Toby Smith (UK)
Madagascar - Unknown Fields
I left school full of studies in science and geography, and with an insatiable curiosity that led me overland through Russia to China and other parts of Asia before returning home to join the British Army. As a soldier, I see landscape, topography, contours, architecture, and vegetation as tactical layers, vantage points, dead ground, and safe cover, terrain to be experienced with gravity and intimacy through all seasons and all hours. Safe passage necessitated envisaging a sense of place and traveling—with the aid of maps and photographs—as a planner and tactician. This way of looking at and working within landscape will never desert me.
I was dismissed from the infantry and started to study environmental science and zoology. This degree populated my soldier’s understanding of landscape with the beautiful, rich, diverse, but fragile tapestry of ecosystems, ecology, and evolution that make up the natural world. The two following years, which I spent in central Africa, revealed to me a tunning, raw, timeless, epic continent where humanity is often only a fragile minority and embattled occupant.
I landed back in the urbanized West with a sudden concussion and a rising sense of melancholy. I found creative release, understanding, and a voice in photography, which became the envelope to sustain and excuse my journeys into the marginal and industrial spaces that we have created. I became a voyeur of “horrid beauty” and the utter complexity of our economy.
I place prints, exhibitions, and publications documenting this relentless journey into the public domain to lift the veil of ignorance that cloaks our world of consumption. I aspire to reveal the often distant and terrible consequence of our material desires and unsustainable growth. I am compelled to keep answering personal questions, working to understand these mechanics, and playing a visual and academic role in the stimulating debates that follow.
To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.
—Susan Sontag, 1979
Toby Smith, who is based in the U.K. at the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute, works internationally on projects concerning the environment, landscape, industry, and science.
He graduated with a master’s degree in contemporary photography from London College of Communication in 2009. This academic work followed his time in the British Army and his two years in Africa utilizing his bachelor’s degree in environmental science.His focus now is on collaborative, large-scale photography and research projects for purposes of editorial publication, exhibition,communication, and advocacy. He is represented by Getty Images Reportage. He is a creative collaborator with the nomadic design studio Unknown Fields Division, and his placement at the University of Cambridge is funded by the Leverhulme Trust.
Smith has a special interest in mapping, topography, and geolocation,which often informs his narrative style of photography.He has received grants from the National Geographic Society and The Royal Photographic Society, and has formed partnerships with NGOs on numerous field trips. His print work has been exhibited internationally and published in National Geographic, GEO, The Sunday Times, TIME, Fortune, The New York Times, The Guardian, Intelligent Life, and Stern. Broadcast credits include the BBC Natural History Unit, Discovery Channel, Al Jazeera, Sky News, BBC Radio 1,2, and 4, and BBC World Service.