At school, James Vellacott wasn't very academic, but he did enjoy the photography club and after learning the basics, left school to work in a photographic shop in Oxford. After several conversations with local photographers, he joined the Oxford Journal as a staff photographer. Eventually, after working for several other newspapers and the South West News Agency, James joined the Daily Mirror where he's worked as a staff photographer for the last fourteen years.
He can be asked to photograph anything and everything from celebrity shoots to “morbid treasure hunts” where plenty of door-knocking and asking questions to chase murder leads are involved. But one thing he doesn't do is paparazzi work.
“There are lots of paparazzi photographers. Some don't know what they're doing while others are just trying to live.”
Ten or fifteen years ago James could go to a photo call where there would only be a few photographers who would all agree to use a certain lens and set positions so everyone could get a good shot. Now photographers are there, waiting three hours beforehand and James often finds that the paparazzi are right on-top of the scene.
President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Gordon Brown outside number 10.
Taken by James Vellacott.
“Some of the guys have done this job for a while, they know how to use a camera and are quality photographers. The others are the type of people who stuff a camera up Prince Harry's nose to provoke a reaction and it's a terrible way to work. We (press photographers) try to arrange things and stand on the opposite side of the road out of the way. We all know each other and look after each other. We don't share pictures but will make space for each other.”
James didn't take great pictures over-night. A lot came with experience, building his contacts and really making his own luck. You have to be a bit pushy in this industry and prepared to start at the bottom and work your way up.
“What you need to do is get some local experience then go to the nationals, who will pay you the same as the local papers but you will be getting valuable exposure as more people will see your work. Working for the agency gave me valuable experience too. It allowed me to learn how to shoot in a variety of ways as the broadsheets and tabloids want pictures in different formats. Tight, right and up-right is the way for me now with big bold pictures, lots of colour and shots which are tight in frame.”
Knowing how to take a good picture is just a small part of James' job. Things can happen at a seconds notice and you need to be able to jump into a situation and automatically get on with it. The Mirror rings James the evening before or that morning to tell him, 'there's X event going on can you be there?' Or, 'we have a shoot on in the studio at X time we need you in'.
“I get very little notice though. It's not like fashion, I only have a few hours not days.”
The luxury of time is something which James saw disappear when film went out of favour. Before then, he would shoot in the morning then spend the afternoon processing his photographs. Now he just finds somewhere with wi-fi, sends the image over to the office and starts work on something else. He also has the trouble of competing with the many news agencies that exist now. Reuters for example could be working for 3-4 different newspapers and some of their images will go into all the papers so James must take images which are twice as good as theirs. He also has the public to contend with too.
Taken by James Vellacott.
“I covered the G20 protests and there were lots of citizen journalists. Nearly everyone had a digital camera, everyone is a photographer now.”
Something James has started doing, which is keeping him ahead of the game is video. A project he started working on just before Christmas and it's growing into a success.
“I've done video for a couple of years and after some campaigning I got hold of a video camera and we just waited to see how the viewing figures would go. I tried the EOS 5D Mk2 last year, was impressed with it and when I started my blog I decided to incorporate video into it. I took the camera out to Afghanistan and the viewing figures were coming in. It's more work and it's early days but I really do think it's the way things are going.”