As a photojournalist working for British and international magazines, Mark West has documented a lot of remarkable people from the Baduy people — a reclusive tribe in the remote jungles of Java (Indonesia) — to Don Pascaul, the last shaman of Todos Santos in Guatemala — to participants in the conflict in the former Yugoslavia.
West, who has made his home in the Bulkley Valley for the past 12 years, also spent four months in the early 1990s travelling among the training camps of the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey and northern Iraq, a group that was later blacklisted as a terrorist organization by NATO.
West has a bit of a different take having found the people involved deeply rooted in their cultural traditions and determined to reinstate Kurdistan as their own autonomous homeland, a conflict that continues to this day.
Photos of the people he met in Turkey and Iraq were the subject of a powerful 2017 exhibition at Lalazar Café in Smithers.
Since then, West has turned his attention to, and his lens on, the people of the Bulkley Valley.
His new show, “Remarkable People” opened at the Smithers Art Gallery April 6 and runs to May 8.
“I was getting back into photography and I was shooting pictures to sell to newspapers and magazines back in the UK and a friend of mine said this would be a great time to have an exhibition as we come, hopefully, out of this pandemic period,” he said. “It’s a great time to celebrate the people of the valley.”
The collection of 50 plates documents everyone from Sikh millworkers in Houston to Witsuwit’en hunters and trappers to the DJ duo GOBE (Gigantic Oscillated Bass Explosion).
“I just started finding things visually that caught my eye and then as you get to kind of explaining to people what you’re doing, they go, ‘oh you must go and photograph that person or this person who’s doing this,’ and it just kind of snowballs, it’s kind of uncontrollable,” he said.
The photos were mostly taken in 2018 and 2019, but just as he was getting ready to launch the exhibition, COVID-19 hit and set him back a year. That gave him a chance, though, he said, to really refine the show and also put together a high-gloss accompanying book.
“The valley is full of these remarkable people and I think sometimes you can live in a community for a long time and you never get to know the person 100 yards down the road,” he said. “They’re all over the place, this is incredible. I kind of stumbled across this guy who builds black powder rifles… in his shed.”
That said, West believes he has barely scratched the surface.
“It is one of those projects that would just go on forever,” he said.
West studied documentary photography at the prestigious Newport School of Documentary Photography in Wales under renowned photographers such as Daniel Meadows and Clive Landen before pursuing photojournalism.
However, when he and his wife Melissa (West) decided they wanted to have children, he ended up switching to teaching photography.
Once their three children were born, it was once again decision time.
“We originally moved here to give our kids freedom, some space,” he said. “Moving from England, it’s really congested and it’s been a great move, we’ve never looked back and we love the valley, it’s a great place to live.”