I wanted to create a spontaneous and playful family diary.
It is the mark of a true artist to take the ordinary and discover within it something extraordinary.
Family snapshots are ubiquitous. They fill albums, boxes and drawers in homes around the globe, they flow in torrents through the annals of Renren and FaceBook or languish uncatalogued and uncared-for in the ancestral attic. Yet Sam Harris captures fleeting moments of domesticity and creates from them the timeless and the iconic.
Regardless of how one’s kinship is constituted (through friendship, love, biology or law) it is central to our lives. For each of us, family can become the lens that shapes and colours our understanding of the world. But, with an inverse proportion that remains baffling to the average snapper, other people’s family photos, like other peoples holiday slide-shows, fill the viewer with ennui.
Sam Harris’ images in ‘Postcards from Home’ transcend all that.
They achieve a delicate fusion of the idiosyncratic and the universal to whisper of deep truths that nestle at the heart of each of us. He does so with the lightest of touches, often directing our gaze away from the apparent centre of attention to a fleeting interplay on the outskirts of perception. While all the images are made from one perspective – a father – they juxtapose many points of view. For each of us must be many things, take on multiple modalities of being: partner, parent, offspring, sibling, lover, worker, fixer, driver, guardian, nurse, clown, psychologist, confessor…
Sam Harris began his career in suburban London as a self-taught enthusiast experimenting in a home-made darkroom to the rhythms pumping from his record player. Combining these passions, he made his first big break into the UK music industry creating memorable editorial and album-cover art for the likes of Jarvis Cocker, Emma Bunton, Victoria Beckham, John Lydon (Johnny Rotten), Ronan Keating, and Jamiroquai.
© Sam Harris ‘Jamiroquai’ commissioned for ‘Esquire’ magazine
© Sam Harris ‘Jarvis Cocker’ commissioned for ‘Esquire’ magazine
Success in this field lead to an expanding stable of clientele such as ‘The Telegraph’ and ‘The Sunday Times’ magazines, ‘Esquire’ and ‘Dazed & Confused’. But, while success brought money and career advancement, it became soul-destroying. He and his family resolved to leave London, and explore the world in search of a new life and a new approach to photography. His daughter Uma was born on the eve of the new millennium, a fresh chapter was opening up that led Sam and his family on a journey, both emotional and geographic, to India and then to the isolated far south-western corner of Australia. Here they have settled (for now at least) on a property amid the forests of Balingup where Sam works on personal photographic projects such as ‘Postcards from Home’ and shares his passion and insight with a new generation of aspiring photographers through workshops run in Australia and overseas.
‘Postcards from Home’ has been shown at a number of important photography festivals internationally from India to New Zealand. He self-published a limited-edition book using state of the art digital printing by the Australian company Momento Pro. This book made history when, in October 2012, it won both ‘Australian Book of the Year’ and ‘Book of the Year’ at the 36th Galley Club Awards in Sydney. It was not only the first time that a self-published book had won this prestigious national award, but also the first digitally printed book to do so.
Sam Harris’ photographs have been championed by the American Magnum photographer David Alan Harvey who has likened them to the work of Sally Mann, Bruce Davidson, and Robert Frank and “the truly great photographers of our time” in their ability to take documentary photography into the realms of art.
Alasdair: How did ‘Postcards from Home’ come about?
Sam: It was a process of transition that started when we left London to begin the long journey via India that brought us to Western Australia. I wanted to create a spontaneous and playful family diary. To begin with, the project didn’t go as well as I had hoped. I’d get the occasional image that would encourage me, but it wasn’t shaping up into any kind of series. Then, just shortly after we moved to Balingup, I took a photograph of my wife Yael hanging out the washing. The image just worked. It was like I’d been playing with a jigsaw puzzle for a long time and then one piece went in and all of a sudden I could see the bigger picture.
What was it in the image of Yael that fell into place for you?
To start with, it was instinctive. I guess you could say it caught a moment in between moments. There is ambiguity; her arm is across her face. It’s a very intimate and slightly obscure image, but also kinda universal … a collective truth that everyone can relate to, without being specific to a particular person.
You have talked about getting into ‘the zone’ when making photographs. What is the zone?
The zone is when all the elements come together: the light, the moment, the situation. There is clarity; a hyper awareness. It’s meditative in a present-moment-awareness sort of way and everything else blurs into the background. Yet the heartbeat quickens. It’s very much being in ‘the now’. No past, no future, just the now. It’s a very powerful feeling when it happens.
What drew you to photography in the beginning?
I felt this real need to express myself visually. I developed my first print in the darkroom when I was nineteen and the magic of the whole thing just pulled me in. I had a great passion for music and I realised there is a natural relationship between music and photography in the way album covers were a visual extension of the songs. After a couple of years, I put together a portfolio and went round to see all the London record companies.
My first jobs were pretty whacky album-cover artwork. One of my earliest was a sleeve for an EP [extended-playing 45rpm record] called ‘Tremolo’ by the Irish rock band My Bloody Valentine. It was a very Indie alternative record but it now has cult status and is something I am very proud of.
I got a really good break when I went to see the art director Tony Chambers, and he asked me to photograph upcoming bands for ‘The Sunday Times Magazine’. It was the beginning of Britpop and my career just took off! I was commissioned by magazines like ‘Dazed and Confused’ and ‘Esquire’; shooting performers like Portishead, Blur, and UB40.
What made you decide to leave the lucrative London music scene?
In 1997 two big things happened for me. The ‘Magnum: Fifty Years at the Front Line of History’ book was published and, more significantly for me, there was a major Don McCullen exhibition at the Barbican [multi-media arts centre in London]. What I experienced affected me deeply. I was disturbed but deeply inspired by the McCullen and totally energised by the Magnum work. I had to ask myself the confronting question: “What am I doing with my photography?”
Meanwhile, the London music industry had become systematically corporatised. All the small and mid-sized companies were bought up by the multinationals. While some people moved from their funky side-street studios into the anonymous glass-tower headquarters, the creative mavericks started to leave. For me, it began to feel like the less I cared about the work I was doing the higher up the ladder I went. I felt this was all such crap. My wife Yael pointed out that something was really not right if I was photographing these celebrities and coming home miserable.
Yael and I decided it was time to make a change. We took our savings and, instead of using it as the down payment on a house, we invested the money in finding a new life. We bought one-way tickets to India.
How did this dramatic change influence your photography?
When we left, I really wanted to change things: undoing old habits and formulas – get back to experimenting and feeling free to make mistakes. But the transformation took a lot longer than I had expected. I discovered new lands, but I got a bit lost along the way photographically. Our travels ended five years later in Balingup, Western Australia. It’s a great little community with people from all over Australia and from all around world: artists, musicians, permaculture farmers and the whole alternative lifestyle. It was probably three or four months after we settled here that the shot of Yael hanging the washing happened. I realised that previously I had been too focused on showing what it looks like and not showing what it feels like. That was the big difference, but it took me five years to get there.
Balingup must feel very isolated compared to London.
I did begin to feel very cut-off from everything and in danger of disappearing; becoming this guy who used to be a photographer. But the internet has been like a light in the darkness. It was how I discovered David Alan Harvey’s blog, ‘Road Trips’. I was more of a lurker than a participator, but that connection was very powerful for me. It encouraged me to keep working at my photos when it felt like everything was lost.
That blog evolved into ‘Burn’ magazine. You could submit work for publication, either a full photo-essay or a single image. I just sent a single image, along with a link to my website, but David Alan Harvey wrote back asking me to submit the whole photo-essay. They ran it in ‘Burn’ a couple of months later and I was overwhelmed by how much people like my work. When you have been sitting alone with the images for months, it is incredibly helpful to get that feedback. It gave me the confidence to keep on cracking away.
Alasdair: When did you first exhibit this new work?
Sam: I submitted ‘Postcards from Home’ to the Head On photo festival in Sydney. Moshe Rosenzveig, the director of the Head On festival, loved the work and did an exhibition. Later, I submitted to Delhi photo festival and, while I was in India for that event, I met Bob Hewitt who ran the FotoFreo festival [which has since closed], and showed him my book. Later that day he introduced me to someone by saying “This is Sam Harris, he is showing at FotoFreo”. That was the first I knew of it!
My exhibition at FotoFreo coincided with my second publication in ‘Burn’ magazine and at that time David Alan Harvey wrote comments about the series that were really positive and influential. I felt like ‘Postcards from Home’ had been born.
Alasdair: What are you working on now?
Sam: ‘Postcards from Home’ is evolving into a new chapter in the story, called ‘The Middle of Somewhere’. I’m currently editing and sequencing that series, and then I will make a handmade book. This is a very important as it helps me understand the relationships between the images; the whole process becomes more dynamic.
Alasdair: You have also started to run workshops.
Sam: I did a workshop in the Himalayas in July for ‘Emaho’ [a magazine based in New Delhi] and another at FotoFreo together with the photographer Claire Martin. I do some workshops with her and some on my own. I will be running a workshop in Bali in March 2013. It’s an opportunity to share my passion and pass on what I have learned. We all learn in a workshop environment, including me, it really is a fantastic experience; quite addictive.
Alasdair: What is the best lesson you have learned as a photographer?
Sam: To follow my heart, be passionate about what I do and persevere. My advice is to find a subject that is near to your heart, become obsessed by it and try to do it in a way that has never been done before. You have to feel it; it has to touch you in some way.
Sam Harris was born in London at the height of the Swinging Sixties. As a teenager he taught himself photography, turning his bedroom into a makeshift darkroom. Throughout the Nineties Sam photographed portraits and sleeve art for a range of British recording artists. He also worked as a contributing photographer for The Sunday Times Magazine, Esquire, The Telegraph Magazine and Dazed & Confused. However, the over-commercialisation of the music industry eventually became the catalyst for a change in direction, both personal and photographic. After several nomadic years, he and his family imigrated to Australia.
Sam Harris has exhibited extensively over four continents, notably at the Biblioteca Nacional de España; Benaki Museum, Athens; Delhi Photo Festival; Festival de la Luz, Buenos Aires; Encontros da Imagem, Braga, Portugal; GuatePhoto, Guatemala; and Les Rencontres d’Arles, France. His photobook ‘The Middle of Somewhere’ won a Lucie Award in 2015, AIPP Book of the Year 2016, and Australian Photobook of the Year – People’s Choice Award 2016. Today, from his base in rural Western Australia, Sam Harris makes artist books, mentors, directs and shoots film and stills assignments, and runs workshops in Australia and internationally.
This article was first published in Chinese, in the February 2013 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.