an idea to twist documentary photography into fine art street photography, using literal and empathetic imagery in my own experimental way. Taking street photography global . . .” His field notes detailing this project, his encounter with what he terms “authentic risk” (e.g., “Holding out and waiting for death by fire . . .”), are as compelling as narratives as the accompanying images are as astute revelations of, as Smith writes in his Mission Statement, “. . . the variety of culture and similarity in character of urban elements and order that one encounters out on the seemingly chaotic streets of a single planet at the turn of a millen- nium.” Form in writing (confessional/diaristic) and form in visual terms (the “decisive moment”) combine to place the reader/viewer as a fascinated audience to Smith’s camera and notebook-in-hand global adventures — at times terrifying, but also comical. As Smith tells us: “Just because the subject matter of this is serious, doesn’t mean I didn’t end up having quite a bit of fun along the way while I was getting my work done.”

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Europe, 2015, Oxford Street, London, England
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The gunman just told me, ‘If you take my picture, I’ll shoot you through your head.’ Well, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity …
— Field note from Guazapa, El Salvador, 1984

In 1982, during El Salvador’s civil war, Smith was driving from San Salvador to the village of Suchitoto with a UPI reporter,white flag and media banner reading PRESS: Don’t Shoot on prominent display, when they were “showered with a mortar barrage thatfor certain would have ended us both right there if not for the concrete drainage trench we’d pulled up next to and dove into that shielded us from the shrapnel whizzing around us.” They’d escaped cierta muerte (certain death) by sheer luck. Two years later during his secondHot Spots of the Cold War shoot, Smith stared down an FMLN (rebel) guard at a roadblock (see epigraph above), taking his photograph despite the warning and the M16 aimed at him; letting his camera drop, Smith then raised his hands in compliance, asking the guard with a wink and a smile (in Spanish) “Hello, how are you today?” which got a hearty laugh from the gunman and suddenly all was OK — the bad don’t fuck with the crazy.

While in El Salvador, Smith photographed everyday city life (with a keen eye for the incongruous) and the horrors of the civil conflict (death-squad victims), in both color and black-and-white. Smith’s field notes read: “In all, the government said it had killed two dozenrebels in the battle for Suchitoto, but refused to show reporters evidence to back up the claim.”

Besides Smith’s images of dead bodies, he always makes time wherever he lands to record people sweeping the streets — a perennial topic of his as he sees the activity as a metaphor for his own “sweeping the streets” with his eye and camera for compositional possibilities and the persistence of humanity to insert itself into nature. Moreover, this mundane manual labor, pervasive in all locales, contrasts with the violence and danger in those streets and humorously links the diverse places recorded throughout Smith’s global project.

About a half a kilometer away from the last Pakistan Army and Peshawar Police check point, Shahid asked me to put on the clothing I’d bought in Islamabad to disguise myself as Afghan, as I’d be turned away as an illegitimate foreign visitor if I were discovered.

— Field note from Afghanistan, December 13, 2001

Taking a breather to photograph on the gentle streets of Amsterdam, Smith’s “vacation” is interrupted by the terrorist attack in New York City. After that terrible event of 9-11 and the US military response in Afghanistan, Smith knew he had to risk penetrating thisnew global danger point. He gained access using his usual array of chutzpah and disguise. The field notes for this trip make fascinatingreading, and keep you on the edge of your seat — we hear of a British journalist who had recently been nearly stoned to death by Afghan refugees; but then there is the delightful moment when this intrepid photographer gave a “surprise” human rights speech at an Afghanistan refugee camp high school, dancing delicately over (but not avoiding) the topics of religion and the education of girls so as to avoid being stoned to death. “Education is difficult,” he told the eager teens, “Ignorance is easy.” For his efforts, Smith received eager handshakes from the 250 students present. “It had been among the most astounding hours of my astonishing life,” he noted.

Since 2001, global terrorism has become a common occurrence. Our collective sense of safety has been shaken. Photographs of horrific events have filled our news media. But no one as far as I know has figured the sense of impending danger as Smith has in an image shot inLondon in 2015 after several terrorist attacks there. Murmuration of Fear, London, England (see photograph on next page) is not a direct record of violence like Smith’s images of combat and death shot in El Salvador. Its clever title evokes the threat of future violence during a time when our collective sense of safety has been badly shaken by terrorist events. The bells in the upper left corner suggest a For Whom the Bell Tolls allusion; Hemingway’s novel having a dynamiter as a featured Character. The madly flapping birds in the photograph recall scenes from Hitchcock’s eerie film The Birds (1963), where the protagonists never know when terror will hit, when a seemingly innocentbird will turn and attempt killing children at a school. It is a premonition of terror to come to London streets (what the average Londoner fears). The black birds and the two women, backs to us, clothed in black boshiya, evoke Western symbols of shrouded Death, while thetouches of red on either side of the dark figures below the bells and the birds suggest blood. The photograph symbolizes a post 9-11 worldwhere a mood of anxiety accompanies us city-strollers in the West, where a sudden burst of birds into the air can suggest the sudden ex- plosion of a bomb in a backpack.

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