Featured Alumni Stories

A Man and his Camera: a Force of Human Nature

Rick Smolan ES'67 is CEO of Against All Odds Productions and a New York Times best-selling author with more than five million copies of his books in print. To hear him tell it, this wasn't the most obvious outcome from what he felt was a less-than-stellar academic performance while at SYA. "I didn't speak Spanish at all when I got there and it felt like all the other students learned it quickly while I struggled. Then one morning I woke up and, as I listened to the voices of my Spanish family in the next room, I wondered why they were speaking in English. And then I suddenly realized they were speaking Spanish and that I was actually understanding them! It was like a switch in my head had been turned on while I was sleeping."

More than just Spanish, his year with SYA showed him the potential of the rest of the world. "I remember listening one day to the top 20 hit songs in Spain and I had this sudden realization that these songs were unique to that culture and that every country has this. Living in another culture for a year at that age you realize there's infinite other valid ways of eating, dressing ... it's what lit the fire in me to want to see other cultures. I liked being a stranger in a strange land."

Smolan contrasts this inauspicious start in Spain to a return trip in 1987, when working on his seventh Day in the Life series photography book, A Day in the Life of Spain, he spent the day with then-King Juan Carlos. No doubt SYA played a large part in the transition, but not from a mere geographic introduction. By his own admission, painfully shy and bad at sports, Smolan's father sent him to Spain with a camera and he found a shop down the street to develop his film. One day after school, Smolan asked if the developer could show him how to print and develop film. He soon became the class photographer, in high demand by his classmates and in attendance at all events. When he started taking pictures, Smolan says, he thought it was just a hobby. But he turned it into a profession and became an icon in exploring cultures through photography.

Smolan's career since then has been a similar mix of chance and fortitude. His father didn't want to pay for college for his son to "take baby portraits and wedding pictures" so Smolan ended up at Dickinson University, which didn't have a photography major. But within a week he convinced his professor to let him make his own major. That same professor introduced him to Jack and Helen Corn, a couple in Tennessee who ran a stock agency that sold some of Smolan's pictures to magazines and book publishers while he was still in college.

The couple turned out to know the director of photography at TIME Magazine and made an introduction. Smolan showed up for the interview with his SYA yearbook and, though unprepared, was given a job on the spot to photograph British playwright Tom Stoppard. A year later, he helped create a new agency called Contact Press Images and, as the "young and hungry" photographer, Smolan was sent on the jobs no one else wanted, one of which was flying to Tokyo on PanAm's first nonstop JFK-Tokyo flight to photograph two airlines executives shaking hands.

Smolan ended up staying for 11 months, living for a time with the Japanese police force, photographing Muhammed Ali (whose personal photographer invited him to Korea for a match) and traveling to Guam during a typhoon. He also met Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser who took an interest in him because, it turned out, Smolan used the same type of camera the Prime Minister himself used. Fraser told Smolan about a government-sponsored program bringing journalists to Australia, as the country was so far removed from the rest of the world, and Smolan got invited to visit the land down under as the Prime Minister's guest. Once he was in Australia, TIME asked him to shoot a cover story on Aborigines. While photographing in the outback town of Alice Springs, Smolan wound up taking a picture of a "stunningly beautiful" 26-year-old woman named Robyn Davidson who was washing the windows of his hotel to raise money for a 1,700 mile, nine-month solo camel trip across Australia's treacherous Gibson Desert. She asked Smolan if he knew anyone at National Geographic, whom she had approached about funding for her trip. He gave her an editor's name and when National Geographic funded her, Smolan was assigned to be the photographer who tracked her down in the desert five times over the course of her journey. Robyn eventually wrote the international best-selling book Tracks about the journey, which has sold over a million copies in 18 languages. In 2014, Tracks was turned into a feature film by the Oscar winning producers of The King's Speech. In the film Robyn is portrayed by Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland) and Smolan by Adam Driver (Kylo Ren in Star Wars).

Smolan's most recent project, The Human Face of Big Data, was inspired in part through conversations with Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer whom he had met and befriended at the annual TED conference where he has been a speaker (www.Natashastory.com). He had shared with her that he was looking for a cool new project to do and she suggested looking at the world of big data, and shared her belief that our planet is developing a nervous system thanks to that fact that three billion of us are now walking around with a pocketful of internet connected sensors in our Smartphones.

The ability to collect data, share it and analyze it in real time is resulting in the creation of a real-time feedback loop and through photography and essays, Smolan's book demonstrates how big data is already improving our health, energy consumption and relationships.

Initially rejected on both the topic and his insistence that the project be a book, he eventually found funding through EMC, who gave him the freedom to do a book, an iPad app, a movie and exhibits. The "Human Face" iPad app won the 2013 WEBBY for best educational app and the companion TV documentary was broadcast nationwide on PBS in February of 2016 and won the award for Best Cinematography at the Boston Film Festival.

Smolan says that the year he spent in Spain with SYA was a turning point in his life and transformed a young boy who had difficulty fitting in with his peers and the world around him into a confident producer of massive crowd sourced projects which combine creative storytelling with state-of-the-art technology.

The biggest thing he takes from his transformative year in Spain is having "realized that there are infinite other equally valid cultures around the world and things you can learn from," a sentiment beautifully expressed in his numerous global photography projects.

Read more about Against All Odds Productions
Read more about Tracks
Read more about The Human Face of Big Data