"I wasn’t a person who woke up and said photography is my passion,” recounts professional photographer Russell James on a sunny Wednesday afternoon. A rather inconsequential statement on the surface, the revelation is curious when read with the knowledge that this 55-year-old’s gig is being the exclusive photographer for all of Victoria’s Secret’s campaigns and shows.
James could have easily released his book's images on social media, defaulting to this decade’s standard practice of exploiting exclusive access by boasting about that access online. But he decided not to because, as he says, "It’s about curating the point of view of one person. People [will] either like that or not, but I appreciate hearing [and seeing] someone’s perspective, especially in this broader mashup of information that we receive.”
It follows, then, that the pique of artistry is not strictly achieved through the mastering of certain technical skills, a fact that became apparent to the photographer back in 1997 when he shot a now-iconic Sports Illustrated cover with Tyra Banks. James attributed the success of that photo, the first time a black woman appeared solo on the cover of the magazine, to his own naiveté. “They had hired a guy who had no preconceived ideas,” he recalls. “It never occurred to me, to be honest, until they said, ‘This is the first black woman to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated.’ That was a post-event wakeup call for me about the power of the image and how we have to use it responsibly.”
I am constantly reconsidering how I portray women in this particular environment. Is it empowering or exploitation?
He goes on stating that there could, potentially, be various degrees of inappropriate behavior, a common argument. “Some [people] I would say are devious and incredibly despicable and others tend to be, I certainly wouldn’t call them innocent but they tend to be of a lesser offense. We’re going to have to find out, Where do we set the boundaries? I think the pendulum swings all to one way right now and we have to find a healthy balance. But it’s necessary that [the pendulum] swings all that one way so that we can have a close look. So, while it makes a lot of people uncomfortable, it's healthy and necessary and part of the social evolution that we have to go through.” The thought circles back to what seems like James’s motto: Perspective is everything, an unsurprising point of view in and of itself. After all, he’s the guy with the camera.