How not to become a photographer

An interview with Adrian Samson

Adrian Samson invites me into his studio somewhere in north London. It’s a cold, damp night and the brightly lit studio smells of freshly cooked food. The room is filled with thousands of pounds worth of photography equipment, black machines, wires, screens and huge rolls of paper.

“Sorry about the smell. I grilled some halloumi to share but you were late, so I ate it all myself,” says Adrian.

Adrian’s cinematic prints were recently exhibited at the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, having been selected from around 6,000 other entries. The exhibition was held at the National Portrait Gallery, and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.

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Adrian Samson: ‘Nico’ selected for the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize

“In London, there are two usual routes that most people take when they start photography,” says Adrian.

“One is the academic route, where they study before setting up their own practice. The others become apprentices and assist photographers for a few years to learn the ropes.”

But Adrian’s journey to becoming a photographer is neither of the above. In fact, his story is worthy of becoming a Hollywood film plot.

Adrian was born in 1974 in Štúrovo, a mostly Hungarian-speaking town on the river Danube in what is now Slovakia.

As a young boy, his father had a manual SLR camera, which fascinated Adrian. His father taught him the basic rules of the camera’s setup: the aperture of the lens, the speed of the shutter and the ISO of the film.

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Adrian Samson

One day young Adrian took the camera outside, snapping everything he saw, but forgetting to rewind the film. As a result, the developed pictures had double exposure. Images melted into one another.

Adrian was mesmerised: “I’d never seen anything like it. That was in the 1980s. I grew up without knowing about art. There were no magazines, no paintings, and not much photography, so I loved these photographs. When I saw a picture with a double exposure on it, it was magical.”

Adrian didn’t venture out with a camera again until 1995, when Slovakia’s travelling and working restrictions were lifted. He journeyed first to Turkey then to Israel, where he worked gruelling hours in a vineyard for very little money. He escaped in the night by jumping over a fence and into a desert. After a couple of stints working in restaurants, he went to Budapest to successfully apply for a job as an assistant waiter on a cruise ship. He then flew to Miami to meet his cabin mates.

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“We used to wake up at 5.30 in the morning and by 6am we were in one of the restaurants. We worked until 11pm without a break, so I only had six hours sleep, and I didn’t have a day off for six months. You got $40 dollars a month with good tips, so you could save up. For an eastern European, it was amazing.”

But the hours began to take their toll on Adrian. Around him, colleagues were getting promoted to better positions. Adrian dreamed of a promotion, but the day never came.

Every month Adrian was allowed a couple of hours off, so one afternoon when the ship was docked in Alaska, he bought a lens for his camera, and from then on spent all of his free time shooting. It paid off. Adrian’s luck was about to change. His first break came after winning a photography competition on board the ship. This boosted Adrian’s confidence, and he found the courage to approach someone for advice.

“There was this guy who would photograph holidaymakers in front of the dining room as a memento. There were these props – cheesy spiral staircases and palm trees – and people would buy these photos for $20,” Adrian recounts.

“He had a beautiful camera with a display. He had a bow tie, and I had an apron. He was a member of staff, with privileges, and I was with the dishwasher crew. So I asked him how I could be a photographer, because after two years without a promotion, I was tired.”

The photographer’s manager recognised Adrian from his name badge as the man who had won the competition, so gave him the number of his office in Miami, stipulating that Adrian must not disclose where he got the number.

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Calling the photography office from a Jamaica, Adrian asked for an interview. They told him to come in on a Tuesday, but that was not possible because the boat only went to Miami on a Sunday.

Adrian requested that the photographic company studio meet him on a Sunday, at the port, as this was the only way that it would happen. Unsurprisingly, they declined.

Adrian had to think of another plan. In the weeks following, he feigned sickness. Week after week he told the ship doctor he was shaking at night and had trouble breathing. Eventually the ship doctor said that he should go for a full check up at the hospital in Miami – but to be quick coming back because the boat would leave at 5pm.

A cab was ordered to take Adrian to the hospital.

“I told the driver to take his time. On the way to the hospital, I stopped off to buy a packet of needles. We got to the hospital late and I blamed the traffic. The doctors told me I’d miss my boat back. So we do all the tests and they didn’t find anything, but they did find blood in my urine, which I’d dropped in, using the needles I’d bought.

“Of course, they told me to stay overnight at the hospital. They gave me lots of injections and attached drips to my arms and the priest even came over with a bible. Americans are crazy!”

Two days later, the doctors released Adrian, suspicious that something fishy was taking place. He stayed in a cheap hotel until the following Tuesday, when he would be able to go for an interview. His plan had worked so far.

The following Tuesday, on a very high floor of a tall building in Miami, the lift door opened onto the reception of the cruise ship photographic company. Portfolio in hand, Adrian announced to the front desk that he was here for his interview.

It was bad timing. There was nobody available to interview him, and he was told he would have to come back in a few weeks. He pleaded to see someone that day, but they were insistent that he return later.

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Adrian cried on the way back to the boat. He was back in the dining room with his tray of food, feeling painfully dejected.

The only way other he could get time off but still return to the states was if there was some sort of crisis, because if a crew member chose to leave the ship, they weren’t allowed back. So he wrote to his mother to ask her to tell his bosses that there’d been a family accident, so he could fly home.

It worked. Adrian was soon back in Miami. He’d had a couple of days to attend interviews for cruise ships but none were hiring straight away. His visa was expiring, so he went to see a lawyer to find out if he could buy some more time.

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Credit: Adrian Samson

“He said I couldn’t extend my time there because I had a shit visa. The only thing I could do was to leave the US and re-enter and then get a three-month extension as a tourist,” Adrian said.

But, said the lawyer, “Don’t go to the Bahamas, it’s too obvious. Go to Mexico.”

Time was running out for Adrian. There were six days left on his visa, and money was getting tight. He bought a bus ticket to Alabama. A second bus would take him to Dallas, then he’d hitchhike to the border.

Still clutching his portfolio, Adrian slept at the back of a Greyhound bus, which was winding its way through Mobile in Alabama. He woke up to the gleam of torchlight in his eyes. It was the police, who had come to check the passengers’ identification and legal status.

A couple of policemen hauled Adrian off the bus, then threw him in an open jail cell with six other men.

“There were seven men, and one toilet. They were big guys from Mexico with tattoos. I thought, how did I end up here?” He was there for two days before the sheriff came to speak to him. Adrian told him he was a famous photographer in Slovakia and had gone to take pictures of cockfighting in Dallas. The sheriff was dubious but let him go back to Miami without a caution.

Adrian reached Miami with two days left on his visa and used a pay phone to call the photographic studio company one last time. As luck would have, they were waiting for his call. He was told there would be a cruise ship coming to Miami the next day and they wanted him to be a photographer on board.

Promotion followed promotion. He was soon dining with the captain, and he had more free time off to practice his photography. He became the guy that he had approached for the phone number in the beginning. The photographic company was impressed with his talent for managing the cruise ship operations, and Adrian was promoted to Canada to manage a much larger crew. In 2004, the studio promoted him to manage European operations in London.

It was in London that Adrian realised he always wanted to be a photographer rather than the manager he became. He resigned from his job, and moved from a plush apartment in Westminster to a large warehouse in Canning Town, where he found himself shooting commercials for the likes of Ford and Microsoft.

“I was earning ridiculous amounts of money, and I thought it would never end. I remember buying a Saab on my debit card for £22,000 – crazy stuff. But I sold it six months later, because I realised that as a freelancer there is actually no guarantee where the next job comes from.”

Slowly, Adrian began to take creative control over his photography.

“It’s a process. You can’t jump from advertising photography to being a serious artist from one day to the next. It takes years of transition.”

Adrian reflects on his life on board the cruise ship. “Maybe if I’d have got promoted when I was a waiter, I’d now be a hotel manager in Budapest.

“But I think we have interests that are inbuilt. Some people hate their jobs, or they don’t know what they want to be doing with their lives.

“For me now, I don’t question it. It’s nice to have something you don’t question.”

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Credit: Adrian Samson

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