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‘Sydney is a wonderful place to lose yourself’

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Feature by Michael Canning

Simon Harsent is the co-founder of interdisciplinary creative agency The POOL Collective, and a highly awarded photographer and director in his own right, whose work has been exhibited in the USA, UK, Canada, Europe, and Australia.

A native of the UK, he has split his time between Sydney and New York for more than twenty years, and while life abroad hasn't influenced his British accent, his creative output has certainly evolved from the experience. We spoke about how new cultures have affected his work, and a few valuable tips he's picked up along the way.


On where you’re from

I was born in the UK, in a small village called Aston Clinton, which is in Buckinghamshire. When I was five, we moved to the nearest town, Aylesbury. That’s where I did all my schooling before moving to London at the age of 18.

On your first move abroad

The first place I moved to was Sydney in 1987.

On where you’re living

At the moment I’m a real nomad. I’m living between Sydney and New York, so when I’m in Sydney I’m living at my fiancée’s flat in Summer Hill. I’m waiting for my apartment to be built, then I’ll be in Erskineville. Last year, I fitted out a warehouse in Marrickville as my studio and base when I’m in Sydney. In New York, I’m in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. I have a shared studio/office space in Williamsburg. I need to have a place to create, and I’m the type of person who needs to go to work. I’ve never been good at working from home or a mobile office.

On why you moved to Sydney

When I first arrived, it was to travel and see a bit of the world. I never thought I’d end up having this incredible relationship with the place. After I moved to New York ten years later, I used to come back to Australia every school holiday to see my son, so in some ways it felt like I never really left. About three years ago, I met and fell in love with my fiancée Lida, who lives in Sydney. Around the same time I started to direct TV commercials and there seemed to be more opportunities in Sydney, so work kept me here. Then my son, Declan, moved to Sydney from the Gold Coast, so it just kind of happened — serendipity I suppose.

Portrait photography by Simon Harsent

On whether your image of Sydney changed living there

To a certain extent it did, but the reality is I really didn’t know much about it. I came here just to get out of the UK. I love England, but I knew I wanted to travel from a very early age. I never thought I would settle in Sydney and I guess that’s why I went to New York in 1997. Something always draws me back though… in some ways, I feel more of an Aussie than a Brit.

On current projects

Commercially, I’m post-production finishing two projects I shot at the end of last year — one for Tiger Beer and the other for Vodafone.

Personally, I’m developing a project loosely titled The Horizon Leans Forward. I’ve got an exhibition coming up in April, so I’m getting my head round what I’ll show for that. 2018 will also mark the 10th anniversary of me shooting Melt, so I’m putting together never-before-seen work that will be exhibited later in the year.

‘As a visual person, being in different places enables you to see things in different ways.’

On creativity and life abroad

As a visual person, being in different places enables you to see things in different ways, both literally and figuratively. As Marcel Proust wrote, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

I think the fact that I didn’t spend my childhood in Sydney or New York means I’ll always see both places from a different perspective; I’m always discovering new things. I think that growing up in a place can mean that some things are lost to you by way of familiarity.

But all of these places become part of you and shape who you are. I have New York and part of me will always belong to New York; I have Sydney and part of me belongs to Sydney; and I’ll always have the UK because it’s who I am — it’s what I know. So much of my identity comes from my formative years growing up in the UK.

On how Sydney inspires you

Sydney is a wonderful place to lose yourself. You have breathing time here, which is a complete contrast to New York. Personally, I couldn’t do one without the other. What New York gives me is intensity, and Sydney is the yin to that yang. I love having both, and I miss each city equally when I’m in the other. I feel less pressure when I’m in Sydney and I love to daydream — I seem to get more of it done here than in New York.

Images from photographic series and exhibition 'Melt: Portrait of an Iceberg' by Simon Harsent

On the best new phrase you’ve heard in Australia

‘’Kin A.’

On photography communities in New York and Sydney

It’s vastly different, but similarities do exist. Obviously there are far more photographers in New York — everybody seems to be a photographer there! There is a lot more good work there, but that’s due to the sheer number of photographers.

For me, it’s always been about the people you surround yourself with — most of my friends in Sydney and New York work in the creative field, so I have a good support network for talking about work and ideas. It’s an important part of my process to talk through ideas with other people.

On creative inspiration

Galleries — lots of them! In Sydney, the NSW Art Gallery is a great place to visit, as well as the MCA. Michael Reid Gallery in Sydney shows some interesting work. I spend a lot of time at the theatre and the opera as well.

In New York, the MOMA is my go-to; if I’m having a day off, you’ll find me there. I love it. I normally see what’s on and go somewhere based on who they’re showing rather than the gallery itself. Having said that, there are some that have consistently great shows: The Flowers Gallery; Foley Gallery; Yancey Richardson; and Gagosian.

I used to read a lot of novels as well, but that’s dropped off in the last couple of years, so my New Year’s resolution is to read a book a month.

On something you should do when you arrive in Sydney

Get the ferry from Circular Quay to Watsons Bay. When you get there, have a bucket of prawns and glass of wine at the Watsons Bay Hotel and let the view soak in. Sydney Harbour is breathtaking and to experience it for the first time when you are new to the city is something you’ll never forget.

On something surprising

I’ve never been as cold in the winter as I have been inside houses in Sydney during an Australian winter. A lot of the older houses aren’t insulated very well and they tend to act like a cold storage. Seriously, people elsewhere don’t believe me when I tell them, but it’s true!

On tips for finding a place to live

Whenever I’ve moved anywhere, the first thing to do is work out where you want to be, and why. I like to be in what feels like a creative neighborhood; renting in a few different places to start with through Airbnb is a good idea as it lets you get a sense of the place. Sydney traffic can be a nightmare, so you should factor that in if you have to drive to work.

On what to prepare for

Things that can kill you! Spiders, snakes, sharks. It seems like everything can kill you here.

On visas

It was so long ago I got my first visa for Australia and I’ve had permanent residency for more than 30 years. New York is a whole other kettle of fish. I’ve been on an O-1 visa for the whole time I’ve been there, which I have to renew every three years. The only reason I don’t get a Green Card is that I travel too much. My advice would be to get yourself a good immigration lawyer; don’t go the cheap option. It’s expensive, but it takes out so much of the hassle.

Commissioned work for OPSM by Simon Harsent

‘All of these places become part of you and shape who you are. I have New York and part of me will always belong to New York; I have Sydney and part of me belongs to Sydney; and I'll always have the UK because it’s who I am.’

On good food

In Sydney, I love yum cha (dim sum for our American friends). There are so many great places here, but Mr Wong is a step above. For dinner, Bistro Rex in Potts Point is fantastic, I love their steak-frites, and they have a great wine list. 

In New York, I also have to get a plug in for the restaurant I’m a partner in on the Lower East Side called Les Enfants de Bohème. It’s a cozy French bistro; we’ve been open two-and-a-half years, so when I’m in New York I’m there, propping up the bar like Norm in Cheers.

On your favorite theatre

Sydney Opera House, without a doubt. It’s an incredible venue and I pinch myself every time I go to see something there.

On good drinks

There’s a great microbrewery, round the corner from the studio in Marrickville, called Batch. Hotel Palisade at Millers Point has great views from the rooftop.

On your favorite show

English Premier League. I watch every Chelsea game live, come hell or high water.

On a favorite store

Kinokuniya is a fantastic book store, especially for books relating to the arts.

On good coffee

Voodoo Coffee Company on Sydenham Road in Marrickville. It’s awesome coffee served by really great people. But I’m not as obsessive about coffee as most Australians are.

On an English fix you need in Sydney

When I first came to Sydney, it was hard to get a good curry, but there’s a place in Enmore called Faheem’s — it doesn’t look like much, but I’d honestly put it in my top two.

Most of the stuff I used to miss you can get in local supermarkets these days — the local IGA even just started selling pork pies. The English football is on the TV (albeit at ungodly hours of the morning) so there isn’t really anything I miss. Although I am still trying to work out where I can buy Shreddies in Sydney…


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