Creativity Found

Philippa James – realizing her mental wellbeing was dependant on creativity, making photography her career and her artistic outlet

December 13, 2020 Philippa James Episode 6
Creativity Found
Philippa James – realizing her mental wellbeing was dependant on creativity, making photography her career and her artistic outlet
Show Notes Transcript

Phillipa James, photographer behind 100 Women of Oxford, dropped out of college, but returned to studies on an art foundation and on to moving image, which gave her a good, creative career in film and television. However, the film industry is not conducive to bringing up a family (at least when both parents are in it) so Philippa took on other roles while her children were growing.
Feeling despondent and mentally unwell, Philippa realized that she needed creativity in her life, but how would that materialize?
It didn't come in a flash of inspiration, and it took a few years for Philippa to realize what she really wanted to do (and was good at), with the help of a few harsh words from a friend!
Find out more about her ups and downs, and ups again.

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Music: Day Trips by Ketsa https://ketsa.uk/under Creative Commons License
https://freemusicarchive.org/music/Ketsa/Raising_Frequecy/Day_Trips

Artworks: Emily Portnoi emilyportnoi.co.uk

Other podcasts cited: A Small Voice

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Philippa James:

Hello.

Claire Waite Brown:

You have told me that you feel like you are back to square one creatively right now. We'll talk about your education and career later. But for now, can you tell me how you are exploring your creativity? For this episode, I'm chatting with Philippa James, who's photography exhibition 100 women of Oxford launched in March at tap social, in Oxford, before being cut short by you know what, in case you're listening in the future, this is 2020. In the second lockdown, we spoke over Zoom about her work in film and television, her move to Oxford, and how she made herself believe she was a real photographer. Hi, Philippa.

Philippa James:

Yes. So basically, to photography. I've been doing weddings for about 10 years. And this year, well, the end of last year, I delved deep into doing more personal work. And yeah, on a very exciting journey right now.

Claire Waite Brown:

Brilliant. Did you have a good experience of the arts as a youngster in your general life, and in your educational system?

Philippa James:

Yeah, I mean, I always had a camera. So there was that, but in terms of an education, I dropped out, yeah, I dropped out of college, I guess when I was 16, I think it was, so I don't know, kind of lost myself a bit and went in a different direction Then got a job in a pub and then decided, yeah, definitely, I just want to do something more creatively. I didn't know what it was then what I was into or anything, but I definitely was always drawn to kind of the arts of some some sort. And then yeah, I did an Art Foundation course, which I just loved. It was just amazing. And I don't know, anyone who's done an Art Foundation, who doesn't like it, like there's something... you know, I came from a background where I kind of wasn't in education. So it just was so freeing to be able to just explore, and just experiment and, you know, you're encouraged to kind of experiment and fail and experiment more. And, you know, it was a really good grounding. And I know, friends of mine who did it, you know, doing like fine art at GCSE or whatever. And it kind of it forced them to break their rules, you know, to, to colour outside the lines, and all that kind of thing. So the Art Foundation for me was absolutely incredible. And that was the stepping stone, which then meant I could go to university, which was never on the cards when I was younger at all. Quite the opposite, in fact, so my path definitely looked like it was going downhill. And definitely took took a turn creatively and you know, for the positive. So yeah, and then went to university, and initially was going to go and do graphic design. But, you know, in hindsight, looking at my work, yeah, there was no way I was going to do graphic design, and, you know, my interview, they were like, you know, you're very much moving image. That's what I was kind of really interested in. So it still wasn't photography. But, yeah, it was more like moving image, but you know, screen based, like time based media and stuff. So yeah, completely changed in my interview, and they brought in the teacher and took me on that course. So yeah.

Claire Waite Brown:

Wow. How did your career develop after university?

Philippa James:

And after uni, I went, I moved to London. Always wants to live in London. So yeah, so while I was at university, I kind of finished my main project early, and then, I got to work on Art Attack, and it was just brilliant. It was just so much fun. And so that kind of gave me more TV kind of experience. And then once I graduated, I worked on really low budget films to begin with, I guess, and then, you know, travelled quite a lot with with that. And then just worked in TV for about 10 years, something like that. And then always wanted to direct, and got some funding from Wales actually to write a feature film, which was the hardest thing I've ever, ever done and realised how words was definitely not me. So I guess at this point, you know, I'm always like playing with creativity, but hadn't really found my calling so to speak. Then I directed a short film, I always just wanted to direct I think direct TV or film or something. Near the end, I kind of I was directing old second unit directing a TV show. And then that's when I fell pregnant. So everything kind of completely changed. But I had no idea at the time that this was going to change. And then yeah, then soon after that, yeah, I left the industry Really. Which Yeah, did you know completely change.

Claire Waite Brown:

When you moved to Oxford, things changed in your life. Can you tell me more about that time?

Philippa James:

Yeah, so I guess... So Edith, my eldest, she was born in London, and then we couldn't afford to live there, like, you know, many others. I was brought up in the middle of nowhere. I always love city life, like I crave it. And my husband's got my in laws, w o live in North Oxfordshire So it was like, you know, the c mpromise, I wanted to s ill be in a city. So we came her , and because I'd had Edith and I kind of made the choice to lea e the TV industry. Because my h sband works in it as well, t e hours are really incredible, ou know, really, really de anding. So with both of us do ng it, I decided that, you kno , one of us should be kind of m re at home. And then we moved to Oxford, and then I changed y direction completely an just did childminding, which you know, at the beginning, it as actually really nice, becau e it was an opportunity or me to be with my daughter, an , you know, to be with other ch ldren was, you know, really good for her. And it was fun, you k ow, I got really involved in t e playgroups and, you know, did all things like that. But I d finitely feel like I did it f r too long, and I think in hinds ght, looking back, what t was doing was completely squi hing everything of the old me which happens when you bec me a Mum anyway, or can happen. Sorry. So there was kind of hat going on. And then I guess t e other side was, there was no reativity going on in my life. s a full time Mum, we left ondon so I was in Oxford, which as a brand new city. I didn't k ow anybody. The only kind of people I was meeting was, you know, other mums, which was love y and stuff. But by that oint, I felt like so much of me had been ripped away fr m working in the city and having this quite high flying job. an do you know what I mean, every hing was like, all go and, you now, I was writing scripts and doing like fun things, and y ah, it was Yeah, they were h rd times, I must say. And I don' think at that point, I reall pinpointed that the lack of cre tivity was driving me quite in ane. And I didn't realise actua ly, at that point how import nt the creativity was for e. Because Yeah, looking back r ally interesting. Most artists r creatives would say, it is heir sanity I guess. And I def nitely can definitely hand on m heart say that now. And so yea , so that's what brought us t Oxford. Yeah. And that was m kind of initial experience of it. So yeah, it definitely to k me a while to settle here.

Claire Waite Brown:

At what point were you able to understand or accept that you really needed creativity back in your life?

Philippa James:

It's really interesting chatting to you, and putting it all together and otherwise need to be honest. So I guess we had Betsy, who's my second child. And after she was born, that I think that was probably... I mean, it sounds like I was really depressed. And, you know, there was so many joyful moments as well. But at that point, after she was born, I think I did go to a pretty dark place. Yeah, I realised that I needed some support and help which, you know, I've never done and I never saw myself as someone who had mental health issues or anything like that. But I definitely thought, okay, these kids need me sane, and I need to get better. I remember really clearly just phoning up the doctors and just saying, right, I need to see someone now. And then went to the doctors and they said, you know, you can have this talk therapy. And in my head, it was just so big. And I was thinking like talk therapy for 20 minutes, this was like free on the NHS and that's not going to solve me. And it really was, again, just that stepping stone that really did help me. And through that period, it just started giving me strength and realising I need to do something. I need to actually leave childminding and actually really focus on, obviously, making money was, you know, we had to do that. We needed money. That's why I was childminding in at the beginning. So yeah, I definitely just then just found the strength and just put my business hat on, I was like, Okay, I need to do something that definitely serves my creativity, but also brings in money. So that was kind of like a priority. And I guess that was the motivation that really made me then look at photography. And actually, it wasn't my motivation, it was actually a really good friend of mine during that time. And at this point, I think I was gonna still do something with moving image. So I bought myself an SLR digital camera, before that I was shooting on film that you could record video on. And actually, that's, that's what you know, and I was going to do like little documentaries or something. I don't know, I was just making it up, but I'm definitely going to do something creative. And my very, very close friend Maki Yoshikura, who I always thank her for being brutally honest with me. And we went for a walk and, you know, I was very down and Edith, the toddler was running around and you know, had the baby and she honestly said, Look, your documentary work is absolutely rubbish. Like, it's just rubbish. It's not... And I, you know, I was like, broken. I was this broken shell at this point. And she was like, Look, you're really good at photography. Why aren't you doing photography, just start doing photography. And at that point, I think I shot her wedding, and I'd shot someone else's wedding. And I'm not doing wedding photographery. I was like a snob with it. And she was the one who kind of just literally kicked me up the bum and said, like, you can be in charge, like, but that's what you're good at. You've got an eye. You're good at it. You enjoy it, like what's your problem? And it really was that moment. And we were walking in London, and I remember it so clearly. So yeah, thanks, Maki, for just being honest. Honest friends.

Claire Waite Brown:

I love that story. Oh. So you continued with wedding photography after that point?

Philippa James:

Yeah, well, I say continued. By this point, I was, you know, a hobbyist. I've always done photography, always done bits and bobs, and I was only doing friends weddings, as the mate with the camera, you know, who knew what they were doing? And then a friend's colleague got in touch saying, "oh, you did our colleagues wedding, I wondered if you could do ours" and I was at this point still, obviously, Maki's conversation was still ringing in my head, but I still hadn't accepted that this was going to happen. And I was like, Look, I'm not a photographer. And they're like, yeah, we know, you're not a photographer. We've seen their pictures. And that's kind of what we like, we don't want the... and at this point, you know, when wedding photogaphy was still very, quite kind of traditional, you know, now it's very alternative. And I mean, wedding photography is so artistic and brilliant. But at that point, it was still not as alternative as it is now, should we say? Yeah, so they just wanted something different and they wanted not the norm. And so I had Maki's advice ringing in my head. And so you know, I said, Okay, if I do do this, I am doing it just my way, this is how I do it. I'm not a professional. So you know, I kind of gave myself permission to do it, my creative way, whatever that looked like, and they were just really supportive. And we came up with with a price and, and I went and shot it, and I bloody loved it. It was so much fun, being around people, like that's definitely my kind of thing. Constantly shooting and, you know, everyone there wanted to be photographed, like, you know, it's a brilliant day. So you're not like this weirdo trying to capture this, you know, moment, you're allowed to be there. You've got the permission to photograph everyone there. And you know, you've got all this artistic licence to do what you want, which, it was, incredible. And I was really pleased with photos and they were and yeah, just had then the buzz and the bug I guess. And then from then on, started taking it more seriously. I went on a workshop and Lisa Devlin who's down in Brighton. It's called the photography farm, which is, I mean, it was just the first step. It was about, I think 1000 pounds to do this weekend workshop which was a lot of money. Like, I was earning childminding money, you know, and it was just, it was just so much, but it was like, Okay, if I'm going to take this seriously, I need to take the step and start really, you know, approaching it more seriously, instead of it just now being a hobby. And doing that workshop definitely changed me and, you know, I'm still in touch with her now. And yeah, it was incredible. And so that those were the first steps of becoming a wedding photographer. And then, as Betsy was, you know, still little, I kind of set up that business. And it was fantastic. It was brilliant. And it's still... you know, I still do it now.

Claire Waite Brown:

Yeah, you must have been very happy to have been able to find something that pays, but that gives you that creative outlet that you discovered you were missing when you were feeling very down.

Philippa James:

Honestly, when I compare it, and even now, you know, there isn't, it sounds really cheesy, but there isn't a day that goes by that I'm not so grateful for the position I'm in, you know, I pinch myself to be to be this lucky. And in hindsight, again, looking back to, even in the film industry, which I really enjoyed. This even beats any of that. So it's almost like, I've come full circle, but like photography is definitely more me than film, which I wouldn't have known if I hadn't gone on the long journey, you know. So I've definitely found my definitely found my calling, like, there's no other... I can't imagine doing anything else, you know, photography's so me, you know, on so many levels, it's not just about the final print, it's just the relationship with people when you photograph them, be it weddings, or artistic or portrait or I love that relationship. And the camera kind of gives me that, what's it called? Like, access to people, which I just love, you know, and the more I do it, and now, I'm getting more into personal projects and stuff, and just the whole world of it that I'm yet to explore, which is so exciting.

Claire Waite Brown:

Which leads us nicely on actually... access to people. Recently, you have made a decision to move in a more artistic and less commercial direction, not exclusively, obviously, how have you come to that decision? And how easy has it been for you to actually do that?

Philippa James:

Yes. So I don't think anything's easy at the beginning. So yeah, so I started my project, 100 women of Oxford, which was kind of my first, I put my toe in the water, I wanted to do a personal project, I wanted to get to know the city more. You know, I've been here for about five, six years or something like that. I want to get to the city more I want to know who lived here. I wanted to know what other women lived here. I wanted to meet other women. You know, there was lots of reasons why I started this project that, you know, it's a personal project, it has become, you know, a great success now. But I mean, at the time, it was just me exploring something. So I did start it four years ago. I think I've done photography for about four years at this point. That is wedding photography, sorry. And I think after four years in wedding photography, you do, it's quite common, a lot of wedding photographers feel it, you get a bit itchy. And that doesn't mean you know, but people do start going in a little bit directions or just, you know, just exploring further or going deeper into their practice, whatever that might look like. And for me what it was, I just wanted to do, like a project outside of weddings, I guess. And so this is what I started, like, I loved it. And so the idea was that I was just going to meet most of them. I think all of them were going to be strangers or people I didn't know very well, because I wanted to get out of my bubble, I wanted to get out my safe zone. So that's how it started. I was just meeting like, like incredible women with incredible stories. And then I'd meet someone and they'd say, Oh, you should speak to so and so, they would be really interested in this project. And then I'd go meet them. And then I'd just be blown away by their story or their experience or just who they were or stuff that they shared or just their minds, which is amazing. And then I think I photographed about 10 women. And I was buzzing from it. Don't get me wrong, I felt this real buzz like there was so much excitement. I just felt really... after shooting 10 I was like, Oh my god, like these women are incredible. How am I going to... who might kind of be the one who facilitates 100 voices, like, I don't even know my own voice. These women are you know, they really know who they are. They're so inspiring. Who am I to... I don't know, I just felt really lost and really small, and all of a sudden back to square one, you know, I don't know anything and all of these insecurities came in and I was faking it and all the rest of it. And so I'd literally put it to bed and busied myself with my wedding photography. And, you know, really, like, worked on the marketing and the business, you know, which was fantastic. And you know, that became quite successful, which was brilliant. There's always good things that comes out of things. But, yeah, and then I think four years later, I decided it was the right time to kind of, you know, just pull your socks up, sort it out, go back in there because it is scary, but you're only going to learn by doing this and then that's when I went back in and finished it this year, the beginning of this year.

Claire Waite Brown:

So do you think there was a specific reason that you were able to reengage with it at that time.

Philippa James:

Yeah, I'm not sure. I think from kind of starting it and stopping it. And then in between those times, I was given like, a few kind of teasing experiences, I guess, which led to me to actually get the project done. One of them was, I got invited to go over to Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark, which is this incredible, like, absolutely mind blowing incredible gallery space, I got asked to kind of teach some workshops alongside the photographer Dijkstra, who actually was one of the first photographers I used to follow years and years and years ago. So this was a complete honour to be there. And I think I was there for about five days. And if you're there as a lecturer or as an artist, you get to stay in the artists quarters, which are like on the beach, and it's attached to the museum, so you kind of live and breathe all this artwork. It's just, you know, an incredible experience. And yeah, I was extremely nervous. I've never done anything like this before. And I guess that started introducing me to the art world, again, something which I was removed from, you know, my head was all in weddings and business and that kind of stuff. And this was like, gradually, wooing me, I guess back to kind of projects and artwork, and why people make art and why it's important. So it was kind of bringing me back to that way of thinking. I mean, it's easy to maybe realise that now, but at the time, I didn't know any of this. And then I think when I came back, I did put one of the prints that I'd photographed, I'd photographed Clara. And I put one of her prints into like an open call, I think it was for Oxfordshire artweeks. And the jam factory in Oxford had this open call where everyone like put in like a piece of work. And so I just again, just took my you know, put my toe in the water, kind of took that in. So I think I was slowly warming up to the idea of getting my hands dirty with this project again. But I just had to do it gradually. I just wasn't... it was something I had to grow into, I think... she says, and then once I'd really decided, and I'm a bit like this, my husband always tells me off. Once I decide I'm going to do something, that's it. There's no stopping me and I go hell for leather, and I kind of live and breathe a project or whatever it is that I'm doing. And so once I'd kind of decided, I went and had a chat with Tess, who owns Tap Social movement in Botley and said, Look, I've got this project, I've only shot 10 women, there's 90 to go, it'd be really cool if we had an exhibition in here and you know, put it up for International Women's Day 2020. Great. That sounds great. You know, so it was it was almost like giving yourself a deadline, making yourself accountable to someone else. And then there's no chance of, you know, going backwards, you have to go forward and you have to do it. I mean, I wouldn't say that's the right way to do it. But for me, that's what happened, and that's the way I have to do it. Because also this project is 100 portraits. You know, it could have lasted years, you know, there's a photographer actually in London called Jenny Lewis, and she's doing 100 portraits in Hackney. And I think she's got... I think she's been on it for a couple of years, you know, and she shoots 300 and then chooses 100. Whereas, I decided to do this project. I had three months basically, yeah, three months, or just over three months to find the women take the photograph, you know, meet, record it and turn it into a print and put it on the wall. So it's very, very, you know, to shoot 90 women in that small amount of time. But again, it was just, I definitely not do that again. But it was definitely... what was incredible is, I was living and breathing it, which was so exciting to do that, and especially because weddings go throughout the year, but I knew I had this space where there was no weddings. So I knew I could do it. And I just think thank God I did you know, and it definitely changed things around for me, you know, not in terms of success or anything, just in terms of the way I now approach art photography and approach my kind of more Creative Photography moving forwards, definitely.

Claire Waite Brown:

So having your work, your personal work exhibited, as obviously contributed to your understanding of what you want to be doing now. Is that true?

Philippa James:

Yeah. It couldn't be... Yeah, I mean, absolutely. And I think... so tap social was absolutely fantastic. It was I mean, it was a massive party on international Women's day and I think 500 people came and you know, it was a real celebration on so many levels for me, for the women, for Tap for like, you know, and obviously international Womens day. And then obviously lockdown happened. And then when it got picked up by the north wall through photo Oxford festival, that definitely has given me just like, the contacts and networks, the way they talk about the work, you know, it's just gone to a different place now. And they've really, like mentored me really, I think, my journey from being at the north wall, I definitely have developed as a as an artist, like, absolutely. Whereas, you know, up at Tap, it was still very party party, you know, and it was like such a big celebration was and when it went to an actual Art Gallery, I don't know, it just had this different tone about it. And the way they approached me as an artist, we were talking about before, you know, fake it till you make it type of thing. Like, you know, before that I was very giggly about an artist or photographer, you know, and, and actually, yeah, you know, I am like, this is where I'm going. I'm at the beginning. Absolutely. But that doesn't mean anything... it just gave me the confidence and has given me the confidence, rather, to actually really see this isn't just one project, this isn't just a one off personal hobby on the side of my weddings. This is actually something which I'm definitely going to pursue now, you know, and to begin with weddings will be a little bit on the side. I mean, obviously financially, and I really do enjoy them as well, you know, but but in terms of the future, I definitely want to pursue more kind of art projects, is that were they're called? Personal projects? Commissioned projects? Not sure why they're called... documentary projects. And yeah, I've definitely got a lot more of that. And I'm just yeah, I'm definitely at the beginning and very, very excited to explore that side.

Claire Waite Brown:

What plans do you have for the future near or far?

Philippa James:

Oh, so I guess the next step is possibly a book of 100. Women. I mean, everyone has been talking about that it should be a book. And, you know, and I know, it should, it's not that I disagree. It's just, you know, typing into how to make my first book, you know, it's at the very beginning of knowing how to do this and what to do. So I've met an art historian, actually from the north wall, and she's going to, like write the introduction to it and stuff. So we're just at the very, very, very early stages of something. And I think it would be a nice... it would make a lovely book, and it would be a nice piece of history for Oxford, at least. So yeah, so it'd be, you know, just a small run, the ball is rolling slowly on that. And then, I guess my next step is, I've got another project in mind, which is Oxford based, again, because I definitely feel like there's a lot for me to explore in Oxford. But before I kind of delve into that project, I think what I want to do is kind of just experiment a little bit with my camera a bit more, the 100 project was shot in a style, which is, you know, quite a formula, each woman was photographed in their house in front of a window, a little bit like a bride, you know, when she's getting ready, you know, formula that I was very confident with very comfortable with. And really, that project was more about the access and me meeting and listening and, you know, learning. The photographs are beautiful, but you know, the photographs didn't necessarily push me creatively. The project did, if that makes sense. So I guess what I'd like to do next is kind of develop my kind of my photography skills, or, you know, that side of it, and then approach it into more of a documentary way. Sorry, that sounds quite rambling. But, yeah, that's kind of a bit of development time, I think is what I what I'd like to do, and not rush into the next project. Like last time, but I definitely feel confident that there is definitely another project, which I wouldn't have said before, you know, so there's definitely another project coming up, but it's not going to be rushed. And I want to experiment more with with kind of the, the photograph, I guess, yeah.

Claire Waite Brown:

There are many, many podcasts out there. It's difficult to know where to start. So for each episode, I asked my guest for their recommendations, and you're welcome.

Philippa James:

I highly recommend, am absolutely obsessed at the moment with A Small Voice: Conversation with Photographers, by Ben Smith, who's a photographer. It's just lovely. And he has really long depth interviews with a diverse range of photographers all over the place, and just talks about their projects or what they're doing, past projects, future projects, and news, things like that. And yeah, I listen to it all the time. And if and when I go running, that's when I plug in, it's one thing that motivates me to keep going, so, yes, I highly recommend it.

Claire Waite Brown:

Fabulous. Thank you. How can people connect with or contact you?

Philippa James:

So Instagram is @PhilippaJames, and my website is well, I've got two websites. The art website is PhilippaJamesphotography.com/art, which is where you can see kind of my new more personal work, I guess, which is up and coming. And then obviously my weddings is just PhilippaJamesPhotography.com

Claire Waite Brown:

brilliant. Yeah, no, that's it. Thank you. I'm not doing anything. I'm just sitting there smiling. Creativity found is an open stage arts production. If you're listening on Apple podcasts, please feel free to subscribe, rate and review. If you would like to help fund future episodes, you can buy us a coffee. Visit ko-fi.com/creativityfoundpodcast. If you found your creativity as an adult, and would like to talk to me for future podcasts, drop me a line at Claire@openstagearts.co.uk Instagram or Facebook @creativityfoundpodcast