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In conversation with James Dodd

Phil Coomes | 12:16 UK time, Monday, 26 July 2010

Olympic Swimmers by James Dodd

The photographic business is a crowded one: for those who want to make their mark, it can take time to figure out the right path to follow. This involves developing your own style; it can also mean working your way through a number of ideas before your goal becomes clear.

James Dodd, 26, has been doing just that, working on personal projects alongside commissions and student assignments. It's certainly paid off as he was one of the finalists in this year's Burn Emerging Photographers Fund.

James has also found time to set up an agency and shoot weddings and he is now running photographic workshops and exhibitions.

Browsing through James's work, I was taken by the variety - from the dark brooding pictures of Olympic swimmers to the fly-on-the-wall-style pictures of car boot fairs.

James obviously has a passion for photography and plenty of talent too, so I pitched a few questions to him.

So, James: tell me something about your background. What drove you to a spot behind the lens?

Photo by James Dodd

"I've always had a passion for understanding how things work which led me to study computing at Sheffield Hallam University. Photography was initially just a way to express myself and contain the growing level of boredom with the mundane rituals of office work. I no longer view my attraction to the medium in this way.
 
"As a system developer, I was always looking for formulas and patterns to re-use throughout projects. I think I only became bored once I discovered logic to approach the them. With photography, I can't do this. I can't copy and paste something; I can't re-use set variables. And I think this is what keeps my drive.
 
"Magnum photographer Alec Soth probably said this better than I ever could:
 
"'Knowing it's not a formula, I know that I have to keep shaking these up, so I do something fast, then do something that takes years, trying different things. Do the stuff where I work alone, do the stuff where I work collaboratively. Sometimes it will fall flat, but hopefully magic will strike at some point.' [Alec Soth - Interviewed by Big Red & Shiny]"

You completed the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) accredited course for press photographers: how did that help you develop your style and direction?

Photo by James Dodd

"I came to photojournalism after a friend of a friend introduced me to all the usual photojournalism headliners: Capa, Nachtwey, Cartier-Bresson, McCullin and so on.
 
"To say that I was inspired would be an understatement. It wasn't just the photography, but more their dedication to the cause. This is what led me to the NCTJ course.
 
"It helped me to quickly understand the press industry: how things worked; some ways of working and photojournalism ethics; the law and my rights as a photographer. It also put me in a room with like-minded individuals - some of whom I'm still regularly in touch with, especially those who co-founded Statement Images with me.
 
"I'm still not sure whether the course was the right route for me, though. I understand that the actions from my studies no doubt led me to where I am now. But I feel that where I am now isn't the direction I intended to take, and it's a direction that isn't exactly the usual one for those on the course.
 
"I would recommend the course to any budding press photographer - particularly those interested in working on a local level - but would stress that they should get some work experience for a few months, to see the largely unglamorous life of a news photographer. Trust me: being on the steps outside the law courts on a cold wet winter morning, waiting for some criminal to pop out of the doors isn't as fun as it sounds."

Sadly, it seems the NCTJ press photography and photojournalism course has closed.

Looking at your work, you seem to be juggling a number of projects and many ideas. How do these develop and where do you find the initial spark for a photographic series?

Photo by James Dodd

"Just before I began my studies, a friend recommended On Being a Photographer by Bill Jay and David Hurn. This was the first time I had really considered what I was doing with photography: what I wanted to do and how I would approach my work.
 
"For instance, there is a chapter called Selecting a Subject which really struck a chord with me; as a result, I now make lists - lots of lists.
 
"I categorise things, score them, tally them and order them into an overall potential visual impact, practicality, interest to others, and my subject knowledge and a few other variables that I added myself.
 
"This methodology is in stark contrast to the type of work I was producing while on the course and working for a few newspapers. I find it difficult as a photographer to relate to something I know little-to-nothing about, and as a press photographer I didn't always have the time to do the research I would have liked. I feel this lack of knowledge and sometimes compassion came through in the pictures. In many ways, I don't even view the pictures I took at this time as my own.
 
"I don't even feel it was me holding the camera back then. I was constrained by the required styles of the specific outlets, and in some instances I was even given specific diagrams which I was instructed to replicate with the camera. I suppose I was more of a ghost-writer than a writer - well, photographer, but you know what I mean.
 
"I come up with lots of ideas, but the initial idea is only the start. Once I've got one I like, I don't just go out and shoot it. I try to understand why I want to shoot it; I do lots of research so I can further understand the subject and almost become a bit of a mini-expert in the area.
 
"Not all of these ideas make it through to the shooting stage, and even then that doesn't guarantee that they become a finished product. Some fall apart when I realise the medium may not suit it, or maybe that I've discovered someone else's work in the area that I think covers it better than I ever could.
 
"I'm not afraid to abandon ideas before completion: as they say, there is no point in trying to flog a dead horse!
 
"On an aesthetic note, I try to take a lot of inspiration from artists outside photography. The works of Andy Warhol and Philip Glass played quite a large part in my Olympic Dreams work, where I studied the aspects of repetition in their work and took ideas from that to present the repetitions in the divers' training sessions. And music in general is central to most of my essays in terms of editing and sequencing."

Many would say that there is no market for this work. That doesn't mean it shouldn't be done, but what do you think? Is there an outlet? Can you make money and produce the work you believe in?

Photo by James Dodd

"I'd love to believe that there is a market for the sort of work I want to produce in the press industry. But I think it's becoming more evident each year that this isn't the case. You only have to look at the huge photojournalism competitions - such as World Press Photo awards - as evidence for this, as only a minority of the winning pictures are featured in the press before they win.
 
"Hopefully we'll see a change in the future - at which point I'll probably start buying newspapers again - for now I'm not even attempting to get this stuff into the mainstream press, though some does get published in the odd specialist magazine and arts folio zines. Instead I'm concentrating on funding the work through alternate avenues.
 
"One amazing thing worth noting is Burn Magazine, where Olympic Dreams was recently featured. They have just started to offer $500 fees to featured photographers - I missed this by about a month. I'd love to see more ventures taking heed from David Alan-Harvey's example."

It's a pragmatic approach. You mentioned you were thinking of going down the PR/wedding route: has that come off? Is it a means to an end? There are many big-name photographers who find a way to fund their "real" work. Do you see that as a solution to the tough economic climate?

"To be honest, only time will tell. If the market changes dramatically, I may reconsider the level of my PR and wedding work. But sure, right now I'm using my personal work - which is what I've come to call this sort of stuff - as a sort of marketing platform for my commercial, editorial, as well as a bit of wedding work, the funds from which then go back into financing the personal work.
 
"However, I haven't ruled out the possibility of funding my personal work through a separate career, maybe going back into the computing route; seeing work by some of the photographers featured over here does give me hope that route could be feasible, even if it is a massive back-up for me.
 
"One thing that I'm seriously working on right now is arts education work. I recently started a creative partnership project in a Birmingham school where I'm teaching photography and journalism in a way which is more integrated into the existing curriculum - sort of using photojournalism as a way to explore their subjects, French Language in this case."

Going back to style, it's something photographers tend to develop over the years. Some evolve; others remain with what they feel is their best way of working. Are you using these projects to find your own style and develop your work?

Photo by James Dodd

"I tend to look at style as a secondary outcome - a sort of by-product of what I do. It changes depending on the constraints placed on a project through the subject, situations, as well as myself.
 
"I do use projects in different ways, though. With Sunday Morning Sales, I wanted a project that I could always shoot, a sort of base project to keep me sharp. Something that would be longer than, say, a single event or something tied to a specific time period. So it had to be something readily available, at a time which suited me and within easy access. I know when and where car-boots will happen, so the idea stuck. Obviously as time progressed, its purpose to me has evolved and will probably continue to do so."

You are also working on the Dead Photographers' Project. What's behind that?

Photo by James Dodd

"A couple of years ago, my dad handed me a box of slides - he runs a removals company which occasionally does house clearances and recycles many of the unwanted items. Knowing my interest in photography, he thought I'd like to flick through the box.
 
"The act of families gathering around the warm glow of a projector to reminisce over stolen moments always fascinated me. I never experienced it myself growing up, but TV and movies introduced me to it. So when I began browsing through hundreds of these photographs I started to feel sorry for the photographers who'd slaved away, shooting for the results to only end up as unwanted items intended for the dump.
 
"Initially it started as an exercise to curate the collection, a way to prove the concept that: 'Everyone has a good photograph in them whether they know it or not'.
 
"But lately I've been looking at it from a slightly different angle. I feel there are many things I can learn from these photographers and their work. Unlike today's digital and throwaway society where we are only too eager to hit the delete key within a moment of capturing the imperfect, accidental and unwanted moments, these old film photographers kept everything.
 
"To me, the images are better for it. Sure, there are those contrived images that document everyone at Aunt Sally's 80th, but I've found that more likely than not, there is one preceding it showing some imperfections: kids playing up to the camera, people not paying attention.
 
"The subjects look more natural in these images - uncontrolled, even. And I feel these pictures probably represent the people in them better for it.
 
"So you could call what I'm doing a bit of a rescue project. And you would be correct, at least in part. At present I've saved somewhere in the region of 2,000 of these photographs from an untimely death in the dump. But my main aim now is to give light to the images, giving them a platform their photographers could never have expected.
 
"The website will be going live any time now and I'm currently sat next to a proof copy the Dead Photographers Magazine. The thing I'm quite excited about, though, is delivering an exhibition for the project. I'm interested in presenting the work in a way to deliver some context and present it in a natural environment. I'll be exhibiting this as part of my residency at some time later in the year."

As if all that weren't enough, you have recently started to get Sheffield on the photo map with an exhibition of Simon Roberts' Motherland series and a slideshow. Is that something that you will continue?

"In March this year, I began an artist residency at Bank Street Arts. Initially this was a research project to discover the wants and needs of the photographic community in Sheffield, but it has since evolved into an attempt to deliver on some of these wants and needs, while looking at the relationship the city has with photography.
 
"We recently exhibited Simon Roberts' Motherland, which has been extremely well received. I think Simon was aware of the situation in the city; after all, he had studied here for about four years and experienced a 'dearth of material' as he put it. And he's right. For a city the size of Sheffield, with over 30 photography-related courses and around 600 students studying each year, there definitely is something amiss.
 
"What I've been doing does seem to be having some effect. Both the slideshows called 'in camera' and Motherland have been consistently listed in the local papers as one of the 'top 10 things to do in South Yorkshire', which is fantastic.
 
"Loads of fellow Sheffield-based photographers have been sending me messages or popping in to ask to be involved on some level and I'm now doing that, partly in an attempt to allow me to concentrate more on my own work again.
 
"I've also recently launched the website www.photosheffield.org.uk which aims to be a central location for all photographic events for the city."

As I said above, James treads many paths and his Olympic Dreams project is one of those featured in the Foto8 Summers Show at Host Gallery in London.

A selection of his car-boot work will be in a group show throughout August at Bank Street Arts in Sheffield. Following that, his Olympic Dreams series is going to be exhibited at the same location, on which he remarks: "I'm quite excited about this. I'm going to be using light boxes to present the images in a darkened space."

I'd like to offer my thanks to James for sharing so many of his thoughts and idea: I'm sure they will provide inspiration to many photographers seeking to find a way into the business.

You can see James' work at his website.

Sunday Morning Sales by James Dodd

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