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In conversation with… BA Photography course leader James Smith

James Smith has been BA (Hons) Photography course leader for 10 years. He produces images that focus on the elemental power of nature and the movement of people through it in activities such as rock climbing and mountaineering.  Here James discusses the first year of the course, the future of photography and the skills needed by young photographers today.

What has your career looked like to date?

When I was at school, I had no idea of the career I wanted to pursue and at one stage was riding racehorses with a view to being a jockey!

I loved being in the darkroom watching images appear on a sheet of photographic paper, and I also liked shiny things and anything related to cameras. I completed a course which involved a huge amount of the technical aspects of photography and not too many of the creative.

My degree following that was very hard and I found it difficult to transfer from a focus on the technical into a focus on the creative and what I wanted to communicate with my images.

Alongside my degree I was interested in rock climbing and mountaineering – and a bit of snowboarding. These became the subjects of my photography, exploring the aspects of them that I felt those who didn’t do them couldn’t understand.

My images focused on landscape and the way in which we used it, showing the heroic individual, balletic movement across rock and the elemental power of nature. Essentially, these are the things I still work with in my images although being in Norfolk, rock climbing was superseded by Ironman Triathlon.

I started teaching in 2000, alongside working as a freelance photographer with a personal practice that produced images used by specialist climbing magazines and a commercial practice centred around industrial photography.

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What does Year 1 look like on BA (Hons) Photography at NUA?

Year 1 of the course is the start of a journey towards being a photography professional, able to work at the forefront of the creative industries. It addresses the fundamentals of the technical aspects of photography, the things that are essential to ensure images are produced to the highest possible standards. 

Students are introduced to a range of ideas and topics to expand their understanding of different areas of practice and to help define the approach they want to take with their image making. Students learn how images work and how to control visual elements to communicate their intentions effectively.

They are encouraged to explore the things that are important to them, the things that they are passionate about whatever they might be so that they can produce images they are proud of.

How do you see the future of photography?

Photography has always evolved, from the techniques employed by Niepce, Daguerre and Fox-Talbot through to the digital technologies that predominate the industry now. The internet has opened up many possibilities in terms of what photographers can achieve and the ways in which they can work and the ways in which audiences can engage with the subject.

Photography now is essentially a new medium that includes moving image, sound, computer generated imagery and whatever is necessary for the practitioner to achieve their creative intentions. Photographers shouldn’t be bound by the limitations of what photography was 40, 30 or even 20 years ago.

Whilst the technology has changed, essentially photographers work with common themes which, whilst they evolve alongside what is happening within the world, remain universal. The human condition and our understanding of the world around us is central to everything that we do.

“The human condition and our understanding of the world around us is central to everything that we do.”

What skills and qualities do young photographers need today?

The obvious answer would be excellent technical and creative skills to produce amazing images. Whilst this is part of the answer it would really sell short what successful photographers do.

In order to be successful, photographers need to work in a sustainable way. There are environmental issues related to photography but here I am talking about what makes someone want to keep making images and what keeps clients interested.

Communication is a key skill that all photographers must have. It applies to the images they make but also to the interpersonal skills that they develop. In a digital world it is easy to forget the power of picking up the phone and talking to someone or taking them for a coffee and a chat.

You can’t give up! The creative industries is one of the most challenging and competitive in the world, the pay-off is that it is also one of the most rewarding. Where else can you make a living taking the pictures you want to take?

Photographers have to be resilient, accept that they will face rejection and carry on regardless. If they are making images they are passionate about, there will be other people out there who will also be passionate about what they do.

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