James Appleton: How never to give up

The Tough guy challenge competitors

Professional photographer James Appleton has a unique approach to photography. As a world-class endurance racer he possesses a drive and determination few others could match. Here he reveals how he applies the same attitude and dedication to taking pictures. By Geoff Langan.

Trying to arrange an interview with James Appleton has been difficult. He keeps a busy schedule. A month after telephoning him, I caught up with James in Bristol, where he gave me some precious time out of his day. The previous day he had left his home in Cambridge to drive 60 miles to Londonfor a lecture by travel writer Jan Morris, who had been The Times correspondent on the 1953 expedition that conquered Everest. James’s grandfather, Michael Ball, was team doctor on an expedition the following year when Edmund Hillary went back to explore to the east of Everest.

After the lecture James drove a further 80 miles to Stonehenge, getting there around midnight, and photographed it beneath the stars. He then drove 43 miles through the night to Glastonbury Tor, getting there around 4am, and started to photograph a time-lapse sequence of the moon and stars moving behind the tor. After an hour and a half’s sleep, he woke before dawn to photograph the tor at first light. James then drove 17 miles to Yeovil and spent the morning photographing a house fora company that specialises in building traditional oak-framed homes.

What’s keeping him awake? “The need to get places and do things,” he replies. James is used to having little sleep. On a trip to Iceland, he had 10 hours’ in four days. “By the end of it, my mind was ina strange place. I was happy there (in my mind), but I knew that Ineeded to sleep, and that I needed to keep doing what I was doing.”

I first came across James after watching the extraordinary film Tough Guy 453(go to www.filmtank.co.uk to see a trailer). It is the story of his attempt to win the annual Tough Guy Challenge after coming second on three occasions.

Tough Guy (www.toughguy.co.uk) is described as ‘the world’s safest, most dangerous taste of mental and physical pain, fear and endurance’. More than5,000 competitors from around the world take part in the race, which is held in January or February on a 600-acre farm in Staffordshire, often in freezing conditions. Along with a cross-country run, competitors are expected to scramble 70 metres under barbed wire, wade half a mile through freezing muddy water, crawl through tunnels submerged under water and risk burns by walking across planks above a field of fire. Tough Guy 453 co-director Michael Howard of Film Tank described James as one of the most extraordinary people he had ever met. Michael was making a film about therace, then after meeting James, decided to change the main focus of the film to tellhis story. The film follows James’s relentless determination to win one of the world’s most mentally and physically punishing races. The outcome is nail biting to the very end. I won’t spoil it by givingthe result, but I encourage anyone who is interested in witnessing the raw tenacity of the human spirit to see Tough Guy 453.

James has been a professional photographer (which he defines as getting paid for his photography) for three years but has been working exclusively as a photographer for only nine months. Although he says that he could have stayed as an amateur and been happy taking photographs, he would not have had enough time to achieve the level to which he aspires. “I had a job in a shop, Mountain Warehouse, and was working my way up the ranks, but it started to detract from the time that I could have been taking photographs. I had the ideas and I knew about things that were going on andI really wanted to be there. I began to realise that I could make a living at it ifI did it more and pushed it more. Then I decided that I wanted to make a career out of photography because I enjoyed it.”

James has no formal photograph training or assisting experience. “I just looked around; at magazines, at online sites and learned from practising and from photographers I admire.” His photographic work is divided between wedding and landscape photography, and he claims to love both, but James ignites with passion when he talks about his landscape work. On location he travels and sleeps in a tiny Suzuki Carry which he says is just big enough to lie down in. Wherever James is, he gets up before dawn to photograph the sunrise “when the light is at its best.I research my locations beforehand by looking at images online of the location I’m travelling to. I refine that search to places that I think have potential and then looka bit closer and see where the best places might be at sunrise or sunset, which way to face, what time of year it is and what the weather conditions are likely to be. I then choose a place from which to photograph. The one thing that I have learned is that you have to plan.”

James has had a camera for as long ashe can remember. He was influenced by his father, an “enthusiastic amateur” whose photographs were all around the family home. He says his reason for becoming a photographer came from his own competitiveness. When he decided to go on a road trip to the west coast of America, James asked his parents for a FujiFilm S900 with a 24-300mm lens. He had it set in his mind that if he was going to do the trip, he wanted some good photos to show. He came back with about four or five that he thought were really good, andanother 140 that he thought were rubbish.

He learned from his mistakes on that trip; trying to get too much into the frame, always placing the horizon in the middleof the frame, not paying attention to thelight, often shooting at midday whenthe light was flat. He wanted to understand why some photographs looked betterthan others when each one was equally impressive to him when he took them.

Deciding that he wanted to become a better photographer, James started reading magazines and submitting photographs to online forums for feedback and advice. He recognises his own competitiveness when he says: “I’m the kind of person who will follow it through as much as I can. If I want to be good at something, I find out how I get good at it, then I go do it.” I wonder if this isa common trait in his personality. James smiles and says: “Yeah, it probably is applicable to a lot of other things that I do, like Tough Guy. It’s just wanting to be good at the stuff I’m interested in.” I ask how he did at Cambridge University, where he studied Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at Girton College. “A first,” he answers coyly and somewhat predictably. “If you want to achieve a certain level, then you have to put in the effort.” When I ask James if he recognises defeat, he answers: “Yeah, but I use it as a driver to do better next time.”

Photography is clearly important to him. “It’s how I define myself. Everyone needs something that they can be proud of. I need something that I can put out in front of me and say ‘this is what I am capable of.’” The names might not be household, but James cites Mark Adams, Tom Mackie, Galen Rowell, Art Wolfe, and Michael Fatali as major influences on his work. James admires the epic proportions, the careful planning and precise execution of these photographers’ work. I ask how he would like to be considered. “I’m still deciding. If you want to be recognised as a landscape photographer, you have to be doing itfull time to get those jaw-dropping shots that make you memorable. It’s not conducive to settling down and having a family.” James has a girlfriend, but“not the tied down in a legal sort of way.”

So what’s the plan? “At the moment I’m trying to work out this ideal where I shoot a wedding at the weekend, have it online by Monday evening, then get on a plane and go somewhere (to take photographs) and be back for the next wedding “In that way the weddings pay for the travel and the travel pays for itself through online photo libraries.” James maintains that the opportunities to make a living as a travel photographer are greatly reduced by the huge number of amateurs who take one or two great photographs in a year, which satisfies the majority of the marketplace.

He describes the start of his career as lucky, yet also somewhat unfortunate. He received a small inheritance after his grandmother died which enabled him to buy some professional equipment and travel to Iceland and Norway to photograph landscapes. He bought a Canon EOS 5D with L Series lenses. Although it didn’t earn him any money, it confirmed that photography was what he wanted to pursue. “It put me on a path that made me believe it was possible.”

He had been building a steady list of clients as well as photographing the occasional wedding. The first was for his sister, for which he received a flashgun instead of payment. “The best way to get more work is by having a great work ethic, enjoying what you do and being good at what you do.” He received five bookings from one wedding alone and believes that the experience of shooting weddingsis worth its weight in gold.

How did he know that his work was good enough for him to become a professional? “That’s a difficult one. It’s impossible to get an objective opinion from internet forums, because people usually want you to say something positive about their work in return. The best way is either to work as an assistant for a professional, or take your work around to clients. If they are willing to hire you on the strength of your work, and you can continue to produce the results, then you are good enough. It is vital to have clear direction and focus in your work.

You have to know where you are targeting your business and where you are going with what you are doing. It’s nouse wandering around hoping it will all fall into place. It just won’t! Play to your strengths and use your contacts.”

So far during our conversation, James has spoken with enthusiasm about his landscape and his wedding photography. I wonder which he prefers. “I can’t decide,” he says, “it’s everything. What gives me the buzz is when I have an idea in my head, a kind of creative impulse, and I know the camera is a tool to get an image that satisfies that creative desire within me that started as a thought in my head, then there’s a leap inside me that says ‘Yes, that’s it!’” James says he gets that feeling when he photographs humorous observations at a wedding, and when he is confronted by a stunning waterfall in Iceland; anywhere that he can produce an image which he believes can do justice to the emotions that he felt about it.

He finds photographic work by searching the areas he is interested in, and where he feels there is a need that he can supply. These are mainly national publications and local magazines. He admits that this can be hard and not always rewarding work. He was fortunate enough to have been in Iceland when the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted and he came back to the UK with a photograph of the Northern Lights over a volcanic eruption with snow-capped mountains in the background. He contacted national papers offering it to them, but their response was lukewarm.

I am trying to understand the man in front of me. He has been travelling and photographing for most of the past 24 hours. For the past hour he has toyed with a piece of chocolate cake on the plate in front of him and sipped his coffee. James seems relaxed and speaks with a steady, measured tone. He is eloquent and answers my questions with clarity and focus. He has fine features, his physique is tanned and lithe, yet his hands are rough and worn. He has confidence without trace of conceit.He seems as aware of his capabilities as he is of his limitations, and comfortable with both. He denies that he is a perfectionist, preferring instead to describe himself as being happy with who he is, but still striving to be better than what he is.

“I didn’t have the same high opinion of myself as other people did until recently. I’m not quite the person that other people think I am. Maybe that’s too honest. I thought they had this image of me that was not real. Some people see me as an absolute machine. This means that I am always fighting with myself to live up to that image.” James realises that he is both determined and stubborn, and that patience is something he has had to learn. “People often say ‘I wish I was as driven as you,’ but personally I don’t feel driven. I just do the things I want to do, because I want to do them. Ambitious is probably a better word.” When I ask James if he has a plan in his life, he fires back: “Definitely not!”

When it comes to defining his work, James says: “With weddings it’s a case of thinking it through. Not just going outside, standing the bride and groom beside each other and going ‘click’. It’s about interesting lighting and attention to small details. It’s not just artistic, it’s reportage, as well as making them look their absolute best.” When discussing his landscapework, James becomes more animated. “It’s the dramatic light, the epic scale. I like things going on and a lot of movement.” He says he is attracted to strong elemental forces in his landscape photography. His degree in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic introduced him to the Celtic belief in liminal zones, which James describes as ‘in-between’ places.

He elaborates: “In Celtic and Anglo-Saxon mythology these are places that have a magical dimension to them; the sea shore, the edge of a lake, twilight. Everything that was magical would happen at these ‘in-between’ places. They were places of change, doors to other worlds, a bridge to the afterlife. These are places I am drawn to. My dream assignment would be a book on northern Europe; Scandinavian landscapes,fjords, glaciers, snow-capped mountains. It’s where I feel most at home.”

We say our goodbyes and James casually tells me that he is going to drive 120 miles to the Plymouth Volksfest, where a 69-year-old man with inoperable tumours is seeing his final wish come true – to perform as a rock star on the main stage. James will document the event.

After that, he plans to make the short trip to Dartmoor where he will sleep in his van and be ready to photograph the following day’s sunrise. He will then drive a further 66 miles for a commission to photograph a house in Falmouth. After that he plans to do a two-hour bike ride, get some food, then drive 360 miles back to Cambridge, stopping at the Avebury stone circle in Wiltshire for more photographs.

I feel exhausted listening to his schedule. I warn James the traffic on the M5 going south is usually busy at this time. “That’s okay,” he says, “I believe everything works out as it’s supposed to.”


This feature is from the August issue, back issues can be ordered by calling 01858438832 or emailing photographymonthly@subscription.co.uk

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