As a portrait photographer, the originality of your vision or knack for nailing the best angles are rendered almost irrelevant if coupled with an inability to put your subjects at ease. Such interpersonal skills Sydney-based Kiwi snapper Simon Lister has in spades—even when proving apparently impossible to pin down for an interview he is endearingly evasive.
There’s an intimacy and soulfulness to Simon’s imagery that betrays his inherent optimism and upon further prodding it soon becomes clear that he really is very much in love with the world—even if, paradoxically, he has filmed and photographed some of its more dire aspects.
Simon is the creative director at Squeak E Clean, a sound and music studio that straddles some of the world’s hippest hubs (New York, Chicago, Melbourne, LA and Sydney) creating content for everything from global brand advertising campaigns to feature films whilst working with royalty of the real and Hollywood kinds. In his spare time, Simon works as a photographer and filmmaker for Unicef and the United Nations, and has, in the days prior to our chat, been putting the finishing touches to a five-and-a-half-minute film in honour of the UN’s 75th anniversary. The film, Shaping Our Future Together, was last month broadcast to world leaders at the general assembly (and can be viewed on YouTube), covering everything from global warming to refugee crises, and conflicts to coronavirus.
“It was something of an odd process, because of Covid-19 we had to use stock footage from Getty and the UN, and I also reached out to a bunch of well-known photographers to supply imagery to create the storyline,” says Simon. “It’s a very moving, powerful film. I’ve been told that they haven’t had one like this play at the United Nations before. Hopefully, by the time the organisation turns 100 we’ll have come a long way in solving many of the issues covered.”
Shining A Light
Verve readers may recognise the photographer from the excellent Netflix documentary series Tales by Light [season 3, episode 1: ‘Children in Need’] in which he stars alongside actor and Unicef ambassador Orlando Bloom, highlighting child labour in Bangladesh. As harrowing as many of the scenes are (think youngsters carrying heavy industrial loads, sifting through rubbish dumps, and toiling in backstreet factories thick with toxic fumes), Simon still manages to capture a sense of hope and innocence, most notably when covering the kids at play or in their rudimentary educational facilities.
“Unicef didn’t just want depressing photographs of children covered in flies,” says Simon. “We wanted to capture their beauty, even in such hostile environments. Whether they’re swinging from a jungle gym or a burnt-out tank, kids are still kids, they’re still adventurous and they still want to be naughty and have fun. I love going to these places because of the hearts of these people. It’s very much community-based and although their situations are grim, the children all have each other, and hopefully get to go to school.”
Is it difficult adjusting back to regular life afterwards? “It is interesting what it does to your mind, I think that there are different stress levels. I definitely come back with a freer mind, it sort of opens up your emotional levels in a different way. I use these trips as a way of getting away from the noise, of being at one with humanity, whatever form that may take. I just love exploring different countries and cultures, I love the rawness and simplicity of life.”
Did you find it awkward being on the other side of the camera for the Netflix documentary? “Yes, I did! It’s really hard to even walk naturally, let alone string coherent sentences together without stopping between lines. I do try to build my confidence up for this sort of thing by doing talks and conferences about photography, but you do become very self-conscious when the camera’s rolling—and it doesn’t help that there’s this world-famous actor beside you!”
With so many in the country without TVs, Simon says that Orlando Bloom seemed to enjoy the spells of anonymity, though there would be a band of fans outside the hotel each night waiting for him to sign their Lord of the Rings dolls. I ask if they connected over their mutual connection with Middle-earth.
“Definitely, he loves New Zealand and loved that whole experience which obviously made him a bit of rock star. We had plenty of opportunity to share stories over breakfast and dinner and in the car.”
Simon’s childhood could barely have been more contrasting to those of the Bangladeshi kids; a picture-perfect Kiwi upbringing on a Waikato farm surrounded by goats, chickens, horses, pigs, and cows, and clearly much love and security.
“Looking back, my whole career path has definitely been taken from my father,” he says. “He loved music and motorbikes and always had a camera and so I’d hop on to that. I also learnt to play the piano at a very young age.”
Upon finishing school, Simon yearned to be a cameraman for TVNZ and headed to Wellington to apply; they didn’t have anything but directed him towards a spot at Radio New Zealand: “I was on the Kim Hill show a few weeks back, and that’s where I started off 33 years ago! I learnt so much there in just a year-and-a-half, then went to Marmalade Recording Studios where I spent a further six years. That was an amazing period, arriving just after the likes of Dave Dobbyn recording ‘Slice of Heaven’, as well as being around while projects with Netherworld Dancing Toys, Herbs and Annie Crummer were being produced, all recording in the main studio next door, while I was in the TVC commercial studio. Such a great environment of music culture to be around.”
Alongside the commercial work, Simon recorded for agencies like Saatchi & Saatchi and also met his wife-to-be, then moved up to her home city here in Auckland. A short time later they relocated to Sydney where Simon founded what would become Squeak E Clean. He’s been across the ditch for 23 years, and for around half that time has also made regular trips—usually on the back of dirt bike—to off-the-beaten track spots in far-flung destinations such as Mongolia, Myanmar, Mexico, India, the Himalayas, and Morocco to pursue his passion for photography. In 2016, his work caught the attention of Unicef.
“As an organisation, they were looking to rebrand globally, and took me on as their brand photographer and filmmaker, which was obviously pretty cool,” he beams. “I did a TV commercial for them that was even shared by David Beckham on Facebook, which alone got 10 million views in two days!”
The ad was translated into six languages with voiceovers by the likes of Liam Neeson, Shakira and Queen Rania of Jordan.
“We need to be aware of what’s going on in the world, and what we can do to help,” says Simon. “Me just picking up a camera and taking photographs and telling stories can help make an impact and help change people’s lives.”
Going forward, Simon hopes to dedicate more of his time to making documentaries.
“I’m really appreciative that the music side of my life provides stability and helps fund these trips,” he says. “For organisations like Unicef, many of the trips are done through passion. It’s my passion to take photographs and if there are stories to tell, then I want to film them.”
Simon lets out a chuckle when I ask if he’s got a taste for being in front of the camera now. “Somebody needs to explain what’s going on!” he says. “But I’m not sure yet. I haven’t scoped that one out so much, but I certainly have some ideas for next year as soon as we can start flying again.”