We are Makers and Creators: Professor Richard Sawdon Smith

We are Makers and Creators: Professor Richard Sawdon Smith

Professor Richard Sawdon Smith is an award-winning photographer, having exhibited his work across the world. Richard is also the Dean of Arts and Media, heading up the faculty.

Richard’s work centres around themes of self-portraiture, sexuality and AIDS. 

As part of our Makers and Creators photo series, showcasing our talented creatives, we meet Richard in his home-studio space.

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What has your been your artistic journey up to this point?

Interestingly I initially took a degree in Graphic Design and both printmaking and photography were elements of the course that I pursued post-graduation.

But I then started teaching photography at adult education centres in London before taking an MA in Photography and moved in to teaching photography in Higher Education. I continued with my own practice throughout, even as I took on more responsibilities and challenging roles such as Dean of Arts and Media.

I have continued to exhibit and write about my work and the work has developed from analogue to digital, from being a specialist black and white printer in the darkroom to now experimenting with new technology such as photogrammetry and virtual reality (VR).

What inspires your practice?

Much of my work is autobiographical, so I take inspiration from the world around me. This has included themes of sexuality, gender, masculinity, ageing and health, particularly issues of representation in relation to HIV/AIDS and stigma.

What has been your career high point to date?

That is difficult as there have been so many high points.

Obviously winning the John Kobal/National Portrait Gallery Photographic Portrait Prize (now the Taylor Wessing Prize) was a big career boost…US President Clinton opening the group exhibition I was participating in at the Museum of Contemporary Art Barcelona

Or writing a chapter about my work and career for HIV in World Cultures book, or being co-editor of Langford’s Basic Photography book, which is a standard textbook on photography used around the world.

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“Britain is seen worldwide as the centre of creativity, just try to imagine what life would be like if you had no photography, no films, no television, no games, no books, no music, no art, no fashion, how unbearable it would be.”

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Your own body features within your practice quite regularly, what was your decision to include yourself in your art?

My work is heavily autobiographical, so it makes sense. Most significantly though, I decided to have my body tattooed as part of a photographic project called The Anatomical Man, so that could only be me.

Early on though it was a very practical point as it could be difficult finding models, or them turning up on time, but also, I realised I wasn’t interested in the portraying of the model per se but an idea or concept that was in my head, therefore it might as well be me than anyone else, and also, I always do what the photographer says, however silly it might be.

What do you do in your day-to-day role at NUA?

I am currently the Dean of the Arts and Media Faculty and Professor of Photography. This means I am responsible for the leadership, organisation and management of a range of art, performance and media courses.

As part of this role, I am Research Champion leading one of our NUA research themed groups.

I also Chair both the Change working group, developing an anti-racist strategy for the University and the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee. In addition to these duties, I lead on one of the three key strands of the University Strategic Plan, developing an inclusive community.

Externally I represent  NUA as a Trustee of CHEAD (the Council for HE in Art and Design), Chair of the Art and Design Subject Alliance Network, Patron of Norwich Film Festival and the Editorial Advisory Board Journal of Photography & Culture.

Over the last year, we’ve seen a real shift to digital exhibitions, how do you feel this will benefit up and coming photographers?

At NUA we have found the inclusion of more digital aspects to our practice has opened up the world to us. So, while on one hand it seems like we are getting smaller as an island, and living though lockdown after lockdown, on the other we have been making international connections and bringing in such a diverse range of voices to Norwich.

This can only have the same impact on photographers, for example I recently exhibited at the Sydney Photo Festival through an online platform and gave several talks and presentations. So even from Norwich, my reach has been truly international – to the other side of the world in fact.

Why do you feel that the creative arts are so important to the backbone of Britain?

Even putting aside the economic benefits to the country, over £100bn a year, and how Britain is seen worldwide as the centre of creativity, just try to imagine what life would be like if you had no photography, no films, no television, no games, no books, no music, no art, no fashion, how unbearable it would be.

That is just in normal times, recently we have seen how so many people have turned to the creative arts to provide them comfort during the pandemic.

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What is the best piece of advice you would give to someone starting their creative career?

I am sure many people say the same but be true to yourself, do not imitate others. Listen to others but find your own voice and what makes you special, as we are all unique.

Photography by Chris Roberts, BA Photography graduate