Photographers in Publishing is a series of interviews that aim to gather insights from those who balance making and publishing photography.
James Wrigley is a documentary photographer, writer, and designer, currently studying an MA in Art Direction at Manchester Metropolitan University. Alongside studying he manages to juggle writing for both PYLOT Magazine and RENTAL Magazine, as well as being editor and art director/designer of Then There Was Us Magazine.
I caught up with him to hear both about his personal projects, and what he’s learnt from his involvement with the world of publishing.
Harry Flook: What is your background in photography?
James Wrigley: I didn’t do that well at school, so studying A-levels went out the window and my only option was to do a BTEC. I was always good at art and history, in fact, I guess my it was my high school art teacher that really introduced me to it, that and my grandad who let me shoot on his 35mm when I was younger. After the photography BTEC, I went on to study at university where I started to take the medium seriously, along with everything that entailed such as theory, publishing, ethics, etc.
HF: Writing seems to be a major part of your output, how has writing about photography affected the way you approach your personal projects?
JW: I have never really considered myself to be a ‘good’ writer, but I found that writing helps in many ways, for me, it’s about understanding something more than you do when you just look at it. When you sit down and have to write about someone’s work or your own work for that matter, you are forced to take notice and to take a deeper look, really examine the work. If I am writing about my own work, its a way to get across the things you can’t in the images, or to set a tone, or simply just facts and information that are needed alongside the work. But it is also a way of being self-evaluative, critical of my own work as much as others would be. If I am writing about someone else’s work, I have a duty to understand that project because it will be featured in a magazine or online, so even if I am being critical you have to be honest and with facts and theory, you can’t do that unless you understand the work or the process. The act of writing about photography really affects my ability to understand photography as a document, a narrative, the connotations within images, etc. It’s an excuse to talk to photographers who inspire me, and it’s an excuse to find more people who are creating great things.
HF: Both your projects, Homeward Bound and Underhill, romanticise the idea of traditional small-town life in the face of expanding modernity. Is this theme a conscious one and if so where do you think the interest stems from?
JW: It was definitely a conscious decision, but a decision that was only made possible because these places allowed it, I think that’s also where my interest in this concept started. Tradition is interesting because it refuses to die, so you’re left with a long, slow and often painful death of traditionalism and in both of these small towns, you can see the scars. Although these areas change so much over the years it’s the people that keep it alive and it’s that aspect, the people, that I find so romantic. These small towns and cities are the contested territories within the UK, they have so much character and culture to them, it’s hard not to love. Sometimes you can only see it or appreciate it when you leave, like my hometown for example. I think it’s important for a photographer to understand insider and outsider perspective, but to also try and experience them both.
HF: Do you see any other common themes in your work?
JW: Family for sure, but I think my work has always focused around territory, my photographic works feature this heavily; contested territories, suburban sameness, traditionalism, all of these themes seem to overlap in some ways. My other outputs – design and writing, seem to follow similar topics but more broadly in terms of process, leaning toward sociological and political topics globally rather than locally.
HF: What piece of advice would you give to your younger self, just starting out?
JW: A lot! – I guess the obvious ones are to read more and shoot more, the reality is that I have found it’s more important to believe in something, or more correctly, get angry about something and document that! So I’d probably say something like, fuck austerity! In all honesty, and as cliche as it sounds, it really is the journey you take that gives you the inspiration, you just have to be looking properly.
HF: Has working in publishing helped or hindered your own photographic practice, and how do you find the balance?
JW: Hindered and helped. I was never a photographer that shot every day, sometimes I won’t pick up my camera for months, and I think there is a real stigma around this, especially at universities and colleges, that you should be shooting all the time every day. Yes, shooting more improves your skill, but I often find that giving myself a break and allowing time to pass before moving onto a new series has some of the biggest benefits. Working within publishing and design fills those gaps and allows me time to research and also to keep eyes on fresh photographers who are creating some amazing work.
HF: When deciding on whether or not to feature work, what are you looking for?
JW: I’ve been asked this before and it’s a hard question to answer because I look at photography as a photographer, but also a designer, an editor and a publisher. A lot of magazines and publications have a style or aesthetic they follow, and so you see a lot of ‘trends’ in photography especially with new fashion photographers, but with documentary, it’s very different. I won’t take notice of work that is clearly unethical or poverty porn. If the work has a strong narrative or there is clearly passion behind the topics then that’s enough to get me interested, the great thing about photography is that it doesn’t need to be a good image, it’s easy to make a good image, what’s harder is to make a good narrative. I would also consider that I look at photography as a document, so even if the work is maybe not as strong but hold value as a document then it’s worth looking at.
HF: Whose new work has impressed you recently?
JW: Jim Mortram’s Small Town Inertia – I believe him to be one of the most professional and ethical documentary photographers today! Truly inspiring work. To name a few others, Laurent Laporte, Ana Gabriela Crespo, Jack Flemming, Hannah Norton, Paul Lehr, Jordan Madge, Asmaa Waguih, Rahima Gambo – I really could go on!
HF: Who has been your favourite person to interview?
HF: We’re just starting to produce online content, which is really the industry norm now. How do you think the boom in online content is affecting print media, specifically in the world of photography?
JW: I worry about the quality of respect we give work online. I worry about the quality of respect we give to print. I am however biased on this opinion, as the company I am working on launching soon deals with this matter directly. I think the idea that print is ‘dead’ is actually a dead idea itself. There is still a boom in independent magazines and an appetite for well-made printed publications. I think that online content has made the process allot faster, I really don’t think it’s a good thing to have such a fast-paced industry online because that’s where we start to show a lack of respect to creators and features become almost meaningless. I think a lot of new independent magazines first mistake, the same mistake I made, is that they follow the ‘industry norm’. We can see that these systems we follow don’t work for creatives on any higher level than giving them a feature and some exposure and you end up with 20 to 30 magazines that all look the same with the same message to support artists, creatives etc., yet, new publications and magazines all follow these rules and systems because that’s what came before, we have real lack of radicalism within publishing and it’s become a very swamped liberalised place. I want to see a bit more of radical shift, online and in print.
HF: And finally, what are you working on at the moment?
JW: I’m working on the launch of a new publication and design studio that will be coming soon, I am proud to say it will not only offer free tools for photographers and creatives but it will act as a repository of information and useful software and programs for all sorts of creators. As for my photographic works, I am focusing on small-town industry and a new series called The Social will hopefully be ready over the next year, where I have been documenting my local sports and social club.