No mobile phones, no electricity, just a camera and some good waves… James Bowden likes nothing better than venturing out into the distant wilds. He talks the allure of photographing people, having Finisterre ambassador Noah Lane as a travel companion, and the camaraderie of cold water.
True North Photographer | James Bowden
4 min read
Photographs by James Bowden
Image by Maeva Cushla
Is photography in your blood?
I first picked up cameras from my grandfather; he was a super-keen amateur photographer. When I was young I explored all his equipment – he taught me the basics. I got more passionate about it when I got into surfing and body boarding years ago. Then I started travelling a lot, surfing. That's when the passion really started; I wanted to document all those places. Then I went to college and did a photography A-level.
Did you carry on studying after that?
No, not at all. I had an idea that I was going to university at some point, but wanted to take a few years out to travel, so took a couple of gap years. Those lasted a lot longer than I thought – five or something! Eventually I got a place at Falmouth and then, again, I deferred to travel. Then I deferred again. By then, I’d started getting a bit published here and there. I spoke to the course leader and he said, "Well, if you’re getting work, just see how that goes. There's always a place if you want it." But I never went.
Who has inspired you?
Mickey Smith has always been a big inspiration for me. I was really into body boarding back then. I always kept a close eye on what he did and got to know him well, and he's always been really encouraging. And then as I focused a bit more on lifestyle, all documentary photography and the classics. The goal is to make someone feel something when they see a picture. So anyone who does that inspires me.
What else do you like to shoot, other than surf?
People. People are always the subject; I love shooting portraits. Sometimes I do a more formal portrait, someone standing there. But generally I want to put them in their situation, in their environment, or put them in some kind of landscape that's natural to them.
“If you meet someone, it’s so much better if you have a bit of a connection before you start hammering away, taking pictures. Make them feel comfortable, talk about things you have in common. Even if you can’t speak their language, have a laugh, then slowly bring the camera into it.”
I wouldn't go straight into a new situation taking loads of pictures. I'm definitely more of an observer and a chatter. If you meet someone, it's so much better, for them and for you, if you have a bit of a connection before you start hammering away, taking pictures. Making them feel comfortable and just talking about things you've got in common. Even if you can't speak their language, have a laugh and a connection, and then slowly bring the camera into it.
For me, if there's no pressure, I take much better pictures – just observing and being part of it. Letting people naturally behave how they want to. I always find that's when I get the best stuff.
What's it like travelling with someone like Noah Lane?
He's one of the best. He’s so humble and gentle – especially when you’re going to new and sensitive places; he's super respectful and just never steps on people's toes. And obviously he's a very good surfer and looks good whatever he does. A good subject, a good travelling companion and a good friend.
Where have you guys travelled to?
We've done some pretty good trips. We went to the Azores a couple of times, and then Cape Verde and Scotland quite a few times. And Norway and Nicaragua.
Does that relationship make for better photographs?
The better the connection you have with someone and the more they understand how you work (and the more you understand how they work and what they like), the better and easier the photos. You're more relaxed around each other. If you have a relationship with a surfer, you're travelling with them, you know how they're going to approach waves, you know where they're going to be. So you have a bit of foresight into what they're going to do next.
“I enjoy having a bit of lifestyle, landscape, portrait and shooting a story. You can put all those pieces together. That’s what I’ve always got in mind when I’m shooting, as opposed to one photo that says everything.”
If you could choose one thing to shoot for the rest of your life, what would it be?
I think my favourite thing to shoot is surf travel because it's so broad. It covers all aspects for me. I really enjoy shooting in the water. I love to surf, so that helps. Then you get other things, a bit of lifestyle, landscape, portrait. I really enjoy having a bit of all of that; you can put all those pieces together into a story. That's always what I've got in mind when I'm shooting, as opposed to one photo that says everything.
Any standout memories over the years?
Oh God, there are so many. One was an idea that I pitched to someone and it came through; I got trains from Wales to Hong Kong and shot it as a story. That was amazing, just doing that on my own over a month, travelling and having a story to shoot.
Some of the trips I've done with Noah have been really good, like the Azores. They were tricky and hard work; lots of hiking and eventually getting really good waves, feeling like you're at the end of the world in a tiny little village we had to walk an hour to. No mobile reception, no electricity. We did a shoot out there and then hung out for another five or six days on our own, staying in a cabin and waiting. It was so nice being disconnected.
Generally, going to really remote places and getting a bit uncomfortable definitely gets my juices flowing.
“Feeling like you’re at the end of the world, in a tiny little village we had to walk an hour to. No mobile reception, no electricity. Staying in a cabin and waiting. Going to super remote places and getting a bit uncomfortable definitely gets my juices flowing.”
Speaking of uncomfortable, what about freezing water?
I don't find it that uncomfortable. I find it actually way more pleasurable. There are loads of little things you can do to make it comfortable. Everyone has their own little technique to keep warm, comfortable and for it not to be a struggle. Especially on those early mornings when it's freezing and you just want to stay in bed. As long as you do your little routines that keep you comfortable and dry – wearing good clothes, some geeky outdoor gear and obviously an amazing wetsuit – then you're never that worried about it.
Anywhere that's freezing cold or has higher latitudes generally has less people. That's one of the major draws. And there's a bit more camaraderie with the people you do meet, because you're all out there doing it and you feel like you're working for something. Also the higher the latitude, the lower the sun. That quite often makes for magic light. Maybe it only happens for five minutes in a week or something like that, but when it happens it's amazing.
You won the Monster Children photo competition. Did anything change for you after that?
Not really! I just put a few pictures in to see what would happen. I didn't even know that I'd got shortlisted, so I was pretty shocked that I ended up winning. There are loads of photography competitions, but I really like that one because anyone can enter. The most well-known professional photographers in the world, or your old mate down the street who just picks up a camera. Everyone can take an amazing photo, and I like the idea that it levels the playing field. We went on a really nice holiday to Indo with the money, so that was good!
What's the most important thing photography has given you so far?
Meeting some really amazing people. Even if it’s a commercial shoot in London, you always end up meeting likeminded, interesting people from all walks of life. I always find it funny because when I first started photography I'd travel to take photos and surf. Now, taking photos allows me to travel. There are so many places that I never thought I'd possibly go. Photography has made that happen.
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