An irregular soldier falls

Above: After his passing, it was striking how few images of Andre Alexander seemed to exist. This photo was taken with the phone of Lisa Wickham (right) of Alexander and Christine Sahadeo after he declared, “I tired taking pictures of you, I want one with you.” Photo courtesy Lisa Wickham.

BitDepth#1162 for September 13, 2018

Last week, Andre Alexander came to the end of his long, painful and debilitating battle with cancer.

We first met in Tobago more than 35 years ago, when I dropped by the home of Jerry Llewelyn who was working as a photojournalist on the island and was near the end of his own battle with cancer.

“I wanted you to meet this fella,” Llewelyn said, introducing me to an absurdly young and keen Alexander, as lean and spindly as he would be all his life.

The young photographer (it turns out he was actually older than me, but enthusiasm counts) would go on to carve his own swath through local journalism.

Alexander would occupy an interesting space in the recent history of photojournalism in Trinidad and Tobago; bridging the gap between the stoic old-school photographers and today’s digitally enabled snappers.

When Andre Alexander started doing reporting with his camera, the entrenched tradition of local newspaper photojournalism was undergoing its first major upheaval.

News photographers were shooting with 35mm cameras instead of the hefty twin-lens reflex boxes that were the norm for decades in the business.

If he carried himself with a sense of implied privilege, it was partly his background as a black Tobagonian – with all the sense of royalty typical of ambitious young men from that island mixed with the position of advantage that news photographers, as the conduit to the front pages of the daily paper, enjoyed then.

If you could get two smiling people handing each other an envelope on the front page, you were a deity of the highest order and rewarded accordingly.

Andre Alexander. Photo by Bernadette Williams.

At Christmas, helpful photographers received huge hampers and boxes of premium booze in an avalanche of wrapping paper.

Alexander would ride that period of rapid evolution for almost half a century, going from the rather unscientific souping of Tri-X film to the digital age with casual panache and an approach that ranged from affable to fierce.

David Wears, who worked with him at the Guardian, remembers being called to a meeting about taking over his beat on Talk of Trinidad. Hesitant, he asked why and was shown a letter of complaint about him from an ambassador.

Then he was shown another letter, received the next day from the same embassy, requesting Alexander’s presence at an upcoming event.

Wears and the editor had a laugh about the photographer’s “temperament,” another way of describing his unassailably unique character and perspective on life.

“They all believed in his professionalism,” Wears said. 

“I always respected his work.”

Andre Alexander loved women and sweet-talked them reflexively with well-honed chat. He loved drinks and consumed them with enthusiasm and appreciation.

He loved life and engaged it with an enthusiasm that was infectious and instructive.

But wherever you stood on his way of seeing the world, there was no denying his seriousness about his craft and his professionalism in executing it.

Andre Alexander would find humour and amusement in many aspects of the business, but he never played the fool with his work or his coin.

Bernadette Williams, Administrative Assistant at the Guardian remembers his claims as being “prompt.”

He wasn’t a talented photographer as we understand that term today, wreathed as it is in gimmickry and spastic displays of recently earned knowledge.

He was a newsman who reported with a camera and some words.

Eighteen years ago he unquestioningly took an assignment from editor Lenny Grant to photograph a wedding at Greyfriar’s church. The photo of my wife and me walking down the aisle appeared in the next day’s Guardian.

“When I saw who it was, I nearly fall down man,” he told me outside the church.

Then, he hugged my wife and kissed her.

Five lessons for today’s photographers from Andre’s career

Be yourself.

There is no occasion I can recall where Andre Alexander was anything less than fully himself. Sometimes that was a bit much, sometimes entirely too much.

But in the Alexander world, going too far wasn’t the terrific, daunting distance it is for most of us, governed by inhibitions and concerns, for him, it was just over there, always within sight.

He was always true to his world view and clear in articulating it. He was always, unabashedly, Andre Alexander.

Know your work.

Alexander was a news photographer, and there have been few who were as good at it in this country. He knew everybody and everything and often brought back stories that nobody knew were happening.

The closest person I can think of to parallel his nose for news was Arthur Feelig, known as WeeGee after the Ouija board that his rivals thought powered his appearances. Feelig followed the sirens of the emergency services, but Alexander used his charm and most people’s underestimation of photographers and their capacity to use their brain as well as their eyes to piece together stories with startling clarity.

Do the work.

He wasn’t terribly keen on digital photography when it began to show up at the T&T Guardian. He didn’t resist it, but he was diffident, at least until he began doing more Talk of Trinidad social work, which kept him out late at night and he realised that he could prep his work at home and send it in.

So he called me once to ask about the specifications of an iMac he planned to buy, then he disappeared from the Guardian’s offices.

It’s possible to carry on about his embrace of technology and the reengineering of his career to take advantage of its possibilities, but Andre Alexander was a ruthlessly pragmatic man.

It made sense, so he did it, later telling me with a sandpaper chuckle, “I organise the thing man, I sending the work, no problem.”

Don’t play with coin.

Andre Alexander was a news journalist because that was his business. He loved the business, mind you, but he didn’t play with his money.

There is a lure in the journalism business that people sometimes snap up, the idea that it’s about them and not the job, that the courtesies and perks that are offered to the working professional are a function of who they are and not the responsibility they discharge.

His work had to be rewarded. He did work for the paper. He did work on assignment for others. His photographs had to be paid for, he didn’t need more friends.

Photography is not the camera.

If you were a gear geek and tried to talk to Alexander about his equipment, you were guaranteed to be frustrated. He simply did not care. Not about bokeh, not about premium glass, not about frames per second.

A camera in his hands was a tool, one that he only paid attention to when it didn’t work. It was the hammer that drove the nails he set up with his conversations and urgings, the tool that recorded his sometimes intricately arranged and planned picture opportunities.

This is what an Irregular Soldier is, by the way. A loyal force deployed in non-standard ways? I thought it fit Andre perfectly.