Marlon James is not afraid to take shots in life. In 2013, he took a shot on love and moved to a new country, and to a new life. He was born and bred in Jamaica, but love, faith and the Caribbean Single Market Economy brought him to the shores of Trinidad and Tobago where he now resides and works.
After an unexpected twist in his story, Marlon turned to his ultimate love for solace and salvation; his camera. And, he decided to take yet another shot. He would use his loneliness, his endless rolling hours alone, his newfound wanderlust and his passion for architecture, to capture the souls of buildings and structures across Trinidad and Tobago.
‘The Lonely Wanderer’ is his photo journal of these solitary days on the road amidst skyscrapers, edifices, and surviving colonial relics Marlon’s photos hold the promise of transporting you to worlds and dimensions where you can learn to appreciate the one you inhabit; they hold a power that reminds us that life is seen according to the lens we use to view the world.
EP: At what age did you pick up a camera and what thought went through your head when you did?
MJ: My “first time” would have been when I was around nine years old. My father owned a camera that he would use to take photographs at family events and activities so my first interaction with photography was using a camera to photograph these things. My thoughts were really that I wanted to mirror what he was doing. It wasn’t until I was at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts (EMCVPA) that I really realized I had a passion and love for it.
“I really realized I had a passion and love for it.”
EP: What was the very first camera that you used, and what type was your first professional camera?
MJ: As a child, it was a Kodak “point and shot”. Very first professional camera was a Minolta Maxxum X7000 35mm SLR film camera, I purchased this when I started doing freelance photography around 1998/1999. My very first client was Scotiabank Jamaica. I photographed a few of their events, such as Christmas parties and their Staff Appreciation Day. At the time, it was an extra source of income. I wasn’t necessarily excited about it as this was not the kind of photography I was passionate about but I saw it as putting some of the skills I had learned to good use.
EP: Did you do any level of study in photography or are you self-taught?
MJ: My major while attending EMCVPA was Sculpture, equivalent to a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Sculpture. I did a photography elective as part of my degree program. This is what really ignited my passion for photography.
EP: You’ve done a number of personal portraits in which intimate or private parts of peoples’ bodies are showing (tastefully, of course). Is it ever uncomfortable for you to do nude or semi-nude shots of people?
MJ: When I first started, I did have reservations asking persons to be that open-minded and vulnerable with me but eventually, I was able to get a lot more comfortable. I think that my time at art school at Edna Manley really helped that – I was in a space with a lot of like-minded individuals so over time, it was easy to overcome my reservations.
EP: If you had to choose one genre of photography and do that only for the rest of your career, which would it be, and why?
MJ: I would definitely focus on fine art photography, which for me is any conceptual idea mainly for exhibiting in a gallery space; all non-commercial concepts. There are no real rules in this genre – as an artist, you can do anything that you want.
“I would definitely focus on fine art photography, which for me is any conceptual idea mainly for exhibiting in a gallery space; all non-commercial concepts. There are no real rules in this genre – as an artist, you can do anything that you want.”
EP: How long have you been living and working in Trinidad and Tobago, and why did you choose to make the twin islands the latest expression of your art?
MJ: I’ve been living in T&T since 2013, largely on the advice of a Trinidadian colleague who told me that there were a lot of opportunities on the local market for my photography skill-set. When I relocated, I was left to my own devices to explore and to learn the lay of the land; I explored a lot of Trinidad especially on my own, so a lot of what you see in my work, for example – the Lonely Wanderer series – is my documentation of solo travel.
EP: What were your best and worst experiences while doing the Lonely Wanderer series, which coincided with your fresh arrival in T&T?
MJ: The worst is that it all started out of a heartache; my relationship with my then significant other fell apart a few months after moving to Trinidad. I guess I would say my best experiences while doing the “The Lonely Wanderer Series” was that I got to understand and learn the lay of the land.
EP: How easy or difficult is it as an artist to leave your homeland and travel the world, immersing yourself in another culture and perhaps, a whole other way of life?
MJ: It depends on the individual. I’ve always felt like I am a bit of a nomad so traveling and readjusting and reflecting that in my work is always easy. I miss Jamaica from time to time. I miss hearing my country’s dialect, as well as the food, beauty of the island (the geography), friends and family.
“I’ve always felt like I am a bit of a nomad so traveling and readjusting and reflecting that in my work is always easy.”
EP: Which is your favourite photography project that you’ve done to date?
MJ: ‘Blackout: Kingston 12, Jamaica’ is a series of images I produced as part of the Small Axe Project and 11 images appeared in Issue 41 of that journal. The project was conceived as an avenue of understanding the practice of skin bleaching and a means of attempting to highlight a certain kind of beauty where many see none. It was funded by the Andy Warhol Foundation. It helped my career in general; as it got my work to be seen more globally. For example, it opened up opportunities for me to collaborate with other artists and be exhibited across the U.S., Martinique and Norway.
EP: You’ve taken thousands of photos across your career. But is there still an image that you dream of capturing one day?
MJ: I have ideas that come and go daily. The best part of what I do is the process of getting the ‘money shot’ – that’s the term for the shot that makes me know that this is what I’ve been waiting for in the shoot. Usually when I get my ‘money shot’ the shoot is basically done. I may take a few more shots for safety but I already know that I have the shot of the day for the shoot. That’s what excites me. A lot of times, too, there can be a disconnect between what you set out to capture and what you actually capture.
EP: What does it mean to you to be extraordinary?
MJ: Making every project better than the one that came before.