Gallery: Snow-boy Sam's travels with his camera
Days are never dull when you're looking at life through a viewfinder, aiming to capture the beautiful, the quirky, the evocative and the thrilling.
Days are never dull when you're looking at life through a viewfinder, aiming to capture the beautiful, the quirky, the evocative and the thrilling. Sam Mellish tells Steven Russell where he's been, what he's seen and why he loves it
LIFE for Sam Mellish, he recognises with a grin, hasn't been at all half-bad. The guy with surfing-dude looks has enjoyed a decade or so travelling and chasing the snow - combining those passions with photography and forging a career behind the camera. He's photographed people like Olympian Linford Christie, actress Lisa Maxwell (who's just left The Bill to become a presenter on Loose Women), singer-cum-Dancing on Ice champion Suzanne Shaw, and Charlie Brooks, who plays scheming and amoral Janine Butcher in EastEnders. Sam's recently been a mentor and photographer-in-residence on an Operation Raleigh International charity project in India for young people, and for good measure he's got a master's degree tucked into his camera bag after taking himself off to university as a mature student. Not bad going for someone who admits he wasn't the most academic of pupils at school.
“To be able to shake Linford Christie's hand and direct him for photos was a thrill,” Sam admits. Photographing those celebs was a commission from Breast Cancer Campaign, a charity they support. Was the 1992 Olympic 100m gold medallist good at being told how to stand and where to look? “No, not at all! He did do what I asked him, but his focus wasn't really on having his photograph taken; he wanted to have fun and chat, really, with all the people! No, he was fine: such a nice guy; down to earth.
“It was an honour to meet this guy who was a star from my childhood. I used to do a lot of cross-country, so international track and field was a sport I enjoyed.”
Sam, 29, hailed from Capel St Mary - “a really nice place to grow up, playing in apple orchards in the summer and things like that” - and went on to high school at East Bergholt. At 16, interested in music and films, he signed up at Suffolk College for a media studies course.
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At 19 came “a sort of gap year and I didn't really look back, to tell the truth”. He was introduced to Raleigh International, which sends volunteers on character-building charitable projects abroad, and spent three months in Namibia in 1999. That was where he caught the photography bug. Sam hadn't done much before - at college he was more interested in whizzy video-and-music creations than still images - but he took a 35mm camera to Africa and was hooked. “There was an official photographer on the expedition and I quizzed him a lot. He must have found it annoying!”
Sam enjoyed the sense of freedom in taking pictures. “It was nice, if you had a bit of time to yourself, to take yourself off - and there was later that sense of anticipation of taking films to the developers and wondering what you're going to get back. There was also a simplicity about it.”
He was, too, able to incorporate some of the insights he'd gained from video work - use of angles, the importance of composition and lighting, for instance.
Back in England, Sam took jobs here and there . . . and then lost his heart to snowboarding. For years he and the friends he made would essentially follow the snow. The winter of 2001/2, for instance, was spent in the Alps; after six weeks back home he was off to Switzerland for a summer on the glaciers, before heading for the slopes for the following winter.
Over the next few years he was frequently found in France, in the Alps, or New Zealand - enjoying something of a nomadic life while snowboarding and continuing to experiment with, and learn about, photography. The action sport, amid mountain scenery, was inherently photogenic. Quite quickly, Sam realised he wanted to pursue photography professionally.
He and his friends pooled their skills and in 2006 they got a big article published following a trip to New Zealand. It proved a breakthrough and Sam started selling to magazines. To help make ends meet he had spells as a chef and doing other kitchen jobs, including work in some “amazing” chalets. He's largely self-taught, “from books, and trial and errors on my parents, I guess!”
Then in 2007, much to his surprise, he was accepted on a master's degree course in photojournalism at The University of Westminster. When he applied, he didn't rate his chances of winning a place and cut short a trip to France to return for the interview.
Looking back, it was another turning point.
“To come back after almost a decade of kind of living for the moment - selling work here and there and doing it for the love of it, and then coming back to base myself in London for a year - was amazing.”
Sam thinks the impetus to raise his game had been building for a while. “I could see it wasn't an easy industry to get into and I knew I wanted to carry on working. I think I just needed to . . . what's the word? . . . to ground myself a little bit: to do the course and then see how it goes. I think that year really built my confidence in saying 'Right, this is really what I want to do', and being able to talk to other photographers and the teachers.”
Not one to let the grass grow beneath his feet, Sam hadn't long graduated before he was off to India as a project photographer with Raleigh International for 13 weeks, working on youth development programmes around Mysore in the south of the country.
Volunteers aged 17-24 spent up to 10 weeks rotating around three different projects - community-oriented, environmental, and adventure-based. They hiked in mountainous regions and built eco-sanitation units - loos, basically - for resettled tribes that used to be honey-gatherers.
Sam acted as something of a mentor and also documented life on the expedition.
When that part of the trip was over, he ventured north on his own to seek out snow in the rugged hill stations around Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, which sit at the foothills of the Himalayas. Although the snow-covering turned out not to be very wonderful at all, the area still presented some novel photographic opportunities. Sam also spent time in Joshimath, the town with links to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and by association to The Beatles' White Album, and went to the Taj Mahal on Christmas Eve.
He'd originally wondered about going to Kashmir, but had kept a wary eye on the politically volatile situation there. Then came the shootings and bombings across Mumbai in late November, 2008. Discretion being the better part of valour, Sam changed his plans.
Now lodging with his engineer brother in east Ipswich, he's expanding his range of photographic work, which to the layman already seems varied. This month, for instance, he was commissioned by clothing company Vans to take pictures at the Relentless Boardmasters surf, skate and music festival at Newquay. Another job has been food photography for an Ipswich caf� and tapas bar - the kind of work he'd enjoy more of.
Other past commissions have included shoots for Westbeach Clothing and Men's Fitness; there's wedding and portraiture work; and his pictures have appeared in a host of publications, such as Snowboard UK, Fall Line Ski Magazine and Photography Monthly.
These days, Sam doesn't do as much personal snowboarding as he used to; invariably, time on the slopes means it's time to work. “When all your friends are bombing about and saying 'Come and do this, come and do that', you've just got to limit it a bit and shut it out,” he acknowledges.
On the days he's not shooting, however, he likes to take himself off and enjoy the snow.
Why does the sport give him such a thrill?
“It's just extremely fun: a good crowd of people; you're very 'free' when you're out there on the mountains; and being able to incorporate the photography side, and come back at the end of the day with some good photographs that could be in a magazine, you get quite a buzz from that.”
And why does photography float his boat?
“If I'm working on a project - like I did with northern India, trying to find the snow - it's as much about the build-up - working out where you're going and how you're going to do it - as seeing the work on the computer or the prints you've made. It's the whole package.
“I gave myself a bug when I was 18 or 19 - travelling - and I still haven't got rid of that. Being able to incorporate photography -thinking of something to do or being given a brief, putting it into practice, and then seeing your results at the end of it - is so rewarding.
“You're constantly learning. You're out there, in the elements, with your camera and you're creating something. I was never much good at school on the theory side, but 'doing things' is much better - and then trying to do something even better next time.
“Photography hasn't necessarily made me financially rich, but it's certainly given me so many fantastic opportunities.” Rich in experience? “Yes, that's the word I'm looking for!
“I feel extremely lucky to be where I am today. And as far as photographic ambitions go, I'd like to turn my attention on long term projects: projects of social narratives and documentary photography. I think that's part of the reason I wanted to search for snow in such a hostile environment of northern India during winter, and why projects like Raleigh really appeal to me.
“I feel the sport photography and the MA have been fantastic foundations for me to be able to grow in confidence and ability; to concentrate on projects which maybe are more sensitive in approach and appeal.
“Photography is all about progression, and I'm always looking to create new and innovative images. My ambitions are really to carry on doing this, to never lose sight of the fun, but ultimately to be good at what I do.”
Although he's covered a lot of miles and seen a lot of places, Sam can see there will come a time when he wants to lay down some roots, and maybe have a family - “but that seems a bit scary at the moment”, he laughs. Might put a lid on the wanderlust . . . “Not necessarily!”
Can he ever see himself opting for a conventional existence?
“I'd like to base myself here in Suffolk - still go off, but be a bit more settled. And try to get commissions locally while still doing work in the City. This is what I've been building myself up to, though you never know what's around the corner. I do love coming back here. It's a beautiful area.”
But probably not a 9-5 sitting-at-a-desk lifestyle?
“I don't think so! I think I'd be biting my knuckles a little bit!”
Best job? In March he accompanied a rock tour, largely promoted by his friends' clothing company, that zig-zagged between ski resorts in France, Austria and Switzerland. His pictures are due to appear in Method Magazine, a snowboarding publication distributed in 19 European countries. “Lots of my friends were there and it was really good fun, mixing a bit of snowboarding with photography and the music.”
Sam shoots both digitally and with traditional film. He's looking at buying a medium-format camera that takes larger film, too.
Sam sometimes uses a plastic pinhole camera he bought on Sunset Boulevard, California. The camera and four rolls of film cost about 20 dollars - and he's had images published in magazines. “It just takes really nice, sharp images: lets the light in, warps the shot and makes it look very eerie.”
His dad, now retired, was once a footballer at Southend and had an apprenticeship at Ipswich before his knees gave way and he went to work for insurance broker Willis Corroon.
More on Sam: www.sammellishphotography.co.uk
Contact: 0780 787 0695
Sam on northern India:
“To sum up India: it's all manner of emotions mixed into one - often stressful, often relaxing, seemingly always chaotic. Hectic yet calm, friendly yet boisterous.
“The trip to search for snow was certainly done on a shoestring: boarding rickety buses, night-sleeper trains and eating the local food. The journey from Delhi was breathtaking, while entering Joshimath was like stepping back in time. Cows wandered the streets, open shacks sold all manner of foods and pulses. It felt like I had journeyed to the end of the earth, surrounded by towering mountains peaking at over 6,500 metres - that's double the size of most peaks in the European Alps.
“If anyone has travelled through Romania - seen horse-drawn carts skittering along the cobbled roads - to ski resorts such as the Sinaia in the Southern Carpathians . . . well, take away the shops and any sign of commercial enterprise and you're left with an array of rickety old huts and half-constructed houses, and beautiful snowy peaked mountains. You're close to a street scene in Joshimath; and, like Sinaia, tourists flock all year round. Auli ski area is a 10-minute cable-car ride up the hill - which is breathtaking.”
Sam on Raleigh International
“Raleigh was an amazing experience - working with young people while photographically documenting the progression of the projects. Together with local NGOs (non-governmental organisations), teams of about 14 volunteers worked to construct more than 50 eco-sanitation units for re-settled nomadic tribes and took part in building two anti-poaching huts in one of Kanataka's biggest national parks, as well as ten days' hiking across 250 km of tea plantations and Kerela's stunning highland panorama.
“You meet some amazing people when you throw yourself into these situations; it's such a contrast to being in the snow, shooting a jump or a snowboarder freeride.”