Jacob James is a British travel and cultural documentary photographer who captures the people and places of the world in a beautiful light, both visually and conceptually. He shares his experiences from his perspective as both artist and teacher.
How did you get started as a photographer?
My first foray into photography came about through a part-time job I had whilst at school helping to take orders and pack them for my uncle’s mail order film and photography business. Around this time, I was getting to grips with the technical side of photography, developing and printing in order to assist with customers.
With my understanding of the technical side improving, I decided to pick up a camera and start shooting. The first few years of my photography life was pretty much like anyone else’s, I spent time shooting everything from butterflies to track cycling, mainly with cheap manual lenses I picked up on eBay. Looking back the imagery was pretty bad, but the experience helped me build the technical foundations of exposure, composition and color.
It was only once I started travelling that my love for photography really began to take off.
What attracted you to travel photography in particular?
The very first solo travel trip I took was to Southeast Asia, starting in Myanmar and ending in the south of China. Over the course of those 6 months, through photography and wanting to capture people and culture, I learned so much about human nature, both the good and the bad. It was this fascination with people and the differences and similarities across cultures that drew me into photography. For me, photography is a gateway to opportunities and experiences I wouldn’t have ever had before.
What equipment do you take with you when you’re heading out on an assignment?
As my style and the types of subjects I shoot has changed slightly my gear has changed too. If I had to choose one lens and camera, it would no doubt be the Panasonic GX8 and 15mm f1.7 Leica prime lens. This setup allows me to shoot 95% of the environmental portraits and street shots I want. The rest of my kit back is taken up with a second body, 25mm prime, 42.5mm prime, 12-35 and 35-100 zooms, and a DJI Mavic drone.
What essentials other than photo equipment do you take with you?
Most probably, it would be a couple of hard drives, laptop and a decent pair of sturdy shoes. It sounds a bit bland but backing up images is probably the most important task and ensuring they don’t get lost during a trip is always difficult if you’re a little off the beaten track. Shoes are also pretty key, they’re the number one item of clothing that can make or break your comfort. I tend to go for ones that are pretty multi-functional to save space, a pair that is wearable in the city but also solid for hiking and trekking to remote villages.
What is the most valuable skill you’ve developed since starting your career?
It sounds a bit corny but probably confidence. A lot of my work is photographing people, and having the confidence to approach people who may not speak English is often difficult. I also find that it’s important to give off a confident vibe — even if you’re not — otherwise you can unintentionally appear a bit shady, and despite the language barrier, people pick up on things like that.
From rural villages in Bulgaria to jungles in Asia — you’ve been to some pretty interesting places! Do you have a favorite anecdote or adventure you like to tell people about?
During my first solo trip, I found myself in a mountain village in Vietnam, with no passport, hotel booking or anything else remotely useful. It’s a long story involving having the top pocket of my bag cleared out by thieves on a train, but long story cut short, I ended up meeting and staying with a Hmong family.
The family lived high on the side of the paddy fields in a mountain valley, one of the most spectacular places I’ve stayed. Anyway, the first night, the Grandma of the family brought out the rice wine and proceeded to drink me under the table. I somehow stumbled to bed, only to be woken in the morning by the family buffalo who had made a bed right next to mine. It’s these weirdly crazy, once in a lifetime experiences that keep me travelling.
What impact do you think photography has on your audience’s perception of other cultures and societies? What do you think it is about the medium that makes it so relevant?
I think as a photographer of other cultures it’s very easy to fall into the trap of orientalism. It’s something I try hard to avoid. You’ve probably seen many photographers who go out to remote places, photograph decorative tribes (in a staged way) and lecture about capturing dying spectacles. As a westerner, especially in new countries, it’s hard to avoid the pitfall of describing and photographing things as exotic, backward or uncivilised.
I find that the strongest photographic work goes beyond these superficial, human-zoo type images and reveals something a little deeper, on a human level that transcends the simplistic imagery of exoticism. Now that’s not to say I have achieved it, but it’s those images that I’m always trying to seek.
Has there ever been a moment when you felt a bit too far from your comfort zone or out of your depth?
All the time! If I’m not out of my comfort zone in one way or another, I often struggle to see artistically. That’s why I always struggle to motivate myself back home in the UK, when things become familiar and comfortable, they also become visually invisible.
Do you have a favorite picture? What makes it so special for you?
This is a tough question and I’d have to say no. Not a single image. My own photography has a deeper connection to me than to others, purely because it brings back the memories of the time when it was shot. Some of my ‘technically’ best images don’t have the same emotional attachment than those that others would consider average. For me, my favorite images are those that make people go ‘wow’ or give them an insight into something they’ve never seen before. If I leave people with questions and a yearning to find out more, then I’m happy I’ve created a decent shot.
You regularly run workshops and teach, having just launched a company — Intrepid Exposures — that leads tours and workshops from the Philippines to Mongolia. What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in transitioning from a photographer to a teacher?
I would say the biggest challenge is trying to verbalise concepts and thoughts that can often be somewhat ineffable. The basics of exposure, colour and composition are easy to teach, but teaching someone to see a situation differently, to create something more meaningful and ‘deeper’, is extremely tricky.
Which destination is on your bucket list to discover next?
I’ve fallen in love with Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia over the last few years. My next destinations will no doubt be in these areas, places like Georgia, Armenia and maybe Iran.