Former rock photographer turned NGO founder Hannes Schmid has big ambitions for his school, which is funded by profits from his neighbouring farmhouse resort located 65km north of Phnom Penh Former rock photographer turned NGO founder Hannes Schmid has big ambitions for his school, which is funded by profits from his neighbouring farmhouse resort located 65km north of Phnom Penh

Former rock photographer turned NGO founder Hannes Schmid has big ambitions for his school, which is funded by profits from his neighbouring farmhouse resort located 65km north of Phnom Penh

Inspired through an act of kindness, Hannes Schmid has taken Cambodia’s rural poverty on his shoulders, creating opportunities for local communities like never before. Schmid left behind the glamour of rock and roll to immerse himself in the communities he helps every day.

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You set up your NGO, Smiling Gecko, in 2014 after an illustrious career in photography. What prompted that decision?

In 2013, I went to Thailand and saw a girl begging, covered in a piece of fabric. When I dropped some money into her rusty metal box, the fabric fell and revealed her burned face and body. I tried to talk to her, but this Thai person came over and said, ‘you can’t speak English with her, she’s Cambodian. She’s a begging girl. They burned her purposely so that she makes more money.’

Former rock photographer turned NGO founder Hannes Schmid has big ambitions for his school, which is funded by profits from his neighbouring farmhouse resort located 65km north of Phnom Penh

I don’t know what it triggered, but it changed my life completely – and hers too. I put her in a car, smuggled her across the border, and took her back to Phnom Penh. I wanted to do more, so I went to the city dump site, rented a shed for US$1 and started to become a part of the community. There were all these children there, but nobody went to school. I wanted to take them, but the teachers didn’t want my children because they stank.

I found out that many of the people living in the dump were farmers and victims of land grabbing. So, I rented trucks and loaded up 10, 15 families, around 150 people, and drove them back to their community. I wanted to create something for them.

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You bought nine hectares of land in Samaki Meanchey in 2014 and now have 150 hectares. Besides the school, tell us what else is there

We have chickens, cows and pigs, a fishery and we grow vegetables. People didn’t have money to buy from us, so we gave the food away because we had to feed the people around us. We want this to be a blueprint for a functioning rural community that can be built elsewhere in Cambodia.

Former rock photographer turned NGO founder Hannes Schmid has big ambitions for his school, which is funded by profits from his neighbouring farmhouse resort located 65km north of Phnom Penh

You opened the school in 2017. What inspired that move?

I grew up in a very poor family in Switzerland – I only have six years of primary and two years of secondary school so I understand what it means when you’re a child and you don’t have education.
Around 80 per cent of the Cambodian population can’t read or write or understand their own language; if you don’t speak your own language and know your culture, who are you? We have to really fight hard to give these children their roots.

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We now have 466 students, from nursery up to seventh grade, and teach in Khmer and English. I’m spending US$3,600 a year to keep the school going, serve three meals a day, give them school uniforms, showers, and access to medical services. It’s sad, as we can only take one child per family. But at the moment, that’s all I can do.

To generate some cash, you opened the Farmhouse Resort in 2017, which has 34 rooms and suites, a fine dining restaurant and spa. Tell us how it’s evolved.

It was very cheap at the beginning and attracted backpackers. But I realised with backpackers, I can’t make money. So, I went for the next category up, then the next, then got the first travel agency. Today we’re connected to a lot of travel agencies, and they work for us without commission. We hope the school can eventually be financed just by the profits from the farmhouse.

Former rock photographer turned NGO founder Hannes Schmid has big ambitions for his school, which is funded by profits from his neighbouring farmhouse resort located 65km north of Phnom Penh

With the school, the farm and the hotel, you have a lot on your plate. How do you manage it all?

There is no sleep anymore at night. Every day I have to come up with a new idea. Where do I find money? It’s a huge burden. You know, I’ve had two heart attacks and now have cancer. But every morning when I get up, I have to put my frustration aside and say it’s a new day. I have to fight again.

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You’ve photographed the most successful musicians of the 70s and 80s, including Queen, ABBA and Blondie. Tell us how you got started as a snapper

I moved to South Africa as an immigrant in 1968. I bought a camera, started to take pictures, and signed myself up for the University of Cape Town to study art and photography. But it was very boring, and I wasn’t interested in art history. I went travelling for a while – at one point I was captured by a tribe of cannibals who made me live in a pig sty before being rescued by missionaries.

Former rock photographer turned NGO founder Hannes Schmid has big ambitions for his school, which is funded by profits from his neighbouring farmhouse resort located 65km north of Phnom Penh

Once I came out of hospital, I went out with a friend of mine who worked for record company A&M, who took me to my first concert, [Brit rockers] Status Quo. He took me to dinner with them, but they didn’t want a photographer at the dinner table. And my friend said, ‘no, no, he’s a crazy guy. He used to eat rats and live with cannibals.’ For the band, I wasn’t a photographer – I was a wild guy. And when we did the first shoot, they were taking their clothes off, pouring champagne over their heads and pulling the curtains down in this hotel room. Two days later, I moved onto the tour bus.

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You worked on America’s most successful ad campaign, the Marlboro Man, in the 1990s. Tell us what happened when American artist Richard Prince used your images in his work?

I took the Marlboro cowboy in a different direction [Schmidt’s broody black and white shots delivered a refined, pictorial update]. And then my work was rediscovered when Prince copied one of my Marlboro pictures. I was at the Biennale in Venice and all my pictures were up on the wall. I got a lawyer, but they came back and said, ‘it’s appropriation art, and artists are allowed to use the work of others, so long as the concept or the idea behind it has changed.’

Former rock photographer turned NGO founder Hannes Schmid has big ambitions for his school, which is funded by profits from his neighbouring farmhouse resort located 65km north of Phnom Penh

Well, photography is a reproduction of art. Only the negative and the chrome is the original. If I print it, it’s a copy. So, Prince had a copy of a copy of a copy, right, because he photographed the ad out of the magazine. So, I thought, ‘I’ll produce a unique original’, and this led to me learning to paint in 2001. I’ve been exhibiting my artwork ever since, with pieces displayed at Kosmos in Zurich, Art Basel Miami Beach and Beijing’s Today Art Museum among others.

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Back to the philanthropy, then. What are you focused on right now?

I’m trying to encourage people to invest in human capital. I’ve spoken quite often to Philipp Hildebrand, vice president of BlackRock. He said that its studies indicate that the first world has to invest US$450 billion each year, until around 2050, into education to help developing countries become markets.

Without a market, you can’t generate money. The world is changing, but we have to understand we need the potential of these developing countries and their manpower. But it’s only valuable to us if we educate them.

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