In Conversation With: Richard Sawdon Smith

Richard sawdon smith

Richard Sawdon Smith is an internationally exhibiting and award-winning photographer. His portrait ‘Simon’, of his ex-boyfriend who had AIDS, won the National Portrait Gallery Photographic Portrait Award in 1997. He is regularly invited to speak about his work in the UK, America and Australia. He is a member of the Visual AIDS Archive NYC, plus co-editor of photography anthologies Langford’s Basic Photography and The Book is Alive! His eventful life, which informs his photography, has taken him from go-go boy to professor, from artist to boxer.


By Patrick Cash (

What kind of photography do you specialise in?

I use myself as the main model, so it’s a form of self-portraiture, but I tend to shy away from this as a description as I merely use my body to represent the ideas I’m interested in photographing. To this end I have created different personas that I inhabit to both produce the images and keep a critical distance and perspective on the work. The first persona was called The Damaged Narcissist but since I had my body tattooed the new persona is called The Anatomical Man.

And not wishing to sound too arty, but my photography can best be described as issue-based work – ideas driven, exploring concerns of identity, sexuality, gender and masculinity as well as the construction of subjectivity. Over the last 20 years this has primarily been in reference to representation of illness/health.


What inspires your work?

Generally inspiration comes from what is around me, what affects my life, I’m still a strong believer in the ‘Personal is Political’. I’ve always done portraiture and nude photography, this has now been augmented with an interest in the anatomical and medical imaging; such references appear consistently throughout my body of work. As a lecturer, but also because of my enduring passion for photography, I naturally keep up to date with contemporary art and photographic practice and still read avidly on the subject – so my interests are quite wide and diverse.


Have you got an exhibition on at the moment? What themes does it centre about?

I’ve just exhibited at photo L.a. and the work has now moved to Artist Corner Gallery in Hollywood, California. This is a follow up to the Round Hole, Square Peg: Queer Identity in the 21st Century exhibition in New York last year but only concentrating on photography this time. It was the first time there had been a LGBT exhibition at photo L.a. and it focuses on contemporary queer photography.

We know that you have popular photos which feature your distinctive tattoos, when did you get them done and what was the thinking behind them?

The initial tattoos, the veins and arteries on both arms coming out of my heart were done over the summer of 2009. They were designed foremost to be photographed as an artwork rather than as traditional tattoos. The idea developed out of another project of mine called Observe in which I had been documenting for 20 years the process of having regular blood tests. I wanted to reveal this process not normally seen, making visible the repetitive and invasive procedures of having a needle stuck in your arm to check for levels of ill/health. Highlighted via the medical illustration of the veins being tattooed on my body, another process that uses a needle and draws blood.


Since then I’ve extended the tattoos down my torso and legs with a different tattoo, of an autopsy scare, on my back. I saw the Skin exhibition at the Wellcome Collection which had a photograph of a women, with a huge back scare from an operation, at the entrance to the show and it immediately struck me that I had to have something similar tattooed on me. I almost prefer it to the front as it suggest an opened up body that allows one to imagine the insides without having to show them.



You also train as a boxer, what made you take this step?

There was a chain of coincidences: primarily I wanted to do something beyond the monotony of just going to the gym, which is a bit solitary even if I’m good at setting targets and trying to better my performance (for example, I set myself the challenge of doing fifty 10k runs in fifty weeks). But it was when I was completing this challenge and I was talking with a friend on holiday about doing something different to gym workouts we both said we fancied boxing. When I got back from holiday, checking messages on Fitlads, a boy I had been cruising for a while said he had taken up boxing. I then found the London Gay Boxing Club on Facebook that has classes at Ringtone Gym in Euston, close to where I live, every Thursday night at 7pm. I took that first class and was hooked immediately, I woke up in the morning excited about it, I was so energized, so started going 3 or 4 times a week to all the mixed (men & women) classes as well.


Image courtesy of © Bradley Chippington

Why are you known as ‘The Professor’ in the ring?

Ha, because of my advancement in years and I’m so knowledgeable – no, it’s because I am a real life Professor! Professor of Photography and AIDS Cultures, Head of the Arts and Media Department at a London University.

How many fights have you done so far and how have they gone?

I’ve had three fights in the ring so far, all straight guys, and a very mixed record: 1 win, 1 draw, 1 loss. The last two fights have been against guys half my age, who were also taller and bigger than me. In the last fight the other guy came off the worse, a bit bloodied. But my loss was very brutal, as soon as I took the first big hit all my training went out of the window and the fight got very scrappy, blood everywhere – but I have a kind of perverse pride in my black eye from that fight, more so than the trophy, as I battled on and had him on the ropes by the end, but the bell went before I could finish it.


Do you think your boxing ties in to your photography work and your outlook on life in general?

Good question although not so simple to answer. The academic in me can’t but help see the boxing ring and gym as a site of heightened masculinity and testosterone-fuelled adrenaline mixed with ambiguous sexualities and genuine human bonding. One that is ripe for analysis and hopefully another photographic project. In fact my friend the writer, art historian, and AIDS activist Simon Watney commented that:

“The continuity of your work’s direction is so interesting, though I expect you’ll find some resistance to your taking up boxing, as if there could be a more dramatic and richly symbolic way of dealing with aggression and spectacle and endurance and pain and pride and fear and courage (the things that make us men)… But it will scare people.”

And true there has been a very mixed reaction, from people being horrified – or at least feeling very protective towards me in case I get hurt -, to those who find it a real turn on!

I’m aware that through my photographs I might be seen as promoting a certain type of masculinity. I’m tattooed and pierced, a boxer, lifelong supporter of Arsenal, even sharing a season ticket with my younger brother. Online, people might view me as a rough, dominant bloke (rather than the well-spoken university lecturer that I am) and classify this as ‘straight acting’ but I never have used, and never would use, this term. As Peter Tatchell comments, this denotes a sense of “internalised homophobia”. It would suggest that there is such a thing as ‘gay acting’, as if all gay men were the same and something to be ashamed of.

While we are busy promoting a heteronormative idea of equality we mustn’t forget about being open to diversity, something that makes the gay community so special. I might look like this now (boxing photography professor) but when I was a student in the 1980s I was a new romantic gender bender. In the 1990s I had jobs as a go-go dancer and as a drag queen hostess at Heaven – life is full of such contradictions. So I’m happy to identify as gay, perhaps even a daddy, and certainly as queer.


Image courtesy of © Bradley Chippington.

And finally, where can we see your work/see you fight next?

We do have another Ringtone Gym White Collar Boxing event planned in March at The London Irish Centre in Camden, so I’m considering that, if I can find the right opponent.

The exhibition in Hollywood is on until the end of February. I’m then working with the Spanish photographer pair Paco y Manolo for a touring show they are curating, with everything shot on Polaroid, which opens at the Impossible Gallery in Barcelona in March. I’m about to launch my new website – it’s not quite complete yet but a lot of images have already been uploaded. I’m also giving a talk for Uncertain States photography magazine on the 1st April in Old Street (





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