Introducing Jacksonville to Jacksonville - 10 Questions with Natural Light Photographer Toni Smailagic
"I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive." Those words can be found on the opening page of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, which was first published in Paris in 1934. The work, which was banned from publication in the United States until the early 1960s, was written as a reflection of Miller's time spent living in Paris as an artist and expatriate in the 1920s and 1930s. That quote referenced Miller's hand-to-mouth existence as a starving artist living abroad.
Photographer Toni Smailagic, while attending college in 2009, had the notion that he too would like to be an artist living in Paris. Smailagic dropped out of college, quit his job, and departed the United States in route to France. Comically, Smailagic had convinced his family that he was traveling to Paris to participate in a study abroad program. Unlike Miller or The Lost Generation, Smailagic did not use a pen nor a typewriter to document his time abroad. Instead, Smailagic relied on his keen eye and his camera to capture the sites and fashions of Europe.
Smailagic's time in Paris initially reflected Miller's now famous quote. He pre-paid for an apartment upon arrival in Paris, which proved to be a scam. Nearly out of money, Smailagic existed on an extremely conservative budget and had to rely on the kindness of others, which led to him making acquaintances in odd places and with even odder individuals.
What Smailagic lacked in finances he made up for in gumption. Smailagic was armed with a DSLR camera and more confidence than could be expected from his mere two years of photography experience. Smailagic worked in Paris doing test photo shoots with models, while also soliciting his photography services to foreign couples on romantic get-aways, offering to lead and document walking tours of Paris.
Eventually Smailagic left Paris and returned to the United States, this time settling in New York City. Once in NYC, Smailagic pursued a career in high fashion working as a freelance photographer for modeling agencies. Because of his tenacious work ethic and ability to learn on the fly, Smailagic's creative pursuits resulted in him bouncing back and forth between NYC, Miami, and Los Angeles as he worked to build his clientele in the United State's most fashion oriented cities.
Smailagic's time in Paris and how he cultivated his career are not the only portions of his life that appear as though they could be taken from the plot of a movie or novel. Smailagic was born in Bosnia. The Bosnian War erupted when Smailagic was a toddler. Displaced by the war, Smailagic and his family migrated to Denmark when he was three years old. There the family lived in a refugee camp until they relocated to Germany. They lived in Germany for five years until they moved to Jacksonville when Smailagic was nine years old.
Smailagic has traded in the glitz and glamor of high fashion for the smiles and bonding tie of community. Through his project Cre8Jax, Smailagic focuses his lens on Jacksonville's urban core and the people that live, work, and experience life in downtown. In addition to his website, Smailagic's work has been exhibited in Jacksonville at The Space Gallery as part of the exhibit "F/6: A Focus on Photography."
10 questions with toni smailagic
Do you have any patterns, routines, or habits when starting a new project?
My approach varies depending on the project. The most consistent thing I do is research. I always research the company or client I’m working with. If I'm taking portraits, I prefer to meet the person prior to shooting to highlight their personality. If it’s a brand, I figure out what market they’re trying to reach, or how they’re trying to brand themselves. I then work backwards from there.
Finding the proper team for the assignment is also another constant. Having a bad hair stylist, makeup artist, wardrobe stylist, or manicurist on set can throw off the quality of the entire shoot.
What have you learned about yourself through your career in the arts?
I've learned that I do extremely well under pressure and that I’m extraordinarily adaptable, in almost any situation.
How do you define success in what you do?
Ultimate success would be the ability to travel freely, without compromising any other financial aspect of my life. I can give you the extensive answer about changing the world or my direct community via manipulating the ideas of standard beauty, but that’s better reserved for a longer private conversation.
Have you had to adapt as a photographer or alter your services as a result of moving from New York City back to Jacksonville?
The fashion/music industry does not exist in Jacksonville like it does in a major metropolitan area such as New York City. Outside of the creative world and spectators, Jacksonville does not necessarily value the arts – or at least photography. Most people don’t understand a reason to spend money on a photographer, when they can just have one of their friends take “decent” pictures of them for free.
Outside of editorial and commercial work, I always did photojournalistic work for personal pleasure. I translated that work to fit the Jacksonville market. Whether I’m shooting Art Walk, or mother/daughter portraits, I use a candid approach to get a classic and timeless feel to images. My clientele is consistently shifting, but I’m being careful about keeping it within the brand I’ve built thus far.
You didn't study art or photography in college. Instead you studied international business and finance. How has your education in business impacted or benefited your photography career?
I studied and worked in a finance office while in school. Learning how operations work when running a larger corporation can translate into any industry. I may not be allocating funds from one department to the next to manipulate next year’s budget (yet). But, having a firm grasp on budgeting and marketing, in general, goes a long way in the creative world.
What first inspired you to pick up a camera and start taking pictures? Additionally, what was the first camera equipment you shot with when you decided to pursue photography and what do you shoot with today?
I always had a camera growing up. I didn’t even realize this until I recently discovered some childhood pictures. So many images were taken of me with a camera glued to my face.
I got my first video camera and started creating small movie scenes when I was a teen. I recreated MTV Cribs with my neighborhood friends (it was horrid). At that age I thought for sure that I was going to be a director.
In college my friend started shooting with a DSLR. That was the first time I saw one. I thought, oh, I could do this better. I saved up and bought a Canon Rebel Xsi around 2007.
My equipment was stolen in November of 2016. I launched a GoFundMe campaign that was successfully funded, largely by the Jacksonville community. I was back in action in February and I’m lucky enough to now shoot with a Canon Mark IV.
In 2009 you made the decision to pursue photography full-time. How did you prepare (financially, emotionally, strategically) to make the transition from being an employee at a senior living center to being a full-time freelance photographer?
Honestly, I didn’t. I took a huge leap. I thought I was young enough to make mistakes of that nature.
I simultaneously dropped out of college, quit my job, and bought a plane ticket to Paris. I paid for an apartment for three months there, which ended up being a scam. After that I only had enough money to buy food. The rest... I would just figure all that out once it happened.
If I would have known then what I know now, I don’t think I would have ever taken that first big jump. I think of the quote from Lemony Snicket, “If we wait until we’re ready, we’ll be waiting for the rest of our lives."
I don’t think that strategy is for everyone. I’ve seen so many people crash under similar circumstances. But, when successful, the rewards of taking a risk and going for it are incomparable.
Can you describe the feeling you receive when you review a photograph and can confirm that what you captured was inline with your vision?
I never get confirmation from viewing a single photo. I know the second I took the shot, that THAT was the shot that would make the shoot a success. I don't second guess myself from that aspect.
I'm also not a traditional artist, i.e painter. I don't work on one piece for long periods of time so I don't think I have the same amount of pride in a single piece. I do, on the other hand, get a grand confirmation when I look at my entire body of work over a period of years and see consistency and a style being developed.
Self-reflection can be wildly reaffirming.
What role has strategic risk taking played in the development of your artistic career?
As an artist, you don’t have the cookie-cutter models of “this is how you become successful”, as you would with any corporate job. Your success is based off of the people you meet. It took years for me to figure out that you can’t solely be surrounded by artists to make a living as one. Once I figured that out, I began aligning myself with owners of brands, or agencies, and started doing portraits of people I thought were influential in order to tap into new markets, and, at the same time, gain new perspectives on industries I knew nothing about. Being infinitely curious about everything worked out in my favor.
What is cre8jax and what do you hope to achieve through that project?
I started Cre8Jax a few months ago after living here for a full year. I wanted to feel out the environment and meet some of the people in Jacksonville who were responsible for getting it to where it is now. A ton of work has been put in for a long time by individuals such as Hope McMath, Stephen Dare, or Mal Jones. I didn’t want to overwrite what they were doing, but rather highlight it.
I decided to focus on Jacksonville's urban core. Downtown is my only connection to the energy that I felt in NYC). I want to show people who live here, as well as people who are just moving here, the benefits of downtown - the businesses that are trying to make it and the creatives that keep the culture alive.