“I photograph my curiosity,” James Ambrose tells me. “If I see something that’s interesting, I’ll take a photo of it.” Creative philosophies don’t come much simpler or more authentic.
You’ll find that casual, artistic optimism and unique style of self-reflection in every one of Ambrose’s frames, regardless of subject. But especially in the ones he takes for pleasure.
I first met the Sydney-born and now Kingscliff-based photographer seven years ago when he worked as a full-time freelancer around the city. I’d frequently bump into him upstairs at Bondi Beach Road’s cramped and sweaty Sosueme nights, where the friendly-looking local would run around pointing both his camera and his giant, effortless smile.
While snapping groups of 18-year-olds drunkenly clutching each other paid the bills, the up close and personal experience of shooting some of Sydney’s best musicians around the city and at some of Australia’s biggest music festivals is what brought him endless professional joy.
“At a music festival, you’re in the pit between the stage and a crowd of 1000s of people, and you have some of the biggest artists in the world right in front of you,” he says. “Not many people get to experience that–it was brilliant.”
Like so many full-time working creatives, Ambrose balanced commercial commitments and artistic fulfilment. Some parts tiresome, others, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. Highlights include travelling the world to shoot Contiki brochures or photographing personal hero Mick Fanning at the GQ Man of the Year awards, among a portfolio brimming with big names and enviable anecdotes.
You could say that Ambrose stumbled into photography at 18 when a night at Sydney’s Oxford Art Factory, unassumingly taking photos with a friend’s digital camera, caught the eye of a local record label. He was back at the venue working in an official capacity by the following weekend.
It was an easy sell for the young Sydneysider, whose interest in creativity had been piqued years before by his father’s hobbyist photography and travelling slideshows of old film. “I was like ‘holy crap’, I love going out and partying, and now someone’s going to pay me, and I can take photos and get close to artists.”
Now 30, Ambrose has put snapping club nights and music festivals behind him, pursuing a career as a paramedic. Other than shooting professionally with Ash, his partner of seven years and the person who introduced us, the pictures he takes today are just for him–with a passion and meditative enthusiasm he’ll seemingly never lose.
“When I’m out there photographing something for myself, it’s because I want to be there and it’s irrelevant of money, it’s irrelevant of anything … it doesn’t help me pay the rent,” he says. “It’s just a passion and a hobby that fulfils me.”
Ambrose describes himself as a minimalist with perfectionist tendencies. “I like things to look straight and proper,” he says, pausing. “Symmetrical!” I hear Ash yell out in the distance as if finishing the train of thought. He repeats it, grinning.
Like so much of the personal travel photography he’s taken over the years throughout Europe, outback Australia and in countries like Cuba, China, The United States, and New Zealand, Ambrose sees what others don’t.
The photos reflect the catching of his eye as he walks around the block–capturing something otherwise benign to most yet uniquely interesting through his lens.
“I try to find the extraordinary in the ordinary.”
That sentiment is likely why sharing those photos with the world doesn’t bring Ambrose happiness. Instead, he finds personal gratification from understanding the story behind each frame.
For example, he describes a recent photo he took of a bland, older Kingscliff home. Casting the afternoon sun’s shadow over the corner of the pale bricked house is an out of frame ‘for sale’ sign and, with it, the bigger and newer units pushing out the old.
He admits the image may not be of great interest to most. “But I’m really satisfied by that photo because of the story it tells and the interest I get from looking at things in that way,” he explains. “But if I share some of those things and I don’t sort of feel a response from other people, it can take the gratification of doing that away.”
“If I don’t share so much and I just go for walks and enjoy it for myself–that’s satisfying.
He also recalls a day wandering alone in Havana, Cuba and running into a young boy named Dexi. Despite a clear language barrier, the pair threw a baseball back and forth in the street for nearly an hour. The photo of Dexi holding that baseball is one of Ambrose’s favourites, and the experience behind it is one he’ll always remember. “I’ll forget the name of someone I met an hour ago, but his name is engraved in my mind.”
While Ambrose’s social media accounts feature a peppering of his travelling adventures, at home and abroad, it’s clear that the vast majority of his captured memories live in a private collection. One he might one day share in a slideshow with his own family.