Eric’s Note: James Dodd an award-winning Sheffield based photographer and founding member of Statement Images – a UK based photography collective and co-editor of Street Reverb Magazine. I met James personally a few months back when I was in London, and have been a huge fan of his documentary and street photography. Out of all the projects he has done , the one I was most fond of was his “Olympic Dreams” project. To find out more about James and his project, read on!
Hello James, huge pleasure to have you on the blog. To start off, can you introduce yourself to our viewers?
Thanks Eric for taking the time to interview me (and my apologies for being late getting back to you with these questions).
How to describe myself? Well I’ll start with the easy stuff, I’m a photographer based in Sheffield, UK (the place where the Movie “The Full Monty” was set – that usually explains that).
I suppose I’ve been making photographs with some level of intent for around 4/5 years now, but photography has been something which has always been there for me from times when I’d be the family member taking the photos at special occasions when I was 9 years old.
You worked in mainly IT for your entire career. Describe how that transcends into your interest in street photography, documentary, and the photo community in general.
I got into IT because I loved solving problems and making things. It felt like it was the right thing for me to do at the time.
It took a while before I realised that photography was something I wanted to do. I was developing software for the financial industry and this was fairly successful (I ran my own company for 4 years whilst studying at university), but I became bored of the rituals, the lack of human contact and wanted to be out of the office (or my bedroom as it was also known).
I picked up a camera for a job where I was asked to catalogue a clients stock for a website (well, they asked if they knew someone who could do it and I figured I wanted a free camera, so I said I’d do it), and from that point on it never really left my side.
This is how I stumbled into street photography. It was what I’d do on my dinner hour and before and after university, sometimes instead of university and ultimately what I did when I decided I wanted to leave the IT world and my education behind me.
By this point I was talking to fellow street photographers on flickr after a friend of a friend pushed me in that direction, and it was on HCSP that I started talking to people who would later help shape the early part of my career by feeding me with valuable information and inspiration from photographers the world over.
I’d wonder aimlessly with a camera in hand aiming to capture something that caught my eye. As time went on I started looking at ways I could tell stories with my photography and I feel to some extent at least, that the street photography aesthetic and ways of working followed me.
I now knew that I wanted to use photography to tell stories and this is what led me onto the NCTJ (National Council for the Training of Journalists) Photojournalism course.
Photography became that unanswerable question, the problem that couldn’t be solved. It’s variable changed every time I looked through the viewfinder. It was never boring and it was always there for me. It was everything my past career wasn’t and exactly what I was looking for.
You were one of the co-founders of the Street Reverb Magazine and the founder of Statement Images. Tell us what kind of work went into starting both ventures, and how it has developed your understanding of being a photo editor.
Both ventures came about quite organically if I’m honest, out of frustration and to develop a platform for a voice and the work we liked.
Statement came about whilst I was in college. Myself and 4 other course members found that the direction we wanted to head in slightly different to that of the course so it was only inevitable that we would be grouped together… liked minds and all, we’d end up photographing similar material and later just planned it that way to cover projects as a group.
It was at first just a platform to voice our shared vision, but it also cemented the group to something semi official. From this we’ve grown, expanded in both the ways we work and who we work with.
After being a member of the HCSP flickr group community for a couple of years I found myself in the privileged position of helping run the forum after the old guard wanted to change things up a little.
Street Reverb evolved out of the frustrations we faced with HCSP.
We’d felt for a while that whilst the group had great potential anything we created on the Internet was ultimately at the whim of the platforms owners, which was yahoo and not the members, which made the group what it was.
The blog was the first step, it gave us the space to talk about stuff and take ownership of it as well as deliver the content to a wider non flickr audience. From here we almost became part of the real world, it allowed us to participate in festivals such as format in derby and the London Street Photography Festival.
One of the projects that you recently worked on which are one of my personal favorites is “Olympic Dreams” Tell us a bit more about what inspired you to start that project.
Olympic Dreams started as a project whilst I was studying on the NCTJ. We were sent out on a sports assignment and I thought I’d head down to the local swimming pool. I contacted a coach there and things were set in motion.
My first visit was with a few other photographers. We were just looking for a specific photograph to go with this assignment (something like creative use of flash) and nothing more really.
I got talking to the coaches and the kids, started finding more out about how their project was run etc. and I could see a story beginning to unfold in front of my eyes, so I just kept going back and getting deeper into it.
As time went on I didn’t just want to tell the single story of how funds were being spent here, and children were being trained there. No one would really care about that – plus it would end up being something where a couple of pictures at most would be sold and the story would mainly rely on words and I didn’t want to write or prescribe one way of thinking.
I started to look at it more abstractly and at the idea of posing questions rather than presenting answers. And that was really the starting point for the work as it is now.
Many of the shots are taken from quite unusual angles (both high, low, in the water, etc). How did you set up your shots, and what were some of the technical considerations you had to overcome?
Poorly lit rooms, colour balances all over the place, children who are fast and enter the water at different point with every jump as they are inexperienced and just developing their technique. Getting too close and getting equipment wet without any protection, being warned off of using flash by a young diver as it’s their first time they had tried this new move, nearly falling off the 10m platform with all my equipment, having to hold my breath for long periods of time, filling up a memory card whilst underwater and missing the shot… basically the project was completely full of issues I had to overcome. But the problem solver in me, the systems analyst kind of wanted this anyway as this is what kept me in photography.
The main way I could do this was just getting to know some of the kids a little more, getting them to trust me and develop some nods and signals between us when things like a flash wasn’t desired.
From a technical aspect tho, especially with the underwater shots the camera had to be set way up to 52,000 ISO with a shutter speed of around 1/125 and aperture of around f/5.6 (if I remember correctly). This helped get an exposure that was sharp and gave enough depth of field to capture the kinds somewhere in the middle of the frame!
Black and white, whilst also partly used to help convey the sense of a dream world, also helped massively in editing the images which were now heavy with noise and had about 5 different colour temperatures on them form the varied lighting at the pool side.
Describe the editing process and sequencing of “Olympic Dreams”. How much of the prowess was on your own, compared to getting feedback and critique from others?
I came up with the overall concept for the work. I wanted to concentrate on a sort of dreamscape, depicting what the kids would see as they slept rather than a literal reporting of what they do and who they are.
I researched and interviewed people to get a better understanding of it all, but whist I was doing all of this I was constantly speaking to fellow photographers (such as members of my collective, statement images) just to make sure I wasn’t wasting my time with what I was doing.
Once I got to the point where I felt I had enough images to begin to look at compiling some sort of essay I spoke to people about the narratives and the specific images and how they sequenced. Obviously I knew what I wanted to say, but given that I already knew this I needed to make sure people would get there with the pictures alone because, as I already mentioned, I didn’t want to write a load of copy to accompany this work, I wanted it to sit almost on its own.
For “Olympic Dreams”- what is your preferred medium for people to fully appreciate the series? How is the experience of seeing the images on a gallery wall vs on the computer?
Viewing the work online of on a computer was not really something I ever put much consideration into when I was shooting the work. I was always thinking about this dream world type scenario, where upon waking this wouldn’t seem as clear as they once did, that you’d come out of it with random images rather than a full coherent understanding of what the dream was.
It’d be dark and full of emotion etc. So when it came to exhibiting the work for the first time and I was lucky enough to be given a fairly large gallery space to do it in I knew exactly what I wanted to do.
I set off blocking off the windows and installing lightboxes on the walls. I wanted a room that was extremely dark but with little beacons of light which would become more apparent and clear as you approached them. The black of the images stayed black but the whites glowed with the light.
This is how I’d love everyone to be able to experience the work, but unfortunately it’s not really doable.
And as much as I loath to admit it, the closes you can get to this in your own home is switching off the lights and watching the images back on a computer screen.
What are some current projects you are currently working on? And what advice would you give to aspiring photographers who are interested in starting their own project?
At the moment, in between various assignments I’m concentrating on a few bodies of work, which include Sunday Morning Sales and some new pieces around the subjects of walkers, football fans and my home time Sheffield.
These are all subjects I have a great interest in and easy access to and this is the best piece of advice I could ever give to anyone. You don’t have to go off chasing photographs around the world, you could always be telling great untold stories on your doorstep, stories which you’ve experienced and are part of your life.
Tell us of one project you admire, and recommend that photographer to us and is there anyone you would like to give a shout-out to?
But if I had to single out any specific photographer at the moment for one who has had a great impact on my work of late it would have to be Simon Roberts.
Although you wouldn’t naturally think of him as a street photographer, has captured some truly remarkable street scenes over the past few years. I initially came to Simons work through motherland, which has some marvelous images that have a sort of quiet street photography aesthetic to them, and would definitely be worth looking at with fresh eyes with this in mind.
Simon’s work could be seen as more classical or formal photography, but I feel this is the type of photography which gets overlooked by many today who instead hunt for work which is heavy in aesthetic or forced even, when work like Simon’s I feel will have a greater historical significance.
This is something I could only wish my work had.