Inspired: Behind the lens of Russell James

Russell James is an Australian photographer best known for capturing the world’s most beautiful women in exotic locations – think Victoria’s Secret models, Sports Illustrated covers and celebrity portraits. However, it was his upbringing in the isolated town of Derby, 1500 kilometers from Perth, that inspired his Nomad Two Worlds exhibition – the collaborative art project he created with Indigenous artists in Australia, America and Haiti.

Billabout’s photos from the Nomad Two Worlds exhibit in Los Angeles

RUSSELL JAMES, THE STORY BEHIND HIS GIFTED EYE

I left Australia when I was 24, travelling all over the world for six years before settling in New York City. I’ve spent most of my time in the U.S., but over the last few years I’ve started to reconnect with Australia in a way I’m comfortable with.

I love photography. When you’re looking through a lens, there’s a shape and a form. If you love it, you love it – it doesn’t really matter if you’re shooting a box of biscuits or a landscape. When I first started photography back in the late ’80s, I was on the brink of bankruptcy funding my passion. I would go to places like Paris, London and New York with my book [of photography], and mostly I was rejected because they’d say, “Well, what do you do? Do you do beauty? Are you a landscape photographer?” And I’d say, “I’m just a photographer.”

The break in my career in the United States was with Sports Illustrated, Victoria’s Secret, W Magazine and Ralph Lauren – so I accidentally fell into this mold of fashion and as a celebrity photographer. I don’t think I was appreciative of what a powerful vehicle that was at the time.

Have a peak at that world in this clip from ABC Kimberley’s “Australian Story” feature on Russell James, fashion photographer:

INSPIRED BY CULTURE

For me, the Nomad Two Worlds exhibition is about reconciling my commercial self with my artistic and personal self. In 2001, The Nomad Two Worlds project gave me a real issue to engage with and express through photography. When then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologized to the Australian Indigenous population in 2008, that was the precipitation to focusing on the project. I’ve since learned how the art world and the philanthropic world intersect.

There was a mate of mine who had a small gallery in Broom, Western Australia. He represented Clifton Bieundurry, a Walmajarri from the Central Kimberly region in Western Australia, and suggested that we meet. Clifton’s mother and immediate family gave me a very special and intimate connection to a culture, place and people I’d been living with all my life and just hadn’t realized. I’ve learned so much through Clifton and his family. We are extremely close now. Joey Alder, an elder in the area, and one of the most renowned Indigenous artists in Australia, has made a significant contribution to this latest exhibition.

In May, we’re having an artist’s retreat. A group of artists will stay outside of Perth for several days, working to discuss further collaboration and incorporating more parts of Western Australia and Australia as a whole into the exhibition. It’s about growth and connection to art.

INSPIRED BY MENTORS

Richard Branson [British entrepreneur, philanthropist and founder of the Virgin Group] has become a close personal friend. I met him through a promotional project with Virgin some years ago. I’ve spent a lot of time where he lives on Necker Island in the Bahamas, and seen how he surrounds himself with a very small executive team. He gives them a large degree of independence, and this way Richard can spend a lot of time on Virgin Unite, which leverages all his commercial brands on behalf of philanthropic endeavors – whether it’s a water or food program; about bringing awareness to another chronic condition. He takes his resources and keeps them successful commercially, but uses them for his philanthropic endeavors.

Sharen Turney, the president of Victoria’s Secret, is extraordinary. It’s a six billion dollar business. All people see is a supermodel underwear brand, but behind the scenes she spends an enormous amount of time and energy into improving the quality of life around these manufacturing sites. For example, in Sri Lanka they empower whole communities, building schools and community centers to make sure their commercial practice has a positive affect on the community.

INSPIRING OTHERS

The digital revolution has really empowered people to learn photography. People can mess it up and then try again, and that’s the best learning you can do. You can now follow photographers online through social media, and this can help to give you some direction. I would underscore this with traditional education. I took the path where my education was the street. Some people say, “Oh well, street creds are the best,” but my advice would be that education gives you more options.

Don’t expect it all to come together at once. A lot of people come to me and say they want to have the career I have – an opening in Berlin, the Nomad Two Worlds indigenous collaboration art opening in Los Angeles, and then shooting for a skin care product in New York. It doesn’t just happen like that

Find out what you do best, explore online and take your time. Don’t think you’re going to know even in the first year or two what it is that you like the most. Take time to explore the different pathways; then hone in on what you do best and use that as your building block.

— As told to Angela Ledgerwood, Billabout Swagman and contributing writer.

To watch ABC Kimberley’s “Australian Story” feature on Russell James in all his incarnations — photographer, artist, philanthropist — check out the full video here.

And be sure to also check out Billabout’s own coverage of the Nomad Two Worlds Los Angeles premiere.

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