1. From taking a look through your portfolio on your website, it is clear that you are a very refined, critical documentary photographer. Your projects such as Land of The Wolves and your ongoing project titled Sulis are particularly detailed. How do you pick a subject to focus on? Are your ideas inspired by anything in particular and are some of the project’s commission-based?

My projects stem from my personal interests as well as my circumstances. Even before I picked up a camera I have had a keen interest in Geography, Politics and History. I loved these subjects at school even if I never excelled at them. Photography has enabled me to express my interests visually. For example, Land of Wolves was the result of my personal interest in the Caucasus and the complex web of peoples that reside there. Photography enabled me to translate my research into images. I can be quite obsessive about stories and the more I read about the region the more I wanted to experience it. Sulis was a different challenge, My daughter was born in late 2016 and I decided to test myself and work closer to home, I wanted to be at home as she grew up. I didn’t want to be jetting off to chase stories, I wanted to be present. Sulis formed part of my recent MA and as such developed to complement my academic studies. In the past I have never felt comfortable working in my community, I find it harder, Sulis changed that. The project was about revisiting a landscape I had become blind to, and pushing myself to document my surroundings and community. The only project I’ve made which was commissioned was Free Turkey which was for The Rory Peck Trust, this threw up its own challenges but was amazing as the charity has done an awful lot in helping friends and colleagues.

 

James Arthur Allen, from his project SULIS

2. Your projects Free Turkey, centred on Turkeys crackdown on journalists and Land of The Wolves, focused on the South Caucasus Republic of Georgia are controversial subjects. How do you approach such sensitive stories, but keep yourself safe at the same time? How do these projects come about? Do you fear there may be repercussions for the work in Turkey or Russia for example?

Again it comes down to research, for me personally it is crucial. Regardless of your project, I was taught that you must be an expert about your subject. If you do your homework beforehand you can make informed decisions. Read books, articles and watch documentaries. Don’t turn up and look like an idiot. Be humble, engaged and polite and you will get pictures wherever you go. My work in Georgia was entirely self-initiated and although it almost broke me finically it remains one of the most enchanting places I’ve been and the project photographically formed me the most, a lot of pennies dropped when I was in Georgia. I never had any issues in terms of my safety, the country was coming out of sweeping reforms and was looking west after the 2008 war with Russia. Being from the west I was actively courted and finding stories was relatively straight forward.

Turkey was different I was commissioned by The Rory Peck Trust to make a story about press freedom it was straight after the Gezi Park protests and the city and its people were still reeling. I was actively involved with the Trust and after graduation I approached them, pitched some ideas and I was off, it was a huge deal at the time. I felt safe in Istanbul but the city was on edge. There was only one episode that was a bit sketchy, one of my subject tried to convince me I was being followed by the secret police but to this day I don’t know if this was true or just his paranoia, he had good reason to be paranoid as he was staring down the barrel of a long prison sentence.

Whenever I make work abroad I always employ a local fixer to help me on the ground and to help with translation. This is invaluable and I was fortunate enough to work with two amazing young journalists in Georgia and a dynamic young activist in Istanbul. Without which I wouldn’t have been able to make the work in the time I had. This is where the real cost is when making work abroad. This was different in Abkhazia where I struggled to make work as I was viewed with suspicion, my Georgian fixers could not help as there is deep ethnic tension between the two regions following Abkhazia’s breakaway and subsequent bloody conflict. No one speaks English and the state is, in essence, a vassal of Russia, there are lots of checkpoints and the border crossing is notoriously dodgy. That being said I had contacted some local NGO’s who helped with transport and this was a lifesaver in understanding the land and avoiding trouble. I have never worried about any repercussions about my work, I don’t feel like I’m being directly confrontational or that my platform or profile is big enough for anyone in a position of power to take offence. That being said if I was worried about upsetting powerful people then what would be the point?

 

James Arthur Allen, from his project SULIS

3. Mental health isn’t something that is spoken about in our industry all too often. How did you feel when you graduated from your BA in Press & Editorial Photography in 2012? Did you compare yourself to others? How did you keep motivated and drive yourself further and not give up after university? Did you work part-time?

I can remember very clearly the pressure I felt when I graduated. We were taught at Falmouth that no one owed you anything and that a degree was no guarantee of making it. It’s cliche but we were told that you have to earn your success and win your battles. It was tough advice but there is truth in it. It was made very clear that I had to go out there and earn my scars and make my own space. We learnt that we were trying to move into an industry that was working perfectly fine without us. If this doesn’t put you off and you still want to do it get ready for a rocky ride, strap in.

I can’t tell you how skint I’ve been in the years since I left Falmouth, that being said it’s never been about money for me. Since 2012 I’ve learnt lots of lessons some of them really hard ones. On the way, I’ve been lucky enough to have been able to build a supportive network around me of like-minded people that I trust this is important. Learn who you can trust as there a sharks in the water.

I worked many jobs initially, landscaping, bar work, admin work, University sports team photos, weddings, you name it I’ve done it and if I’m being totally open I still do. It’s a total myth that you should try and make all your money from photography. You should, in reality, be trying to make enough money to support your photography in the long term.

 

James Arthur Allen, from his project SULIS

For a long time, I was more concerned about establishing myself than my actual photography. It was overwhelming and I spent far to much time comparing myself to others. This in hindsight wassuffocating and a huge mistake. My old tutor Guy Martin explained that his past photography was using him, he wasn’t using photography and I totally subscribe to this. You must use photography. If you feel like it’s using you and your mental health is suffering then ask yourself why are you doing it? Are you doing this for Instagram likes or for your name in lights, for awards and exhibitions? We all started making pictures for fun, making projects to understand and to explain to otherthings that concerned or excited us, there is great joy in this. This is what motivates me now the joy of the act, putting my camera bags in the boot and heading out. Great things can come from just enjoying.

Reflecting on it now it was the wrong things that motivated me initially and this didn’t work out too well, it is true that I got some commissions and made some projects, but it was for the wrong reasons, this led to the point where Iwalked away from photography for a year. If your not getting joy from your photography, maybe you need to re-establish your relationship with the medium, making work for others will not always have the same strength as the work you make for yourself. Make pictures, work on your projects, be nice and you will go places and you will get noticed. Have confidence in your ability and back yourself, don’t rely on anyone else to do this. Speak to people, listen to feedback and get used to reflecting. Most importantly reach out if it gets too much. Do whatever it takes to support yourself, don’t be too proud to take another job. No one owes you anything, photography should enrich you not pull you down. It takes time and its hard, but the rewards will come if you keep at it.

4. On your website you have worked for clients such as the Financial Times, HUCK, Telegraph, Splash & Grab and have been involved in several awards and exhibitions. How did you get involved with these clients or get commissioned by them? What is the most successful way to get your work out there?

I started emailing picture editors when I was at University, I’d send a small pdf of images specific to the publication they worked for and a brief email explaining who I was and what I was working on. I continued this for the first few years after I graduated. Initially, I got largely no answers then over time started to get polite emails saying they would put my details on file and then eventually offers of work. The trick I think is to always have something new to send every six months or so. This shows your working and improving. Another top tip given to me by an editor is to keep your website up to date. They do check them. I still send emails but now also send small books or prints to people when I can. Instagram is also really relevant now so I treat that as a portfolio and make sure I post work as and when to show I’m out doing stuff. In terms of awards and shows my successes have come from simply applying and crossing my fingers, it’s nice when you do get shortlisted, even better when you win but it is by no means a measure of your talent, and you shouldn’t take it as such, you will accrue far more losses than wins along the way. I don’t enter anywhere near as many as I used to. There’s a huge amount of competitions and a huge amount of people entering them. Ask yourself the value. Some are just about making someone in an office or on a board a lot of money off the dreams of young photographers. Having said that, there are some great awards that are providing genuine benefits to photographers. Pick and choose and always read the small print.

James Arthur Allen, from his project SULIS

5. You only finished your master’s degree in 2018 but now tutor between two universities. How did you become a tutor so soon after your Masters and what drove you to become one? What does it take to become a tutor?

I have been teaching into the BA photography course at Bath Spa intermittently from 2016 and it was this that pushed me towards my MA. It is pretty much prerequisite to have an MA if you are going to teach undergraduates. My MA is an investment and as a total disclaimer, teaching has become pretty much my sole income and impetus and has allowed me to pursue my personal practice with much more freedom. I love teaching as much as taking images, it is challenging and hugely rewarding. In terms of getting into lecturing it was a matter of right place right time. I started as a visiting speaker then started to cover sessions before being offered the opportunity to lead and write modules. From there I applied for a post at Portsmouth and was lucky enough to get that, I love teaching across two institutions as it allows you to learn twice as quick.

To be a good teacher you can’t be selfish and you have to totally love photography and theory. It’s your job to inspire and enable people to see their potential and to achieve it. I feel a real duty towards my students as I know how hard they have it. If I wasn’t teaching I would likely have saved myself the further nine grand debt and not done an MA. I’m about to start a further teaching qualification as part of my post at Portsmouth to further my career, moving forwards academia is my total focus alongside my personal projects and research.

James Arthur Allen, from his project SULIS

6. You tutor on one of the most talented degree courses in the country right now at Bath Spa. All three-year groups seem to be extremely talented and motivated students driven to succeed. Can you tell us more about how you motivate them and push them to succeed? What advice do you give them and what sort of sessions do you run with them?

We have a good team and have a very pastoral philosophy within the course, it’s not for everyone of course but it’s an open door policy at Bath and we want the students to feel apart of something. This is important if you feel part of something you are much more likely to buy into the program and work. I believe that photography is a taught medium, it’s also enabling and empowering. Many students on arts-based courses have had negative experiences at school, maybe being told they are not academic, it is my job to change this perception. Anyone can do it. We bring this to the students and ensure they know that they will get out exactly what they put in. Work hard, listen and question and you will make the kind of work you want to make.

I have been fortunate enough to write the second and third years a pretty thorough professional practice element that runs alongside our visiting speaker program. This is comprehensive and allows the students to meet all types of photographers and picture editors, curators and artists. These sessions are run as open relaxed meetings and the students are encouraged to engage with these guests and learn from them. This, in turn, makes the students confident and reinforces there potential and future career plans. We also encourage students to fail. Failure is the quickest way to get better. That all said it’s all down to them, we are just there to nudge and guide but we can’t be complacent. Each year is different and I’m gearing up to try and get the best out of this year’s students. It is hugely rewarding to see people achieve their potential and to succeed and overcome their doubts.

James Arthur Allen, from his project SULIS

9. What are your current thoughts on the photography industry and if so, how do you think it could be changed or improved?

The photography industry is changing all the time, when I was at University we were told that the camera phone would kill photography, it didn’t. I was told film was dead, it isn’t. I was taught that stock photography would be the way I would supplement my income, I barely make beer money from it. I was told that multimedia is where we would all make our money, multimedia never really took off in the end. In short, It’s very hard to gauge which direction the industry will go next and what will be the next fad or trend.

However one thing won’t change and that is there will always be space for well thought out and skilful photography, people will always pay for that. We must all work hard to hone our craft. I think you have to try and develop your own style and voice to gain commissions and work. This takes time for most people. I also think photographers will have to have more strings to there bow to survive and to be agile enough to enable making a living. You will have to be open to doing lots of things well and to be exceptional at a few to stand out.

The industry is like a pyramid and you do and you will have to play the game, it’s unfair but it’s the way it is at the moment. If you want to change it then you have to be in it and work with people who feel the same. I hope to see more equality in published output. I want to see more female, LGBT and minority voices and an increase of people from working-class backgrounds represented in the industry working as photographers, curators and picture editors who can dictate and shape the output of the medium to be more representative. I hope to see more inclusive networks and events for people to talk openly and share and show work. I want people to be more honest to people starting about just how hard it is, and the sacrifices that you will need to make, I want to see more transparency from people.

I think that this is beginning to happen and this makes me optimistic.

 

James Arthur Allen, from his project FREE TURKEY

11. I see that you are yet to publish a photo book. Is this something you have planned for the future? If so, would it be via self-publishing or through a publisher?

It’s something I want to do and I have reached out to a few people and had conversations but they haven’t come to anything. Mainly from lack of enthusiasm on my behalf. In truth, I have never really felt like my projects have ever been at a point where I wanted to share them within in a book. It’s a big deal and it hasn’t felt right yet. I have hopes for my current work and I am working towards either approaching a publisher or self-publishing, I have no qualms with either approach. I’ve made small books for promotional means and am doing this at present for Sulis, so I’m happy to do it.

If it happens in the next few years then great but again it comes down to not putting pressure on myself, I will know when I’m ready but it’s not quite yet. I’m in no rush.

13. What are your plans for your future practice?

To continue to work on my personal projects and continue to teach within higher education. At some point in the future, I also want to start a PHD but this is on hiatus, I will wait until my kids are older and more self-sufficient before I put myself through that. I want to return to Georgia and continue my work on the people of the Caucasus and to really explore and get to the nuts and bolts of the communities around my home in Bath.

James Arthur Allen, from his project FREE TURKEY

14. What is your advice to young photographers and new graduates?

Keep making pictures, make pictures at all costs, they can be good or bad it doesn’t matter, just make pictures. It’s one thing to make pictures on a course with deadlines and a qualification at stake. It’s a different story altogether, to do it on your own just for the love of it, so be strong and passionate with your output and dreams.

Remember why you make pictures, don’t lose sight of that.

Back yourself and don’t give up.

James Arthur Allen

I am a focused and confident freelance photographer and lecturer specialising in documentary, editorial and portrait photography.

My work focuses strongly on social issues, from the geo politics and conflicts of the South Caucuses to documenting the hinterlands around my home in Bath. I graduated from University College Falmouth in 2012 with a First Class Honours degree in Press and Editorial Photography and completed my Masters in Documentary Photography at the University of South Wales in 2018.

As well as working on personal projects and commissions I lecture part time on the BA Photography courses at Bath Spa and Portsmouth Universities.

James Arthur Allen – Photographer

http://www.jamesarthurallen.co.uk

Instagram: http://instagram.com/jamesarthurallen

Publications and Clients

The Financial Times Magazine, HUCK Magazine, Inquire Magazine, The Daily Telegraph, Saturday Telegraph Magazine, Calvert Journal, Cicero, Libération, The Guardian, Guardian Weekend Magazine, Splash & Grab, The Rory Peck Trust, FOTO8, Loupe Magazine, Time Magazines Photojournalism Links and the British Journal of Photography.

Awards:

2018: RPS International Photography Exhibition 161: Shortlisted. 

2018: Kolga Tbilisi Photo Festival, Documentary Series Award, Shortlisted.

2016: The Rebecca Vassie Trust Award for Emerging Photographers, Winner.

2015: Magnum Photos /Ideas Tap Photographer Fund, Shortlisted.

2014: Magnum Photos Top Thirty under Thirty Award, Shortlisted.

2012: Best Emerging Graduate Talent, British Journal of Photography, Featured.

Interview by Collective Founder Samuel Fradley.

If you enjoyed this interview by Sam, check out another Collective interview with Photographer Guy Moreton: https://thesouthwestcollective.co.uk/guy-moreton-discusses-landscape-thought-and-his-methods-behind-picture-taking/