An Interview with Bob Marley Photographer Kate Simon

In the late 1970’s Kate Simon has photographed many of the pioneers in Reggae Music including Bob Marley, Lee “Scratch” Perry , Bunny Wailer, Peter Tosh, Burning Spear, and many more.

She took some of the most amazing documentary photographs of Bob Marley and the Wailers during various tours and day to day life. She has captured photographs of almost every occasion in Bob Marley’s life including celebrations, shock, football games, his funeral and more. She can name claim to the most famous portrait of Bob Marley ever taken … front cover of the Kaya album.

These days, Kate’s photographs are renowned as the best and definitive of Bob Marley and the Wailers in their formative years. Kate very kindly agreed to answer some questions for and here is that interview.

Q. Tell us how you came to visit Jamaica?

Chris Blackwell sent me down there in 1976 to shoot Bunny Wailer who was promoting Blackheart Man. It was on my first trip that I shot the Kaya cover and many of the images in Rebel music – 1977 was such a key year.

Q: Tell us the interesting story of how you met Bob Marley?

I was good friends with Anna Capaldi and she introduced me to Marley, who she knew from Jamaica. This was after the London Lyceum shows famously captured on the live album. There was a party afterwards and Anna introduced me to Bob and that’s how I met him. We got on well (I lived in Fulham at the time) and over time, we just got to know each other. He bowled me over at those Lyceum shows.

Q: How did you become one of the few people to get in the inner circle of his life to capture all the great pictures?

Bob and I had a good rapport – I was formidably photo credited for every image, so maybe he liked my photographs.

The fact also that I was introduced by Anna – she was someone he knew as a friend. He associated me with Anna. I was committed to this – I really appreciated him so I wanted to document him because I liked him as a person.

Q: Your picture of Bob Marley for the Kaya album cover is one of the most bootlegged pictures in the world. How do you feel about that?

There is nothing I can do about this. But then, the degree to which something gets bootlegged is an indication of the degree to which it is appreciated. It feels kinda cool cause I think it’s going to outlive me by many years and that’s kind of cool.

Q: How did it feel when you learned that this picture was nominated as one of the most defining 100 photos of the last century?

I thought that was fantastic. I really enjoyed working on that. The people who put together the book are revered photojournalists, and so to be chosen and be interviewed by them was really gratifying.

Q: Your knack for getting some of the most candid shots of Bob Marley is clearly reflected your photographs. Can you explain the techniques you used to accomplish this?

There was no technique – it was all Bob. He allowed such intimate access – he really was a sent from heaven as a photographic subject. He had exquisite sense of self possession, and simultaneously (I don’t know how to phrase this exactly) – well, he was a photographer’s dream. He was so collaborative, and such a chilled, lovely man – he was just so helpful. And that’s why some of these shots were so candid. All of his features were incredible! He had an impeccable face, great cheekbones and was very photogenic, he had this beautiful joy to him. Bob’s face could look incredibly dramatic. Alternatively he could look really joyful. You always got the feeling that behind it, there was an incredible intelligence at work. This was not all smiley happy people having fun – there was an intensity and a fire burning behind it all.

Q: In getting these personal photos you had to go in to inner city areas and places in Jamaica that a “foreigner” yet alone some Jamaicans would never go. Looking back at it now do you believe you drive as a photographer to capture that moment was stronger than your fear of getting harmed?

I’m not foolish and I was never in harm’s way. Part of your job as a photographer is to know your intention. I had a lot of friends in the music community down there at the time, and they knew that I was a photographic presence down there.

Rema was a very scary place, but if you’re really serious about your work, then people leave you alone.

Q: Like many of the photographer of famous bands and artists do you have a secret stash of in a cardboard box that you just not felt the need to publish?

This is my secret stash. I’ve got hundreds – thousands – images of Bob in my archive, but this book is the realization of those years of hard work. There are many that I don’t think need to be published, but what’s more important to me are the ones that do – and those are in the book.

Q: You have photographed many of the early Reggae artists. Which one would you say that felt you had the strongest bond with?

I got along really magnificently with all of the Wailers, I had great respect for their musicianship, I enjoyed their intelligence and warmth and talent, each one was such a vivid personality. I could express each one’s personality to this day; I remember each one so vividly.

Q: What are some of your favorite memories from having spending time with Bob Marley while in Jamaica?

Remembering Bob’s general presence is a great memory. Bob was just this sort of leader, people just followed him, not because of anything he said he wasn’t given to small talk people just wanted to be around him, he made people feel good and people want to be about that.

Q: From looking over your book “Rebel Music” the quality of the photography are impressive even though the technology is not what it is today. Tell us about the photography gear you were using at the time and where any of the photos in the books enhanced using modern technology.

No, first of all I used a black bodied Nikon f2. I love film, I don’t like digital photography, I don’t use it, and I still shoot film, I still use Nikon f2. No, they weren’t enhanced and no, you don’t need a digital camera to take a photograph. I love old Nikons.

Q: Tell us about the book and what we will find in it?

Some of my favourite images, comments from legends like Patti Simon, Paul Simon, Eric Clapton, Bunny Wailer. A real wealth of stuff. This book is my labour of love.

Q: The deluxe copies of the book are signed by Eric Clapton. How did he get involved in this project?

I think Eric Clapton is very important to Bob’s history because of the cover – which made many people of Bob aware for the first time. Eric respected Bob, so I sense he wanted to get that respect across.

Q: They say ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’. Which photograph of Bob Marley do you think reflects this phrase?

This picture I took of Bob at 52 Oakley Street. That picture is the kind of photo you can only get after you’ve worked with someone for a very long time, very unmasked, very open, you have to work hard to get, you have to know the subject to get a picture like that (121). I think he looks like he smoked a huge spliff. There’s something very unique and unguarded about that picture, knowing it was the day before he started that historic show – and it tells you so much about Bob.

Q: What are your favorite photographs and photographers are your favorites and why?

Henry Cartier Bresson – man jumping over the puddle is one of my favourite photographs. I was also hugely influenced by Robert Frank, and his book The Americans.
One of his new images, Sick of Goodbyes is also fantastic. I really revere him.

Q: Which of your photos are you most proud of?

I’m not just a music photographer, I like to shoot people, I shot William Burroughs – I’m very proud of the pics I shot of William. Word Virus first post homour book many of the pics I’ve taken of artist and writers that are well know, Marley images he will be around longer than anybody

Q: How would you describe the era in Reggae music during when you took most of the photographs of Bob Marley and the Wailers?

It was a great time – so lively and vibrant. For a young photographer, like myself, it couldn’t have been more exciting.

Q: Do you listen to Reggae and What would I find in your Reggae Music collection today?

I do listen to reggae, I find Bob’s music still appeals to me as much as it ever did – and I have things like East of the River Nile; Lee Scratch Perry – and of course every Bob Marley ever put out in my record collection.

Q: what are your thoughts the reggae music scene today?

I’m not that familiar with it – but I guess it is Bob’s music that has influenced it.

Q: Which Bob Marley related question do you most get asked?

What is my favourite picture of Bob / song!

Q: Was there a significant event while on the 1977 Exodus tour with Bob Marley that had a lasting effect?

Just waking up every morning and going onto tour bus and seeing Bob Marley – being in his presence was significant enough for me, just watching him and the Wailers every day in rehearsal and sound check.

Q: Can you tell us your favorite Bob Marley Song?

My favourite Marley song is Forever Loving Jah – it’s all about faith and spirituality. I think that for Bob somehow love and faith were always intertwined

Q: Do you believe that Bob Marley should be made a national hero in Jamaica

Yes definitely! Are you kidding me? There’s something awe-inspiring about the fact that his values and principles in music are so universal and universally felt. If it was up to me, I would do whatever is you do to show someone maximum respect – he certainly deserves that.

Q: Are you still in touch with the Marley Family
To the extent that I know their reaction to the book – they’ve all told me that they love the book and will be using some of my images.

Q: What projects are you currently engaged in?
At different times, I’ve had Debbie Harry, Madonna on my roof, so that’s my next project – People on the Roof.

Many thanks to Kate Simon for the fascinating interview. To learn more about Kate Simon, and her book featuring pictures of Bob Marley and other contemporaries in Reggae, be sure to visit:

This interview is the intellectual property of and cannot be reproduced without express permission.

About the author

Xavier Murphy