Natural Connection and Universal Truth in Wild Places — in conversation with James Morgan

James Morgan is an award-winning film director and photographer whose clients include Apple, the BBC, National Geographic, Unilever and WWF. From climate change in the Arctic and bounty wolf hunters in Siberia, to sea nomads in Indonesia, his work explores our changing relationship with the natural world.

On location with James making a story for WWF in Vietnam earlier this year, I had a chance to talk to him about his start in photography, exploring life on the edge, a growing passion for narrative fiction and telling better stories.

James Morgan on location with WWF in Vietnam © Justin Woolford

How did you start out in photography and photojournalism?

I discovered photography really late, at 19 or 20. When I was younger, I wanted to write fiction. I wrote a novel but got side-tracked by photography.

In 2009, I went to live in Iceland to learn Icelandic as part of my anthropology degree but it was incomprehensible! I ended up hitch-hiking around Iceland’s one road taking pictures of glaciers and waterfalls and selling them as travel shots.

I wanted to see the world and photography was a way to avoid getting a proper job, a way to travel and produce something I could sell to keep going. Being on the road and seeing new places was a really appealing lifestyle at that point.

When I graduated, I took the train from Moscow to Beijing and did a story about culture and happenings along the trans-Siberian route. And then I did another story about eagle-hunters in Mongolia. And it went from there.

Eagle-hunter Kwanduk out on a morning hunt in Bayan Olgii, Mongolia. © James Morgan

It sounds like you had a real spirit of adventure at the start?

I was doing things by myself and shooting on a really small budget, in a way that was beneficial to the stories — staying with the people I was photographing, travelling very slowly and uncomfortably, and using basic equipment. It was all about the adventure.

What was it about Iceland that attracted you in the first place?

I liked Icelandic music at the time and I’d never been there. I’ve always enjoyed those parts of the world. I recently went to Svalbard on a shoot for the Marine Stewardship Council and now I’ve made a short film in the Lofoten Islands called Seven about how a fictional community is affected by a resource extraction company moving into the area. We’ve had some British Film Institute funding and we’ll put it into festivals.

What’s your motivation for moving into narrative fiction?

I’m excited about exploring issues through drama. I think we can reach more people. You see something in the news but you may not realise how people’s lives are changed.

Drama is not about advocacy like photojournalism. The issues become context for human stories and what happens as a consequence. In Seven, the changing climate is the backdrop, and the fact that we can look for oil further north than we could before, which has a certain irony.

I’m interested in how we shape nature and how it shapes us. If we do something radical in the Arctic, what happens to us as a species? It’s difficult to do that in documentary but drama allows me to pose some broader questions free of the demands of news or NGO agendas — as well as having fun with all the good stuff like guns and explosions!

Has nature had a big impact on you?

In wilderness, I’ve experienced things that are difficult to describe. I notice a very strong connection between my mental state and the amount of time I spend in nature.

As a society, I think it’s interesting how little we recognise our need for nature, and how little we interact with it. And the more detached we become, the quicker we destroy it.
James Morgan on location with WWF in Vietnam © Justin Woolford

How do you feel about working with WWF and other NGOs?

It’s great but NGO stories can be very science-led and don’t always hit the beats in the right way. Something I’ve been thinking about for a long time is how to tell environmental stories in ways that really connect with people who live in cities a million miles from wilderness and the impacts of things like climate change.

The wildlife crime story I did with WWF in Gabon was good because it had a very strong human element and it was a pressing news issue. It had people you could connect with and was easily adopted by media. But even so, poaching’s not something that affects people in the UK or Europe on a daily basis — not many people are actually buying ivory on the black market.

The real motivation for me is showing people something that they don’t necessarily know exists — because people can live out their lives without realising what’s out there — and hopefully helping them make a connection so they care or take action in some way.
Tiger cub in Thailand — one of sixteen seized. Elephants are not the only wildlife commodity being illegally traded. © James Morgan

What are the key moments in your career?

The first couple of stories I did sold really well which gave me some breathing space to ask myself what I was really trying to do. And quite quickly I realised I wanted to build up a bigger picture by looking at things over a longer period of time through visual exploration.

I then spent two years in Indonesia with the Bajau Laut sea nomads. There was a conservation element which helped sell the story but it’s really about exploring what’s it like to live your whole life at sea.

Jatmin, a Bajau Laut octopus specialist, carries his freshly speared catch back to his boat in the shallow waters off the coast of Sulawesi, Indonesia. © James Morgan

Is that connected to the distinction between documentary and photojournalism?

News and issues for me are ways into telling stories about what it feels like to be a certain person in a certain place at a certain time — amidst the total breadth of human experience. And a big part of that is exploring the connection between people and the natural world.

In my stories, I try to show what it’s like to live in remote places close to nature, in the Himalayas or in the jungle, somewhere all the references are different and where people have a completely different folklore and narrative heritage.

What’s it like to be that person, emotionally and philosophically, how do they see the world? And is there something in their experience that’s universal that we can all learn from about what it means to be human.

For me, the most powerful stories are those that lead us into these kinds of situations and places and questions.

James Morgan on location with WWF in Vietnam © Justin Woolford
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