CultureThe Elephant Man

The Elephant Man

It’s always great to hear stories of reinvention. It seems to be a constant source of conversation as people consider a new chapter or alternative future, only to remain on the road well travelled and in their everyday lives. When James de la Cloche got in touch, it was great to hear about how he’s embraced a new life, calling, and purpose.

Hi James, it’s been a while. I think last time we had you in Gallery you were still in Property! Give us the brief story of what’s happened since…

That’s a big question, but essentially, on my first visit in 2001, I got into insight meditation, and that led to a huge change in how I saw the world and a complete change in my personal values. I wanted to live the artist’s life through my photography, as I believe that is the way to reach full potential. I was given a talent that had to develop. It’s been an incredible journey, and the path has never been easy, but I regard this as book two of my life, and the experience has been, and continues to be, amazing.

You were always a photographer, but clearly you’ve now found your niche, how did that process happen? 

For years, despite my best efforts, I found it hard to find any jobs. In the first year, I had no shoots; it was very tough. Eventually, Chinese tourists and a few weddings got me through. It provided some money but not so much, and, around four and a half years in, I had exhausted all of my funds and had to sell my car and motorcycle. Bizarrely, I never lost faith that things would work out. Around that time, I made my first contact with Chai Lai Orchid, and that was the start of my journey creating portraits of people with the amazing rescue elephants.

Your work with the elephants at the Chai Lai Orchid. What can you tell us about that organisation? 

Chai Lai Orchid is an inspiring non-profit resort. Founded by Alexa Pam to fund her foundation, “Daughters Rising,” it is all about anti-trafficking, empowerment, and education for ethnic minority women and girls, many of whom are refugees from Myanmar. They support around 50 girls, paying all of their education and living costs while they are at university, as well as supporting the local Karen community that surrounds the resort. The project started as a cafe at an elephant camp, which soon made her want to improve the lives of the elephants. Chai Lai is now home to 18 rescue elephants of their own.

They say ‘never work with children or animals’. Do Elephants shatter that myth? 

I remember those very words from my grandfather, and it often makes me chuckle! Elephants are the easy part. All the elephants at Chai Lai have been surrounded by people all of their lives, and when they are treated as kindly as they are here, they are kind, gentle, and always inspiring. I am in my 8th year of working with them; I know their habits, can feel their moods, and I love them and their wonderful manners dearly. As for children, they often start off afraid. But, through patience, humour, and guidance, I always get the shots I need.

What is the funniest experience you’ve had while capturing our trunk-wielding friends?

During a honeymoon shoot, the guest requested a beautiful floral arch and elephants to be in the background while they read some vows to each other. Chai Lai prepared everything, and it looked very beautiful, with hundreds of white roses and orchids and lots of palm leaves woven in. As the couple started to read their vows, the mother and baby elephant were being surprisingly well behaved, munching bananas in the background, until Mobley, the 4-year-old baby girl, suddenly decided that she would like to try some of the flowers. I think you can picture the rest!

Life has obviously changed a great deal since you left Jersey. Tell us three things you’ve learnt…

1: Follow your heart, be true to yourself, and you will be happy.

2: Be kind to yourself, be kind to others, and be generous to those with greater needs than yourself, and you will be happy.

3: I’ll never be a great linguist. After all these years of living here, my Thai is still terrible!

About James

Age 60

Family 5 kids, 4 grandchildren

Favourite possession 

I really enjoy my motorbike

Favourite place to eat out  

The food stalls at the market

Favourite quote or phrase 

“Letting go a little brings a little peace. Letting go a lot brings a lot of peace. Letting go completely brings complete peace.” — Ajahn Chah

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