Meet Chris Smith
Meet: Chris Smith Native: Visalia, California Occupation: Photographer
From his first day in Macon, Chris Smith has been plugged in. A photographer, he said he’s intrigued, not just by the images he makes, but by our growing and changing community.
And if the stamps on his passport are any indication, he’s seen a few interesting communities.
“Being here, I keep hearing how the town is changing, revitalizing – and you can actually feel it. Literally the first day I was here I was hanging out with some folks, some amazing people, and they are all doers. I immediately got plugged in to hearing about what was going on and seeing how people were affecting this city. I really embraced that,” he said.
Landing in here last fall via California, Myanmar and Thailand, how did this world-traveling photographer end up in Macon?
Chris, 35, grew up in Visalia, California. He inherited his love of photography from his dad.
“My dad used to take me out to take photos. We’d go up in the hills. He gave me an old 35mm camera and said, ‘Whatever you shoot, I’ll develop and print it.’ I was young – still wearing Ninja Turtle shirts,” he said with a laugh.
From there, his skill with a camera developed quickly. When he was just 16 he was asked to shoot a wedding: “I didn’t. I was scared as hell!”
He attended California State University Long Beach, majoring in psychology but quickly changing his major “to only thing I knew at that point: photography.”
Graduating in 2008 with a bachelor’s in photography, he felt compelled to do more with his life – and talent – than just “take pretty pictures.”
In 2011, he got the opportunity to work for Documentary Arts Asia in Chiang Mai, Thailand. His work took him to Yangon, Myanmar, in 2012. The country was rebuilding after years of military rule and civil wars. Myanmar’s government was transitioning to democracy and travel sanctions had been lifted.
“That year they opened up to the global community. People could actually go in. So I started living there and learned the language,” he said. “No one wanted to live there at that time; it was a difficult place to live. The power would always go out, the food made everyone sick – even people who lived there – because of the horrible sanitation with the power going out all the time.”
Despite the hardships, Chris said he found his work there intriguing. He stayed busy working for a travel writing company, freelancing and leading photo tours.
“I was constantly traveling in this amazing, freshly-opened, hidden gem of a country,” he said. “I found a lot of value, not only in my work, but in the community. Every single person working there was eccentric and fascinatingly talented. No matter how hard you worked, you’d meet 10 other people over a beer that made you feel like you’re not working hard enough. But it wasn’t exhausting like in the U.S., working 12 hours behind a desk. It was completely engaging. It felt like you were helping shape a community and a country.”
His focus on human working rights and green tourism led to a job in Thailand in 2015 dealing with environmental sustainability and community development. He said it was an amazing experience, which also allowed him to photograph Khoa Sok National Park.
Family duties called him home to California in early 2016 and he spent the summer there catching up with family and friends. Ready to return to work, he “sent out some feelers” and got a response from old friends and Maconites Tanner Coleman and Alexis Gregg, of AnT Sculptures. Chris first met the pair in college and they have been friends since.
After helping them with a sculpture installation in Taiwan, they let him know Mercer University was looking for a photographer. Chris was hired, and in September 2016 he moved to Macon.
“I had never been here, never been to the South. But I figured, what the heck,” he said about the decision to move.
Coming from California, by way of Asia, the culture shock of moving to the South was “brutal.”
“The food is the worst. You guys have barbecue, I’ll give you that, but mac-n-cheese as a side in almost every restaurant is too much,” he said. “I got spoiled with all the fresh food in California and Thailand. Here, even the fresh produce at Kroger isn’t that fresh; that’s what I have trouble with.”
But one food has really won him over – grits. “Before coming here, I didn’t even know what grits were, but now I love them!” he said. “I have them at my house and even make them myself.”
Still working for Mercer, Chris also shoots photos for Macon Magazine, Spectra and private events. Shortly after moving here, he got a grant from Mercer to display his artwork in Mercer Village. Three 5-by-7-foot images he had taken at the Ocmulgee National Monument were displayed for six months.
He said he doesn’t know how long he’ll stay in Macon, a city he also calls “intriguing,” but is making the most of being here.
“I love the community aspect here. People really do tend to know everyone,” he said. “And there are so many people who are wanting to better the community. … I love seeing cities in transition, for better or worse. I gravitate toward that.”
After living around the world, how does he fuel his creativity in the South?
“Working with Mercer, having my images printed, seeing places I haven’t seen … even if it’s commercial work, it’s still new experiences and you still can play with style and keep learning things. … I constantly try to push it. I love Ocmulgee, new experiences, and even the architecture here – holy crap. The history here is amazing. It really grabs my attention.”