From homelessness to school dropout, to National Collection photographer – Michael Jackson bares it all

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Michael Jackson

By Lakhram Bhagirat

If conquering the odds and working them in your favour was a person, then Michael Jackson would be among its top examples. Without a doubt, Michael had a tough start but he made sure that those struggles did not pull him down rather he meticulously contorted them to pave the path he felt he needed to be on.

From being rendered homeless, to squatting on the Government reserves, to dropping out of school and doing all sorts of odd jobs, Michael has done it.

Born on the western bank of the Demerara, Michael’s parents lived below the poverty line. When he came along, they already had an elder son and just about Michael’s first birthday, their family was kicked out from the home they were living in. They did not own it and as such could not have put up a fight to stay there.

With their clothes in bags, they boarded a bus and travelled to Georgetown to the home of his father’s sister. There they stayed for a few weeks but it soon became apparent that they were overstaying their welcome. This led to his mother looking for a place for the family and then came across a squatting settlement in Tucville and decided the family would be calling there home.

She asked around for pieces of scrap wood and they constructed a house where they began living. Life was never easy growing up and they struggled to make ends meet. He began attending school in Tucville and while in Grade Two (what was referred to back then as Prep B) at Tucville Primary School, his grandmother died.

His grandmother lived at Wales, WBD, and after she died, they moved back to Wales and began living with his grandfather. Life then began becoming a bit better for them. His father became a cane cutter and they now had a proper house to live in.

His father was also adamant that they attend school in Georgetown since he felt that the schools in Wales had very little to offer his children, so every morning Michael, his elder brother and younger sister would get up and take the bus to Georgetown to attend St Andrews Primary School at Stabroek. It was hectic for them to be travelling every day but they persevered.

“I remember one time the bridge was down and it was closed for a couple days or weeks and we had to use the ferry from Vreed-en-Hoop to Stabroek. That was hectic because I was like eight, my brother bigger and then my small sister and we had to be pushing to get to the ferry between all the adults and vehicles,” he remembered.

Michael sat the Common Entrance Exams and secured a place at East Ruimveldt Secondary School and stayed there until he was in Form Two. His parents then realised that the school was not pushing him as much as they hoped so he was transferred to Patentia Secondary where he continued his education.

Being from a family with limited financial resources meant that it was always a hassle to get the resources to support their education. So when Michael was in Form Five, he opted to leave school and not sit the CXC examinations. He explained the reason behind him leaving was because he was not confident he would be able to succeed and that “the money could be spent doing something else.”

He started working odd jobs all over the place and in 2001 he met a man by the name of Omesh Satyanand. Omesh was opening an internet café and gaming arcade at the time and offered Michael the opportunity to run the business.

Even with his lack of experience and education, Michael jumped at the opportunity and that was when he got introduced to computers and the world of technology. People would visit the café and ask Michael to create invitations and event tickets for them but he had very little knowledge to do so. He began researching and came across various graphic designing platforms and started to experiment.

“Because of that exposure and opportunity, it sparked my creativity in terms of me wanting to learn more graphics. I wasn’t able to do courses but Omesh paid for my classes – Introduction to Computer and MS Word at Computer World. I got more involved in computer and I aced everything while there.”

The café business would close and that led Michael to Gafoors where he started working as an inventory clerk. Bored with the routine job and feeling the need for something more challenging, Michael took up employment at a big electronic store. There he observed the team working on graphics to promote sales and at the same time they bought a computer at home.

So he went home and began experimenting. He would observe at work and go home and recreate. In 2009, he saw Gafoors had an opening for a graphic artist and decided to give it a shot. He was successful and began working on the company’s marketing pieces.

“My entire career started to shift in a more positive direction. All the years of me worrying that lack of education and experience might not put me anywhere was put to rest when Mr Gafoors himself, who handles all ads, basically groomed [me] in the way he wanted me to do his stuff,” he said.

Introduction to photography

While his career in graphic designing began taking off, Michael was introduced to photography after the company procured a digital camera to take photos of the products to advertise. It was just a regular camera that took basic photos but nevertheless, Michael began researching product photography.

He would later become overwhelmed by the information he consumed and frustrated that the camera was not doing what he wanted. Nevertheless, he continued using it until a few years later when the upgraded to the Sony HX300 superzoom camera. This fascinated him.
“It was a superzoom camera. I could have shot a detailed photo of the moon and so and it blew me away. I was lost for words when I saw that I could get a very detailed photo of the moon,” he remembered.

He was now beginning to further experiment with photography and image composition. In 2012, he became more interested and began using the camera to take photos other than products. He was shooting basically everything in sight.

That same year, he was approached to take photos of a wedding and at first, he was confused but then agreed. With no equipment and knowledge of how the photography industry works, he still agreed. At that time, his co-worker Maurice Watson had a DSLR camera and accompanying equipment which he borrowed.

“I did the wedding. I charged her $20,000 for her wedding and now an hour photoshoot now is that cost,” he said.

It was an eye-opening experience for Michael and he wanted to get more into it, not as a job but as his hobby. The following year, he approached his boss and asked for a loan of $200,000 to finance his hobby since he was procuring a camera and equipment. There was some back and forth but he ultimately got the loan and began his journey.

“I joined this group Guyana Photographers and they helped me. I met with local photographers and from then I started to do professional work. Being a part of Guyana Photographers I met up with Michael Lam, Fidal Bassier, Nikhil Ramkarran and a few others but those guys basically groomed me to become the photographer that I am today. I asked questions a lot and now that I have the knowledge that I have, I no longer need to [keep] bothering them but I still ask them about things I am unsure of.”

He said that the trio would explain their processes to him and he was able to better himself over the years.

“With them by my side my photography kicked off because I am always opened to constructive criticisms and I would always tell them to nail me to the cross and tell me where I need to improve. So the next shot will be better and would ask constantly what they think and with those criticisms it made me the photographer I am today.”

National Collection of Guyana

Michael constantly works on bettering his craft and now his images speak for themselves. Up until last year, he was only doing photography part time and working as a graphic designer but that changed after COVID-19. He now does photography full time.
Going back, he said that after the Guyana Visual Arts Competition introduced the photography category in its competition he has been participating. However, he never won the competition but he scored one of the biggest wins of his career.

“A few of us from Guyana Photographers held a small exhibition called Vision and there I submitted a few pieces and a few members of Castellani House came to visit the exhibition and they were immediately taken up by one of my photos. A photo by the name ‘Dedication’ and they bought that photo with the rights and everything to be in the National Collection of Guyana. So it is basically down in Guyana’s photography history.

“So coming from basically nothing through all that struggles and working all over the place trying to make ends meet. I am proud of where I am and I think if you are really determined to become somebody and make it in life you will. It wasn’t easy for me,” Michael said.

Michael’s wife Radika also plays a part of his photography and comes from a photography background. Her father was a photographer since the film era and she would usually tag along with him.

Now, Michael is steadily improving his craft to put him among the best in Guyana. He knows the journey is one that will be long but so far, he has overcome and accomplished a lot for someone who has had so much thrown at him.

You can find Michael on Facebook – Michael J Photography or book him by calling 687-0401.