Third Culture Kid; I didn’t know that’s what I was classified as until about a year or so ago. I hate to go down the “woe is me” road, as I’m extremely privileged in how I live and my upbringing. Born in Bosnia in 89, in the midst of the genocide, and where our first displacement started. Moving from Croatia to a refugee camp in Denmark and finally to Germany for 5 years – only to be relocated yet again to Jacksonville, Florida at age 9. I was the youngest of three, and my sisters are about 25 years older than me with families of their own, so in a sense, I was raised as an only child.
From 3rd grade to my junior year in college, we spent in Jacksonville, learning how to assimilate to the American culture. After a year of moving here, my father fell terminally ill and my mother and me were left to cope with the new life in the US. Living the stereotypical immigrant life, my mother juggling 2 – 3 jobs around the clock , ranging from hotel cleanup to being a factory worker assembling chandeliers or placing stickers on cups / plates. I really learned how to stretch a dollar and how to spend wisely in order to survive, yet still accommodate your lifestyle needs.
Even as a factory worker, my mom saved money in order for us to visit a different country each summer to visit different family members that were impacted by the diaspora – allowing me to constantly travel and really building a foundation on how to respectfully interact with different customs / cultures.
Throughout this time, I had zero white American friends – real friends – and not by choice, but by the mere fact we couldn’t relate to anything other than the color of our skin. Even in high school, my circle of friends were a group of Ethiopians / Bulgarians / Puerto Ricans and were the ones traveling to Spain / Morocco, etc. and constantly planning trips, even if they were just in surrounding cities. We were never content with what was given to us and what everyone deemed as normal activities as a teenager in a country setting.
When I left Jacksonville in my junior year of college, my circle of my closest friends were from Nigeria, Panama, India, Trinidad, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica. I distinctly remember sitting in my Managerial Accounting class, walking out halfway through, going to the library, dropping all my classes, writing my letter of resignation for the very lucrative accounting job I had and buying a one way ticket to Paris. With that said, my ability to pay all of my mother’s bills – now 70 years old – also came to a halt, and my sister’s had to step in.
At this time, I was just beginning even thinking about taking photography seriously and if I studied the masters before I even made a decision of leaving home, I would have never done it – as my work was painful to look at, now that I’m able to reflect on it. Nevertheless, the time I spent in a corporate environment, I knew I couldn’t go throughout life working for someone and only making someone else richer – and subconsciously, I became the friend who made the visits back home years later convincing my friends into owning businesses and beginning to travel.
After making prior living arrangements via Craigslist in Paris, I was conned $3K for an apartment, and ended up in a hostel the first two nights messaging hundreds of people to stay with them for $100 a month (giving me a food budget of $33 / month)– only to be taken in by a retired porn director. I ended up losing about 6 pant sizes in weight, as I was on a strict Ramen and bread diet. Regardless of that situation, I began reaching out to locals to start taking portraits of them, allowing me to learn the history through their eyes and began building fundamental relationships for years to come. I made money shooting engagements and any little small thing that came through town, mostly through tourist – and even that has allowed me to keep in touch with people all over Australia and China. I almost became a sort of a collector of the internationals. But after 3 months of unimaginable stories, I returned back to Jacksonville to pack up my things and moved permanently to NYC.
Living there the first 2 years, you saw people move there and move back home within a year’s span – and all the movie quotes of making it in NYC flash back simultaneously each time a text message is received for an invite to a farewell dinner. I wouldn’t even call it a lack of perseverance (usually), but I think people discover a lot about themselves living here, and sometimes what you came to find in NY, you already had at home. Some people don’t realize you have to give up eating out, having a social life that consists of $1 coffees and free shows, and learning to maintain a diet with some kind of nutrition value working around Goya beans, tuna cans, and pasta. You find yourself on a train crossing from Brooklyn into Manhattan just contemplating why you’re even where you are, when you have the comfort of home a flight away. If you’re not willing to sacrifice some commodities, I don’t think you have a chance of surviving and penetrating a niche market in the arts / entertainment field, which take years of work to really grasp– unless of course you have additional funds flowing in from your family.
Over the course of the years, my work was getting substantially stronger and my clientele went from online models, to Valentino and Patricia Field. The stakes were raised and quality was expected. I was competing with thousands of other photographers in NYC and in order to get the clients you wanted to work with, you had to fall into social circles that those clients associated themselves with. I strategically placed myself in scenarios to meet who I needed to meet and begin working relationships – and at first I thought it was disingenuous, until I realized every person working for the top clients is working for them through their social circles (95% of the time). Time passed and travels continued.
I knew I had to build bases and clientele around the country for long-term purposes and with the help of other artist friends (some struggling, some more well-off), I moved from NYC to Miami – back to NYC – then LA – then back to NYC, all while couch surfing, making ends meet with literally pennies in my pocket, all while having conversations and being surrounded by some of the most influential people in the entertainment industry. Small moments like that cause a mirage over your actual bank account and definitely foreshadow a successful future. I was trying to milk my youth, in a sense. I knew from reading, the mistakes and risks I was able to make at my age should be taken advantage of, and I didn’t let a single opportunity pass me by.
Time passed and my interest in fashion faded, but my interest in people skyrocketed. I began shooting musicians and managers and people off the streets – learning their stories, and through word-of-mouth, I continued making ends meet. Being 25 now, it wasn’t until recently that I began really reflecting on the first three years of what I was doing, which direction I should be heading in, and really deciding on a more lucrative manner of running my business. It was a mixture of my most socially conscious friends and finance books that brought me to a realization of how to contribute back to the youth – while working in an environment where my strengths of photography, knowledge of travel, and power of media influence could correlate.
After my recent trip to Kenya, I started researching more blogs and books and placing myself in the hands of mentors in this specialized area, which is how I found As Told By Nomads. Over a course of two weeks, I caught up on every podcast Tayo put out and was just blown away by how similar the stories of other TCK were to mine and how I found myself in so many of those situations. Quite refreshing being able to relate to people that endured a lot of the same struggles and yet turning them into massively profitable outcomes.
This brings me to where I am today – figuring out my last steps in creating a business to helping underprivileged youth travel. Using my images as a press tool and leverage to cover certain expenses in corresponding with tourism boards, airline companies, etc. and building a team of people who believe in what I believe and share a similar work ethic with complementary strengths in business. Once the capital we need is raised, the project will be in production and I’ll be updating you with a success story that’ll match the guests of ATBN.
Bosnian born, Toni Smailagic is currently based in NYC. His focus is primarily in natural light settings and range from photojournalism to fashion/portraiture. Inspired by photographers such as Peter Lindbergh, Gordon Parks, Christopher Anderson, and Anton Corbijn. Check out his website here.