A bearded dragon in St Leonards-on-Sea … Bob Mazzer’s best photograph

·4 min read

‘He looked quite forbidding – but I assumed anyone walking around with an exotic lizard would expect some attention. He told me it was a bearded dragon’

I was born in London but I’ve also lived and taken photographs in Wales, France and the US. I’ve now been based in St Leonards-on-Sea, on the south coast of Britain, for 33 years, which is the longest I’ve lived anywhere.

This picture was taken in 2006, on the seafront half a mile from my house. I’d just come out of the shop on the left of the picture when I saw these two. The guy was standing in the sun with his companion on his shoulder, as if they were both basking. I don’t remember spotting them on the way in, it was as if they’d just materialised.

He looked quite forbidding, but I assumed anyone walking around with an exotic pet is going to expect some attention and comments. I just said: “I like your lizard.” He told me it was a bearded dragon and was happy to move around a bit until I had the lizard’s head where I wanted it. Other than that, I don’t remember us talking very much and as soon as I had the shot I was after I thanked him and left him still standing there.

I like that I’m reflected in the mirror shades and you can see I’m shooting up close, and I like that you can’t tell for sure whether or not he’s naked. There are other details that amuse me, such as the long shadow cast by his nipple. I’m not sure which particular Hastings Pier Shock is being referred to in the newspaper billboard, but you can see the pier in the background if you look closely. It burned down in 2010 and remained derelict for years.

St Leonards is rich in weird events and striking characters but if you carry a camera everywhere that’s true of anywhere

I’ve been documenting the people around me since the 1960s, and have never been short of subjects. This town is rich in weird events and striking characters, but then if you carry a camera everywhere, as I do, and stay alert, that’s true of anywhere. I’ll sometimes drive past people or situations I would love to photograph and I have to backtrack. Or I’ll spot the same interesting-looking person a number of times before the right opportunity arises to photograph them.

Another of my St Leonard’s photographs has a quite fierce-looking girl being towed down the street by an enormous dog. I’d seen them before and thought they were interesting but it wasn’t until I found myself right in their path one day that I took the chance. The girl, the dog and a kid on a bike are all making direct eye contact, but none of us said anything, we just all continued on our way. Often I’ll strike up a conversation with subjects and ask their permission, but while shooting on the London Underground in the 1980s I learned to take photographs discreetly. I’d work in plain sight but in a manner that didn’t attract attention. I suppose it helps that people don’t seem to find me threatening.

I never spotted the guy with his lizard again, but some years after I took it, the photograph was included in an exhibition of my work in town. I went in one day and the guy at the front desk pointed at the image and said: “Bob, that man was in here earlier looking for you.” He hadn’t left a name or contact details and he never found me.

In 2020, however, I spent 12 days in hospital and shared a ward with a guy who I’m almost sure was the bearded dragon man. I’ve compared photos I took on my phone, and he looks exactly the same, just older. It seems odd now that I never asked, but he had become really pally with another patient who’d been bitten on the arse by a dog – they had a lovely rapport and I enjoyed just shooting the breeze with them and didn’t want to risk somehow spoiling the sense of camaraderie. Anyway, he did mention he lives just outside town. A book of my work came out a couple of years ago with that photograph on the cover, so if I ever track him down perhaps I’ll leave a couple of copies hanging from his door handle.

Bob Mazzer’s CV

Born: London hospital, Whitechapel, London, 1948.
Trained: Hornsey College of Art, London.
Influences: “Irving Penn, Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Enzo Ragazzini, Tony Ray Jones, Josef Koudelka, Don McCullin, Diane Arbus.”
High point: “My current exhibition.”
Low point: “Selling my black chrome Hasselblad.”
Top tip: “Shoot first, ask questions later, stay out of hospital.”

• Bob Mazzer in Camera: A Retrospective is at Hastings Art Gallery and Museum until 17 April. Two books of Mazzer’s work, Tube (Silverhill Press) and In Sussex (Unicorn), are available now.

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