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‘The more different a place was to my home, the more I wanted to seek it out.’
Gems in this
Simon Lister's work really makes you think. A native of New Zealand, his creative career led him to Sydney, Australia, where he founded the acclaimed Nylon Studios. However, his passions for motorbikes and photography have since taken him to different worlds altogether.
His portraits from regions like India and Bolivia have acted as inspiration for UNICEF’s most elaborate global campaign, with his remarkable journeys featured by the United Nations and in the Netflix original series Tales By Light. We spoke with Simon about creative life in Sydney and the inspiring human spirit he has met in some of the world's harshest places.
On where you’re from
I was born in Hamilton in the Waikato region of New Zealand. I was brought up on a farm, which was a great experience, and was influenced by my father, who loved motorbikes, photography and music, which are all elements that have come through in my life with my recording studios, love of photography and motorbikes.
On growing up in New Zealand
New Zealand is all about being outdoors, from mountains to beautiful beaches. As a kid, I had a motorbike and would often take off to ride up into the mountains by myself, off-road. At a young age, I was immersed in that culture of being an adventurer. When I was 13, half of the year you spent at an adventure school in Lake Taupo in the North Island, and we would learn to canoe, abseil off cliffs, rock climb, hike through forests, live in a cabin and cook. You’d do survival days too, where they’d take you into the forest with a compass and a couple of sticks to rub together (to start a fire), and say, ‘Okay, see you in three days.’
On your move to Sydney
Around the age of 20, I was working in the radio industry in New Zealand, and was offered a job at a prominent recording studio in NZ. From there, I met my wife and moved to Auckland, where I worked as a freelancer. One day, a company in Sydney called me up and asked, ‘Do you want to come and work in Sydney?’ After living and working in Sydney for several years, I had the opportunity to open up my own sound studio called Nylon Studios, which has been open for seventeen years. We launched in Sydney and opened in New York ten years ago; we have a Melbourne office, also. In the last couple of months, we have merged with a very cool company in the USA, and have changed our business name to Squeak E. Clean Studios.
On your relationship with Sydney
I love Sydney. We have been fortunate enough to live in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, where I love the beaches, the coastline. Being in this great environment and breathing in the ocean, running along the cliffs, having that kind of space to think, I just love it. My family and I have been lucky to travel a lot and see different cities around the globe, but we have this calling back to Sydney because of what it offers as both a city and a lifestyle. Sydney is also close to New Zealand, where we travel a few times a year.
On how your travels inspired a global UNICEF campaign
For the last ten years, my passions have been motorbikes and photography. As part of this I’ve been exploring the world, and the more raw and more different a place was to my home, the more I wanted to seek it out and immerse myself in its culture. When I first visited the Third World, I loved the experience because of the people. The communities are so friendly; you can walk through a street and people will come out and want to meet you as this stranger from another place. You meet people in a way that is nothing about superficial things, like what car or house you have, but about curiosity, love and learning from new people. Over the years, I developed a collection of photographs of people, and the stories behind them, which I began to share. People started to know me as that guy who does the motorbike trips and takes photographs, with most of my photos being portraits of people from all around the world. These images have led to my work with UNICEF, and helping share images of Third World children with the world. It’s amazing to see the images of kids I’ve met appear in locations like the United Nations building, Times Square billboards or on Netflix’s Tales By Light. [Simon points to a framed portrait on the wall in his studio of an elderly Indian man] That’s a Sadu, from Pushkar in Rajasthan, India. He was smoking marijuana on the side of this lake when I took that photo.
‘You meet people in a way that is nothing about superficial things, like what car or house you have, but about curiosity, love and learning from new people.’
On the creative approach in your UNICEF work
UNICEF don’t want to show images of Third World kids with flies on their faces, but instead they want to show kids being happy. This is because they are happy when they are safe and when they’re getting an education. This is what I’ve been trying to capture in my photography and portraits. The beauty of children is that they adapt and will survive, wherever they are. I’ve met kids in India who work everyday to collect plastic at a rubbish tip to survive, but you’ll still see laughter and playing. That’s sometimes all they know. They don’t know much about our life on this side, but they learn to cope and make the most of the environment they have been brought up in.
On Netflix’s ‘Tales By Light’ and shooting in dangerous places
Tales By Light is a Netflix series with Canon Australia featuring photographers around the world. They invited me to share my story and work I’m doing for UNICEF about children in the Third World, along with Orlando Bloom, who is a UNICEF ambassador. We traveled to Bolivia to tell the stories about child labor, and met children working in the mines of Cerro Rico in Potosi, mining for silver and tin in a four-hundred-year-old mine. They estimate that ten million people have died in these mines we went to. Everyday on our journey there was a very emotional moment that you’d experience. One example was in Bangladesh, where we met a little porter boy, Changmia, who carries luggage for passengers off the ferries. His mother died and his father abandoned him at the age of five, so he became a street kid and had to survive. The strength in this boy was unbelievable. The most gorgeous kid you could ever imagine: his heart, his eyes, his smile. One particular moment, we were filming Orlando and the boy came up and gave me this big hug, and I just broke down crying. This beautiful boy with no father, no family, and he’s surviving by himself. It was so powerful. These kids have to work because they have to put their own food on the table, so UNICEF set up these makeshift schools so they can work in their jobs for a few hours, but then go to school for a few hours. No matter what their situation, kids in the Third World just want to learn — they want to be reading, they want an education, it’s their passion. I feel blessed that I’m being utilized for my skill to take photographs that can hopefully help bring these kids and their stories to the rest of the world.
On the most gut-wrenching places you’ve filmed
The mine in Bolivia was the harshest place I’ve filmed. We went two hundred meters into the mine, and stopped to film the kids. And soon as you’re inside, you can feel the dust start to get into your lungs, and there are these piercing noises from the pipes, which take pressured air into the middle of the mountain to power the big jackhammers. You know what it’s like when you get caught in a rip in the ocean? You panic, right? It felt like that. You’re confined, you feel trapped, you’re choking. We filmed our moment, and then the kids said, ‘This is just the entrance, we can walk for another forty minutes to a lift shaft deep into the mountain.’ Fifteen thousand people work in that mine every day. After the mines, we traveled to the Amazon jungle at the top of Bolivia and we continued the story, meeting children who use big machetes to harvest Brazil nuts. The dangers they deal with every day, like snakes, wild cats, panthers, and huge Brazil nut coconuts that can kill you when they drop from trees. The children’s jobs are to slice open the Brazil nuts when they fall.
‘One particular moment, we were filming Orlando and the boy came up and gave me this big hug and I broke down crying… it was so powerful.’
On reverse culture shock
I remember returning home after a trip like this, completely culture-shocked. You see someone all stressed out at work like, ‘Where’s the tape? I need a courier!’ It’s a complete cultural shift from what you’ve been seeing in death or war or poverty. In our environment, everyday stresses can be nothing compared to what a lot of the rest of the world is dealing with.
On the response to ‘Tales By Light’
It’s amazing to have these children’s stories shared with people. I would be getting around fifty messages a day from people wanting to connect and share how the show is inspiring them to use their photography to help make change. People have reached out and said that they showed their kids our episode because they wanted them to learn and understand the differences between their world and the world of other kids, as well as schools and education platforms using the show to learn about child labor. As creative people, we have these skills like writing, photography, directing, editing, sound, music, and a percentage of us can go out and help bring these stories to the rest of the world. It’s not hard for me to go out and take photographs and film, or make a soundtrack, and then to have the incredible opportunity to share these images in places like Times Square billboards, the Sydney Harbour Bridge on New Year’s Eve or UNICEF’s head office...to show an image of a child that moves people and brings the work that UNICEF is doing to light is very fulfilling.
On travel preparation
On my bigger travel journeys, I prep myself for a full month beforehand. You need to be super fit physically and mentally, because you can come across a lot of obstacles along the journey. Having a healthy diet, a lot of exercise like running, and spending time mentally visualising what I want to achieve creatively from the trip… part of this is to never think negatively in the time leading up to the travel, and to think positively about the outcomes. Like, if I think I’m going to come off a motorbike, I’ll probably come off, so I stay super positive mentally. Once I’m traveling I go into a diet of literally tons of water, and just really safe food like toast or boiled eggs. I don’t take any risks with food and basically eat dinner that is cooked in front of me on an open fire. In every country, I also have a local fixer or guide who will know the best places to go to, where to take you for photographs, where not to take you, how to speak the language, and I have that person with me the whole time. That way I can achieve things like surfing on top of a train in Bangladesh, by knowing what to do and what not to do, and also, not get sick. With journeys like these, you can’t just wing it, because each day you don’t know what situation you’re going to be going into and filming these kids in. You’ve got to be ready for whatever is thrown at you.
On learning to travel light
I think I’ve learned how to take the least with me as possible and still do everything I need to. Often when you go overseas, you pack all this stuff and then use about a quarter of it. I have come across other photographers with massive zoom lenses and tripods on my travels and it looks like hard work! For me, I want to enjoy the moment and immerse myself in it, because it’s with people and kids. You can’t go in with all this gear because it becomes all about the gear. It’s got to be about the moment and making people feel relaxed and natural, and not getting in the way of the image. So I literally shoot with the smallest camera I’ve got and one lens, and that’s it. No flash, no tripod. This means I always shoot using natural light, which is a challenge I love — to never have anything set up in my photographs. That’s also an important thing for UNICEF, which is that everything is real and nothing is set up. I also go into any moment showing my face, with my camera held down low — not with my camera over my eyes, because I want the kids to see my face and feel natural.
On a few favorite places in Sydney
We have a few local favorites in Sydney. A café called Clodeli on Clovelly Road, where we walk two or three mornings each week and have breakfast. It’s a short walk with the dog, we sit out the front in the sun, having a coffee; that’s our favourite little café. For dinners, a great restaurant is Chiswick in Woollahra. Bills in Bondi Beach is awesome, and NOMAD is a spot we like in Surry Hills.
On something to do if you’re passing through Sydney
My favorite thing to do in Sydney are the cliff walks, from Bondi Beach to Coogee. It’s an amazing walk, fitness-wise, and you come across beautiful beaches along the way where you find lots of different cultures like the Bondi, Bronte Beach and Coogee Beach cultures. They’re all a bit different in their own way. If you’re visiting Sydney and do one thing, the Bondi to Bronte walk is a great experience. Sometimes I go for a run along the cliffs, stop at a beach, have a swim, and keep running. We’re very lucky to have this as our backyard.
On something from New Zealand you need a fix of
My wife grew up on an island just off New Zealand called Great Barrier Island. We don’t usually tell the world this because it’s like our little secret place, but this is where we go every year for our fix of unwinding and recharging. There’s no electricity, and you literally take your shoes off for two weeks and completely unwind. There are a couple of restaurants; one is a pub. We have a lot of friends that go there with their families, and we go fishing during the day and get together and have dinners at night. It’s the most beautiful place in the world.
‘You can’t go in with all this gear because it becomes about the gear. It’s got to be about the moment and making people feel relaxed and natural and not getting in the way of the image.’
On a journey you’re looking forward to
A motorbike tour in Namibia.
On window seat or aisle
I used to be a window person, but I think lately, as I’m getting older, I like an aisle seat so I can get up and walk around (laughs). Unless I get an emergency seat and then I’ll take the window, because I can walk around people.
On Sydney in one word