How I became a photographer for National Geographic: Charlie Hamilton James


There are millions of National Geographic magazines sent out into the world every month to a loyal group of readers who enjoys in-depth articles about the world around them. For the October 2018 issue, Charlie Hamilton James’s photo graces the cover, telling readers where to find a story about the endangered tribes of the Amazon. The National Geographic fellow and photographer started out his career working in film and television before making the pivot to photography, where he has captured life around the world in his camera lens.
USA TODAY caught up with Hamilton James to talk about everything from working for the BBC to the glorious high of landing a cover and the importance of embracing individuality in every single photograph.
Question: What’s your coffee order?
James: I live in the U.S., so I’m used to some pretty bad gas station drip coffee and I think if you drink that, you can drink anything. If I had a favorite, it would be a cortado.
Q: What is the last book you read?
James: “Senor Vivo and the Coco Lord” by Louis de Bernières, which I’ve read several times.
Q; Who has been your biggest mentor?
Hamilton James: Definitely my picture editor, Kathy Moran. When I first met her back in 2003 – I met her in Bristol – and someone introduced her to me. They said, “this is Kathy, she’s the senior natural history picture editor at National Geographic Magazine,” and I said, "I want to shoot for you," and she said, "okay, well send me some pictures." And I said, “I haven’t taken a photo in 10 years.”
She just laughed at me, but she’s stuck with me and taught me and turned me into a photographer. Now, she’s one of my best friends.
Q: What are three of your go-to songs or podcasts to get in the groove?
Hamilton James:I love (folk music singer-songwriter) Gregory Alan Isakoff, and I’m a massive fan. If I’m picture editing, I almost always listen to him – really, if I’m trying to do any kind of work. My two favorites are “Stable Song” and “Liars.”
There’s a Polish hip-hop band that I like called Kaliber 44, and they have a song called “Wena” that I like.
Q: What has your career path looked like?
Hamilton James: I got my first job at the BBC when I was 16, working on a David Attenborough (nature) series. I wanted to be a wildlife photographer, but there’s no money in it. I didn’t want to be driving around in a crappy old car when I was 40, so I went into TV and worked as a wildlife camera operator. Then, I became a film producer and eventually a TV host for the BBC. I chucked it all in to become a photographer for National Geographic, and that took 10 years (that transition from TV to National Geographic) because I’ve never worked as a photographer outside National Geographic. I have no understanding of the photographic community because I’ve never worked anywhere outside of National Geographic.
Q: Is there a photograph that is one of your personal favorites?
Hamilton James: I took a photo of a little girl with a monkey on her head back in 2015 in the Amazon, and she was nine. She had a little tiny tamarind monkey sporting on her head in the river, and that’s the picture I like the most. It’s called “Yoina.” (you can see it here.)
Q: What does a typical day look like for you?
Hamilton James: It’s quite the impossible question because I don’t have a typical day. Five, six days ago I was in India, then Prague, then up in London. Now I’m in Washington, D.C., and tomorrow I’m in Wyoming. So every day can be completely different, which I love. If I’m shooting wildlife, I’m usually up before dawn because that’s when the light’s the best. I don’t have a normal day – I’ve never really had a normal day.
I’ll often shoot early morning, late afternoon and evening – I’ll usually not shoot in the middle of the day because the light's bad. I always download my images and look at them at night, because I shoot a lot of pictures and I don’t want to get behind the lens to do editing. I’ll often spend two to three hours at night going through the pictures I shot that day, and I’ll often do that same thing the next day.
Q: What’s your biggest career high and your biggest career low?
High: Yesterday, I saw my first National Geographic front cover, so I guess that’s my career – it was always a dream as a kid.
Low: I was photographing a rotting elephant carcass once in Kenya after spending three days on the toilet (with a stomach virus), so that was a real low.
Q: What’s the biggest lesson that you have learned in your career?
Hamilton James: Honesty. Professionally, I think I’ve tried to maintain a brutal honesty the whole time with everything, and I think that’s helped professionally because when you’re always willing to admit when you’re wrong and say you screwed up, I think people trust your judgment more.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
Hamilton James: You have to be different. There are so many people doing the same stuff, and when you go to an organization like National Geographic, for instance, you go in with a relationship that’s based on you wanting something from them. If you can reverse that relationship so it's where they want something from you, then you’re going to do alright. You do that by creating work that stands out because it’s visually different to what other people are doing and have done before.
 If I’m given a story assignment, for instance, I’ll look at images that people have done and I’ll not do any of them. I’ll think: If we’re doing an animal, what can we do to present this animal in a new and unique way that tells you, the viewer, something about this creature that you didn’t know before? How can I visually do that? I will deliberately not do anything anybody’s done, but I will spend days thinking about how I can present this animal differently, and then I go ahead and do that. We’re very lucky because we have the privilege of time at Geographic to work on these images, some of which take three weeks to get.
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