IT’S difficult to hear Bill Mortley’s name mentioned and not immediately picture him with his camera in hand capturing our present moments through his lens for posterity. But the man who can never be seen without his Nikon cameras actually began his love affair with photography by accident.
Mortley’s long journey in photography began just after he left elementary school in Trinidad and landed a job as a janitor at Chung’s Studios, which owned several photography outlets in that country.
After some staff realized that he had the aptitude to handle some of the photography side of things transpiring there, Mortley was given the chance to hone his skills despite him not even owning a camera at the time.
“They started training me in the dark room to process black and white films,” Mortley tells me. “In those days, we used Kodak, Ilford and Agfa films. Later, I learned how to mix chemicals for each process.”
Recognizing that Mortley was showing increasing interest in his new role in the lab, the studio began teaching him how to take a good photo, eventually assigning him to run one of their studios in Barataria.
Despite his photographic talents still being at a relatively nascent stage, Mortley was able to land a freelance job with the Evening News section of the Trinidad Guardian Newspaper. Apart from getting the satisfaction of seeing some of his photos on the front page of the newspaper, he was able to rub shoulders with some of the best photographers there.
“Just seeing my photos printed on those pages gave me the encouragement to continue in photography. At the time, it really meant a lot to me,” Mortley said.
With his photography skills still progressing, Mortley eventually opened his own studio in Arima, running it for a while before returning to Saint Lucia where he landed a job in both the circulation and graphics departments of The VOICE newspaper.
In the late 1970s, Mortley left Saint Lucia for New York where he enrolled at New York City Technical College, pursuing an Associate Degree to enhance his knowledge in graphic arts and advertising. While at college, he got a photography job at the New York Daily Challenge, a Black daily newspaper. Holding it all together proved to be a challenge, but Mortley was determined to succeed.
“Because of my background at The VOICE, I would go into the Daily Challenge each morning and select the news and photographs off the wire for my editor and leave for school. After school, I would do another gig as a quality controller in film at another printery in the city before returning to the Daily Challenge to help put the paper together,” Mortley explained.
Mortley stayed with the Daily Challenge for about six years, and getting home at wee hours of the morning became the norm. Despite the hard work and sleepless nights he put in there, he said the highlight of that period was covering a major event at the United Nations where then Cuban president, Fidel Castro, spoke.
“It was also my most embarrassing moment,” Mortley joked. “I had just gotten a Mamiya 645 camera with a normal lens. So there I was attempting to photograph from the press section from where we had to look down towards the speaker. Next to me were guys from the New York Times and other news agencies with their long lenses. So I actually learned how to take photos from a long distance at the United Nations.”
After some time, Mortley returned to Saint Lucia and worked at The VOICE as production manager for about six months before returning to the U.S. Around that time, his near decade-long hiatus from photography began. He enrolled at Media Arts in New York to pursue a course in videography but decided to switch back to photography after finding out that videography was not the walk in the park he thought it was.
He returned to Saint Lucia sometime later and opened his own studio, Mediacraft Productions, catering to guests at Club St. Lucia. After much success, he was able to land contracts in most of the hotels in the north, employing nearly 50 people who photographed as many as five weddings per day.
“When I started Mediacraft, it was difficult finding photographers with the right skills locally. So I had to go to Guyana to recruit photographers and pay for their work permits and rent and so on. One of those photographers, Milton Welch, actually helped me train some of the people I hired.”
Unfortunately, Mediacraft went out of business some years later after Mortley lost the contract with Sandals. Those were still the days before digital photography became as prevalent as it is today. Not deterred by the loss, Mortley created his own website where he currently markets his business and showcases his art.
Having been in the photography business for nearly 40 years, Mortley has seen many changes in the industry unfold, sometimes at the speed of light. With the advent of digital photography, he said, the true art and romance of actually bringing an image to fruition has lost some of its common touch. Even the competitive side of landing gigs has become fiercer.
“The digital age has made photography easier, so there are more people getting into it,” Mortley said. “I mean, there was a time when you couldn’t just pick up a camera and take a picture. You had to really understand what you were doing before you took that first picture. You had to learn all the instructions that came with the camera, too. Today, however, the camera does everything for you. There’s less work available now with more people wanting those jobs, so it’s kind of difficult.”
Mortley has photographed many major events in Saint Lucia, including the Saint Lucia Jazz & Arts Festival, Saint Lucia Carnival, Independence activities, Parliament sittings, to name a few. Farther afield, his services saw him photographing weddings ceremonies in Dominica, Trinidad, the United States and the United Kingdom.
The middle-aged photographer said that while he admires the many professionals in the growing photography industry in Saint Lucia, he remains concerned that others are just doing it for the money and not too keen on raising the standard. But that’s just one of the few regrets he has about the business.
“Looking back, I would have preferred to stay in New York and studied something else that would not put me in a situation where I would be waiting for work to come in,” Mortley admitted.
Endeared by many, especially photographers to whom he often passes on his knowledge, Mortley cautions current and prospective photographers against carrying all their proverbial eggs in one camera bag.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to do it the way I’m doing it, meaning as a full-time job,” Mortley lamented. “I think one should do it because it’s something one loves doing but also have another source of income. It’s too much of a struggle. So I wouldn’t encourage any young person to do photography full-time. Unless, of, course, you’re well-known, which takes some time.”
From August 20 to September 17, the Cultural Development Foundation (CDF) will host its annual Emancipation Exhibition under the theme, “Post-Emancipation: The Saint Lucian Psyche – Resistance, Relevance or Resolution”, where Mortley’s vast body of work will be on display. However, it took some persistent pleading from organizers to get the photographer, whose modesty is no secret, to oblige.
“I would have not normally agreed to do it because my personality does not lend itself to doing stuff like that. I try to avoid public scrutiny. But I guess sometimes people persuade you to do things you don’t want to do, anyway,” Mortley joked.
Two of Mortley’s sons eventually followed in their father’s footsteps by learning the trade. However, both of them are currently employed in other fields. Nevertheless, this indefatigable cameraman who has more than four decades of seeing the world through the lenses of his cameras thinks he had made his mark.
“I’d like to be known as someone who is passionate about his photography, loves what he does and does it to the best of his ability,” Mortley said.