Q&A with James Braund

4 November 2013 James Braund

Q&A with James Braund

The ‘Vendor Profile’ page is one of the most popular sections of our magazine. Since 2003, many of the vendor portraits have been taken by the very talented James Braund. Here James gives tips on portrait photography, explains what he’s learned from Big Issue vendors and fills us in on all the fancy stuff he does outside his work with The Big Issue.

Which portrait photographers do you admire?

Some of the portrait photographers I’m drawn towards include Nigel Parry, Rankin, Platon, Yousuf Karsh, Richard Avedon and Arnold Newman. I like the reportage of Alex Webb, Martin Parr, Trent Parke and Henri Cartier-Bresson to name but a few.

Do you have any favourite quotes about photography?

This quote by TS Eliot has nothing to do with photography, but I like it: “Most of the trouble in this world is caused by people wanting to be important”.

You’ve said before that, with portrait photography, sometimes you only have a few seconds to make a connection with the subject. How does this work?

We tend to subconsciously assess each other a little hastily – whether that’s accurately or not – and first impressions can impact on the shoot. With the Big Issue vendors, I don’t want to be someone who breezes in, takes over their space, and says: “Look here! Do this, do that!” However, it all depends on who your subject is. Some people prefer strong direction. If [as a photographer] you’re nervous, indecisive, star-struck or intimidated by your subject, they can sense it and the connection can go south pretty quickly. 


                                Portrait of Stephen from Ed#427 (2013)

What do you do when you’re not working with The Big Issue?

I work with clients in the editorial, design, advertising and arts areas. I also enjoy shooting reportage for many arts and corporate organisations. My background with The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald helped develop my fast, stealth-like style. In addition to stills, I’m starting to shoot short films. It’s another vehicle to convey stories on a different, more emotive level. The production is significantly more labour intensive.

Do you have any favourites among all the vendor portraits you’ve done for us over the years?

There was a session back in 2004 of several vendors at once, because there was a bit of a backlog. We decided to construct a mini-studio in the hallway at the Big Issue office. This was the first time many of the vendors had been to a portrait session  with studio lighting, background etc. These photos will always be among my favourites. There was another shot recently of Stephen, which is a bit of a cracker. Also, Peter, Russell and Frank are portraits I was happy with. Sometimes while the shoot may be very quick, the connection the vendors seem to convey [through the photo] is very strong. There have been portraits where later on the vendors have passed away, and they hold a special place for me, too. 


                                        Portrait of Micka from Ed#197 (2004)

How do you help people relax in front of the camera?

For the Big Issue vendors, I’ll simply engage with them before I have a camera in my hand. I’m just another person who could have easily been in their situation. For commissions at the pointy end of the scale, I’ll research the subject, find out their interests outside their role, and sometimes collate music playlists. The shoot is usually very short, anything that makes it less tedious, all the better.

Once on set, I’ll explain my ideas and what to expect, how long it will take, if they have any questions or ideas and if they’re comfortable with the suggestions. This applies to all subjects. Usually, it’s easy to find common ground by simply being open and being interested in the other person. As I get older, I’m even more interested in people’s stories.

What are some of the challenges of photographing Big Issue vendors?

Some of the vendors [who have disabilities] might not be fully in control of their bodies and they might require a little more time and reassurance. I aim to portray all the vendors authentically, with dignity, and to capture a flattering portrait. Sometimes I simply have to shoot a lot of frames if movement is an issue. There are some couples who work as Big Issue vendors and sometimes we profile them together. Having a couple can work to your advantage, as you can use one to rib the other.


                           Andrew and Teri posed as a couple for Ed#437 (2013)

What are the traps that portrait photographers sometimes fall into? How do you avoid them?

I think some photographers tend to obsess about the final result at the cost of being present. I’m a little dismayed when I see younger photographers obsessing over the LCD after every frame. If you check the LCD after every shot, you miss what’s going on in front of you. For portraiture, the subject is granting you access (sometimes reluctantly) and trust, and sometimes only about seven minutes. I want to be respectful, not charge in with motor drives and flashes blazing and taking over the situation. It’s about optimising the small amount of time you have with the subject.

Do you have any tips for aspiring photographers?

There’s a perception these days that a chimpanzee with cataracts can take a photograph. Everyone’s a photographer. It’s challenging getting people to understand the value in professional photography. Considering the amount of visual noise in the market, it's important – now more than ever – to have a unique vision and provide good service. The industry is changing at lightning speed, however, some of fundamentals remain the same. Get inspired in other fields like painting, sculpture, graphic design. Read philosophy, jump online, visit forums, just talk to people at the bus stop. Take a photographer/artist whose work you like out for coffee. It may be the best money you spend that week, that is, apart from buying The Big Issue !


                        Portrait of Tim for the cover of Ed#287 (2007)

Have the skills you’ve honed working with vendors for The Big Issue helped you in other aspects of your career?

The Big Issue has kept me focused on what’s important. I work with a wide variety of people from diverse backgrounds. Some subjects are at the top of their professions in business, commerce, arts and politics, which comes with its own unique set of circumstances. Big Issue portraits give me the joy of creating what I feel are simple, authentic portraits without a big production. 


                           Portrait of Cheryl and Cougar in Ed#376 (2011)

What do you like about working with The Big Issue?

It’s one of the few independent publications in our increasingly bland media landscape, and one of the few magazines where circulation is rising. The vendors are the highlight for me, they’re doing something proactive about their situation and putting themselves out there. Going out there for the first time to sell magazines on a pitch takes a lot of courage; so does maintaining it. The magazine gives the vendors a sense of purpose and community. And that’s what we all need, isn’t it ?

See more of James Braund's work here or follow him on Twitter @james_braund. Read Big Issue vendor profiles here.