Maybe it’s because we share monosyllabic names , or something to do with the fact that we were both trying to market the idea of documentary wedding photography back in the 1990’s . Perhaps it’s even because we share a passion for cricket and Steely Dan (facts discovered through being Facebook friends) , or due to his somewhat self-deprecating sense of humour, that I have long felt that Ben Smith is in some way a kindred spirit.
But there is a deeper, more personal reason why back in March of this year, I decided I wanted to meet this London-based documentary and portrait photographer. A few years back I went through what in some ways can be classically described as a mid-life crisis. I was lost, I cracked up on a job and convinced myself I was useless at everything. Luckily ,family and close friends rallied round. That was great, but photographically I still told myself I hadn’t made it, and for a few months I literally couldn’t face the idea of picking up a camera.
Then, almost by chance I stumbled upon an episode of the Small Voice Podcast. Harry Borden was the photographer being interviewed. Ever since then I have been pretty hooked and await impatiently my fortnightly fix. I guess, put simply, listening to this fairly diverse bunch of “successful” photographers, recounting their life stories and creative processes, has been a therapeutic experience. You quickly learn that self-doubt, suffering lows and sustaining highs, finding a personal voice, combining an artistic career with day to day living, moving at the speed of the digital age, are universal issues that affect all visual storytellers, no matter how well-known. It seems evident, but nonetheless it is reassuring to discover again for oneself.
I also took an interest in Ben’s story.
Why had he launched this Podcast project? Was it by choice or necessity, was he still working as a photographer? How was interviewing the people we all revered at Magnum, for example, helping him shape his own career? Where was he going with these podcasts, did he know, did it matter?
We chatted for just over an hour and the conversation took us into these areas and many other issues besides.
Ben is very honest about what he considers his own personal mistakes and regrets not appreciating enough the value of working consistently as an editorial or commercial photographer, with the satisfaction of getting the job done. He admits to having sometimes had a sniffy attitude to certain assignments, but now confesses “ getting paid for taking pictures is great, you should never take that for granted”.
Maybe this previous laissez-faire insouciance about money, coupled with a misplaced snobbery towards jobs that weren’t artistically interesting and a self-conscious reluctance to hustle for work , derailed some of Ben’s photographic ambitions, but his current openness and even vulnerability have proven highly effective in the podcast medium, enabling him to develop an intimacy with his interviewees, which goes far beyond the technical aspects of taking good pictures. A Small Voice has given Ben “ the excuse to meet people that I wouldn’t normally have had the chance to, and make some good friends along the way. I don’t want to sound touchy-feely about it, but I definitely feel part of a family now; it’s a fundamental human desire to want to belong to a tribe”.
A Small Voice has provided Ben with a structure that was lacking before. The discipline to produce an episode every fortnight. The confidence to ring up famous photographers. The pleasure and motivation to develop his craft: “ there are millions of micro-skills involved, learning how to elicit interesting answers, working out what the over-arching theme of the podcast is about, among others, and that’s fascinating”.
It would appear that for now at least, Ben has found his vocation, while confirming that he has not abandoned photography either. He’s happy to let a Small Voice follow its organic path and trust to his natural instinct. His confidence has paid off with a recent sponsorship deal with the Charcoal Book Club, and he is currently seeking other ways of getting monetary value for his project, over and above the voluntary donations which cover bus fares and cups of coffee ( but nonetheless highly appreciated for all that !)
Like Ben I feel that I’ve found a new sense of purpose these last couple of years. I’ve worked out what I’m best at and what gives me pleasure, and I waste less time comparing myself to others. Subscribing to the podcast has definitely helped forge this new self-belief, so thanks Ben!
In today’s image-saturated world, where the noise of social media can be deafening, a quiet hour spent in the company of a Small Voice, is a requisite for reasserting the values that really matter in photography, whether we’re talking about the pictures themselves or those that create them.
At one stage I wrote down all the anecdotes, quotes and maxims, that I could glean from all the different photographers.
Two particularly have stayed embedded in my mind.
“ Finish what you start” – David Alan Harvey (episode 50)
“ What continues to motivate you ?” – Ben.
“ Taking pictures, I get depressed not taking pictures.” Rena Effendi (epiosde 55)