Interview with Byron Smith

Capra Review: How did you come about creating the Guate Punx photo-essay, what was the inspiration behind the subject?

Byron Smith: Well during this time I was in my mid 20s trying to figure out what I really wanted to get out of this profession. I was freelancing in Boston and growing a bit tired of doing the daily news story, which is fun, but can get a bit tedious at the same time. I’ve always enjoyed spending a solid amount of time with a subject, to extract the best and most natural aspects of who they are and how they fit in the world.  So I decided to take a break and visit my grandma who lives in Guatemala and on the way there I figured I’d try to work on a story there. As I was looking for story ideas, I saw that there was this community of punk kids and the fact that the scene wasn’t different from American or UK scenes, I thought that would be my best bet as a story. So I searched for the local bands and it all stemmed from those contacts.

Capra Review: You often work from assignment with the Times or WSJ, which I imagine means that they basically give you the story or the topic, at least.  Do you ever find you set out with the idea of a story but it changes on you, perhaps the premise changes?

Byron Smith: Yes, and I welcome that change greatly. That’s essentially what I love about this profession. Subjects and stories can change your preconceived notions about how things are supposed to be. I feel like my best work comes out when I have to adapt and see things with fresh eyes.

Capra Review: A few winters ago, I had an idea for a photographic series about some sort of Washington Heights underground nightlife yet to be exposed.  You were generous and went along with it.  One real frigid night, we jumped into a car at about 1 a.m. driving about the neighborhood in search of this vague idea of mine.  I think the most we found was some bright lit all night barbershop where the customers and staff were making quarter bets over a large gumball machine.  It wasn’t exactly what I had been imagining.  Not a story.  But what stuck with me was your persistence in asking, what’s the story here?  What is story for you as a photographer? What do you look for?

 Byron Smith: Well, to answer that we can go back to that idea of how one goes into a situation with a set ideas of how things usually work versus how they actually are. To me that was kind of exciting (photo-wise) anyway to show a group of adult friends out late in Washington Heights, but instead of doing the drugs and drinking thing, they’re placing a bet on what the color of a gumball might be. So basically you’re looking for something that changes your idea because it peels back a layer on something we don’t really ever see. If that can be exposed they I’d say I’ve done my job.

Capra Review: Since we’re a literary journal, we like to ask, what has been an influential book for you growing up or now?

 Byron Smith: I think Walden and most of the work by Henry David Thoreau have been the supreme backbone of who I am. I believe in the ideas of living a simple life that isn’t cluttered with material goods and for resisting unjust states and oppression of all people. I think I got into this field because the camera will allow me to spend time with subjects that aren’t,  say, the rich and powerful, and tell their story to whomever is interested.

Capra Review: What are you reading now?

Byron Smith: Right now I’m reading this book called “The Gun” by New York Times reporter C.J. Chivers about the history of AK-47 and its subsequent ubiquity in modern armed resistance movements.  As for fiction, I’m trying to dive back into classics like Don Quixote.

To see more of Byron Smith’s work, go to http://www.byronsmithphoto.com/

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