CultureJames Carnegie: Finding his voice

James Carnegie: Finding his voice

Jersey-born photographer James Carnegie was the perfect person to talk to for our active issue. He’s carved an impressive niche in the world of photography. His portfolio includes sporting legends such as Mo Farah, James Cracknell (above) and Jonny Wilkinson as well as celebrity names like, Simon Cowell and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and not forgetting rock legends Kasabian.

He’s also worked on brand campaigns for products as diverse as ITV, Timberland, Mastercard and Merrell.  Although James and his young family are mainly based in London, give or take the odd transatlantic job (he was about to head off to US when we spoke to him), he makes every effort to come back to visit the island.  We grabbed some time with him, post shooting Sean Conway (he’s the man with all the facial hair and who recently became the first person in history to complete the Ultimate British Triathlon).

How would you describe your work and what you do?

I used to think I could sum up what I did as shooting people, with products, in places but it’s taken me nearly 15 years to realise that it’s really about conveying a mood, emotion or  feeling which helps the viewer, or buyer, believe in the product or service.

What was your pathway to getting to this point in your career?

I left Jersey at 19 to study photography in South Africa, somewhat on a whim. The course was an intensive year focused on preparing you for a career in photography rather than exploring the artistic side too heavily. I loved the country and lifestyle so much I stayed a further three years until they booted me out, upon which I decided to return to Jersey. Discovering the market was somewhat smaller than hoped I moved to London and hit the ground running in partnership with another photographer. 15 years later and the journey has taken me from family portraits, children and wedding photography through PR and huge scale events throughout Europe to where I am now.

What defined your specific focus on photographing all things active?

The realisation that unless your heart is fully in something you can never truly give it 100%. Whilst I’ve been able to blag my way through many things in life/photography, in the field of professional sport and active lifestyle authenticity is key, meaning if you don’t know what you’re talking about it soon shows through in your imagery.

Not only do you photograph athletes, but you’re an ultra athlete yourself, what came first?

I guess an early mid-life crisis that many men face which led me to see how far I could run before collapsing. This introduced me to a whole world of discovery and like minded people that quite conveniently balanced the pressures of work and living in London. I fulfilled a lifelong dream of running the Marathon des Sables in the Sahara last year with two Jersey friends, whilst attempting to document it for a magazine. My camera equipment didn’t fare well..

What challenges do you face when working with some of the high calibre names you’ve photographed?

I think the hardest thing has been developing the ability to level with whoever I’m asked to shoot, regardless of title, worth or status, more often than not in a very short space of time. Having agents, assistants, editors and creatives on set pressing you for results and time can make things pretty intense but I suppose that’s why people hire me. I’ve never had trouble communicating with strangers! This and the weather – my biggest adversary, especially in Britain!

Of the shoots/portraits you’ve worked on, which has been your favourite and why?

Wow – tough question. Probably the shoots where I’ve been given the complete trust of the client to interpret something as I see it rather than through a strictly controlled brief. Shooting a climber being led, blindfolded, by his wife 2000m up a vertical mountain wall in the Italian Dolomites for global brand Merrell was pretty special, not least because I had little experience of climbing, let alone hanging from a carabiner with a £2000 camera swinging from my neck! I was commissioned to shoot for Jersey Tourism last year and it was a special point in my career, being hired to promote my home. Bobbing about in the sparkling water of Gorey harbour early one September morning, photographing a journalist water skiing past me I just felt massively fortunate to love what I do and make a living from it, something you’re not always led to believe possible leaving school as an 18 year old.

Do you have any great career advice for people with an interest in pursuing a career in photography?

It’s taken me 15 years to begin to discover my voice so to speak, but this is what people ultimately buy into and commission you for. The only way to develop your style is to shoot, shoot and shoot some more. Explore, create and never let anyone dampen your enthusiasm for what you believe in.

Which photographers have inspired you?

From my time in Southern Africa a landscape photographer called Koos van der Lende, who taught me that patience is a virtue and passion shines through in the end result. He would drive for 3 days to a remote Namibian hillside for one shot, only to postpone it another 3 months until the angle of the sun reflecting off the rocks was right.

My father’s photography from a life spent on the seas in and around the Channel Islands and nearby France was a huge influence – my fondest memories are Saturday evenings with siblings spent looking through my parent’s dusty old slides through a projector. The power of photography to evoke emotion is something I’m continually driven by.

Is there someone or something in particular that you’d be happy to forgo your fee to be able to photograph?

What a great question! Although I’ve been fortunate enough to photograph members of the Royal Family, top sportsmen and super cool musicians I’m always drawn to those who have a real passion for what they do, whatever the industry and I’m a sucker for giving up my time in an attempt to document and capture this.

Although you were brought up on the island, what do you miss about it whilst you’re away?

The ever changing coastline, the ability of the seas to reflect and absorb whatever mood I’m in and the pleasure of cycling down over-grown green lanes on a rusty bicycle from my parent’s garage on long summer evenings.

What’s coming up in the future, anything we should be keeping an eye out for?

I’ve recently shot some of the biggest advertising assignments of my career around the world for clothing brand Timberland. The images are launched globally this Autumn and I cannot wait to see my photographs reproduced on bus-stops and advertising hoardings –  it’ll be another career milestone achieved.

Aside from this a project with local offshore racing sailor Phil Sharp that we’re trying to get off the ground this summer, literally – it’ll involve hanging out of a Cessna at 500ft somewhere around Jersey! On the local front, I begun a personal project five years ago, photographing Jersey personalities that represented, for me, the Island I call home. Not the politicians or instantly recognisable faces but the fishermen who day in and out haul lobster pots or the Madeiran chap opposite our house who for over 20 years has harvested crops from the soil. It has no title as yet but one day I’d love to produce a book from it.

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