Cottesloe’s Russell James is one of the world’s best-known celebrity photographers. When he’s not snapping images of Barbra Streisand or supermodel Heidi Klum, he’s being photographed himself, at red carpet charity events, such is his own level of celebrity in the US.
But gradually, over the past decade, Russell has forged a reputation for something way more than his work behind the lens. He has the ear of Bill Clinton, Richard Branson and other global philanthropic heavies, as he roams through some of the world’s poorest regions, helping to find creative ways to empower local communities.
He does this by showcasing, through art, music and film, the artistic talents of outstanding individuals discovered through his Nomad Two Worlds project. The organisation, with the help of famous mentors and collaborators, has so far shone the light on more than 50 artists, globally.
They include Haiitan and Native American painters, and several West Australians, like Walmajarri artist Clifton Biendurry, with whom Russell has collaborated to produce astonishing contemporary works, some currently on show at Claremont’s Perl’eco Gallery. (Clifton, a talented singer too, also became a Broadway hit after Hugh Jackman brought him onstage to perform with him, with Clifton’s mum Olive, and Broome didjeridoo player Paul Boon, every night during a recent sellout tour.)
It’s an exhausting, but rewarding, global lifestyle for Russell, 50, who chats to The Starfish during a fleeting visit home to WA.
What do you love about being back here?
What’s not to love? Every time I return to Cottesloe I realize how lucky I am, to be coming back here to this beautiful beach lifestyle in WA. I grew up in Wilson, which I also love. But the more I travel, the more I appreciate coming back to this area.
What are your favourite local spots?
I’m addicted to Barchetta’s chai lattes, and of course, their glorious views. I also love going to Mosman Bay and gazing out over the Swan River.
What are you doing over here?
I just headed up to the Pinnacles to shoot The Veronicas. And Forbes magazine want me to shoot a feature for them. My ongoing local commitment is to the wonderful WA artists that Nomad is involved with, like Clifton Biendurry, from the Central Kimberleys. And Lance Chadd. He’s one of the most extraordinary artists in the world, who has not yet had his day in the sun.
How often are you away?
I always like to say I live here and work abroad, but I’m actually away 300 days of the year! I ‘m finding though that I’m getting to come back to Perth more and more for short visits, for work.
What’s a typical work-day for you?
If I’m working at my studio in New York, I’m in at around 9am, hooking up with a production team of 25 or 30 people, and snapping away until 5 or 6 o’clock.
Who would you be photographing?
It could be Miranda Kerr for a Victoria’s Secret shoot, Rihanna for her new album, or Barbra Streisand for her new book. Recently I spent a day photographing a chimpanzee for a gaming company. We worked well together. It was the funniest shoot I’d ever done.And after a day’s work, where next?It could be an event like the Met Ball (the Costume Institute Gala held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) or say, a kids cancer fund-raising event.Over there, you’re a celeb in your own right now. Is this largely through your involvement as a photographer with Victoria’s Secret?Yes, and there’s been quite a few TV projects. The NBC network did a long story on me for a show called The Best Job In The World. And Nomad Two Worlds has had a lot of press in the US.
You spend a lot of time and energy on Nomad. What are you out to achieve?
We go by the mantra, “unlock the raw spirit.” When we see raw talent that just needs the light shone on it, we get excited.
Can you give us an example of how you’ve helped an artist to shine?
Clifton Biendurry’s wonderful art is now on beautiful cashmere and silk blanket scarves being sold, with accompanying notes about his background and culture, at upscale stores in New York, through Donna Karan’s label Urban Zen. And of course, to see him sing on Broadway with Hugh Jackman was a joy. To help get artists who haven’t had opportunity to be recognized, the exposure they deserve, and access to many more people who respect and appreciate them, is so rewarding.
You’re currently working on a multi-media show with Nomad Two Worlds, plus you work at a relentless pace on so many projects. Do you ever long to slow down?
I could have cashed in, sat back and enjoyed the trappings of economic success. But, just like in that Rolling Stones song “Can’t get no satisfaction,” there was an emptiness I needed to address. It was time to do something for others. I’ve been inspired enormously by designer Donna Karan, who’s like a sister to me. She sold her business and spends much of her time helping people in need around the world. Bill Clinton inspires me too. The work he does through the Clinton Global Initiative is phenomenal. We were in Haiti together recently and I learned a lot from him.
My life and how I view the world has changed so much. My first job, after I dropped out of school at 14, was making trash cans. I always wanted to do something better. And it was a long, hard haul, to finally make it as a photographer in New York. When finally, I came back with success under my belt, I started to look at things back here with new eyes. I started asking myself, why, when I was a kid living in Derby, was there a white bar and a black bar? Why are there so many more opportunities for a white Australian than a black Australian? Why, when I was at school, wasn’t I taught about Aboriginal culture? There was so much I needed to learn, about indigenous cultures around the world. Now I want to help bridge the gaps between cultures.
How rewarding is it for you, knowing that you’re changing the lives of individuals through promoting their art?
To see the self-esteem of people rise after people notice their art and listen to their stories is inspirational.
You can also follow him, along with 90,000 others, on Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/RussellJames
Clifton Bieundurry’s work is on display at Perl’eco Gallery, 47-49 Bay View Terrace, until May 31.