Ever since he was little, Grant James-Thomas has spent time exploring the rural settings of Wales. And whilst still loyal to his origins, he kept on looking for myriad adventures abroad, daydreaming all kinds of characters and surreal surroundings until, one day, he decided to make them real through images. At just sixteen, he sold his horse and bought a camera, aiming to shoot for Vogue in a timespan of five years. And he did. From then on, he’s just kept himself busy shooting in dreamy locations on every corner of the world. Today we speak with him about his love of travelling, his wildest memories abroad, and his reentry into horse riding.
Grant, you seem like a very adventurous person. I bet this influenced how your photographic career began. Can you tell us how everything started?
When I was seventeen, I was fortunate enough to be booked on a trip to Vietnam for ES Magazine, where we shot three stories in a week. This kind of beefed-out my book with travel work, which had a knock-on effect and resulted in a lot of really cool editorials and jobs in super dreamy locations. Travelling for work from such a young age really helped build my confidence, so I moved to New York for a bit when I was twenty, and then did some personal voyaging. I've been incredibly lucky to travel for work, and so far I've done shoots in Iceland, India, the United States, Mexico, Costa Rica, Japan, Kenya, Vietnam and all across Europe.
So, you are a Wales native who settled in London some time ago, but you definitely are a passionate traveller. Asia, America, Africa and Europe; for sure you’ve had some mind-blowing experiences abroad. Could you share some moments that continuously encourage you to keep on looking for faraway worlds?
I’ve always been quite bold in my decisions, less nowadays in fact. I had a severe hippie moment and ended up spending a year in India – which was the adventure of my life so far. I lived on the beach for months, and even spent weeks on a deserted one sleeping in a hammock. I’ve also stayed in remote mountain villages, residing in stable-like accommodation above the clouds, and catching my own food. Travelling in India lead to a lot of really exciting, funny and scary adventures. I’ve (stupidly) jumped off of a moving train, been in motorbike chases and head-on collisions. Apart from that, I nearly ended up dead in Kathmandu when the 7.8-earthquake hit Nepal in 2015 – awful travelling time, but adventurous nonetheless.
The balance your pictures have between perfection and imperfection is outstanding. Do you perfectly picture the imagery’s stories before shootings or you just select flawless elements you trust will harmoniously match when shooting?
I do. I spend weeks and weeks obsessing over images and what they are going to look like. It’s so difficult to coordinate your outcome to match the vision, especially when you’re working with (and rely on) a whole team of people to make the shoots happen. I get really obsessed with editorials and usually dream about a shoot for a few days before it. It’s quite funny.
What is the kind of environment you aim to create in your photographs?
Someone once gave me some great advice: to think of the three identifying words to describe your envisioned work, and for every shoot to aim for at least one or two of them being relevant. This is to create some flow and continuity in your portfolio – and it really helped me. My identifiers are epic, colourful and cinematic. So, I guess this is the world I aim to create.
The fashion world has always been, and still will be, a crazy environment. Do you enjoy working in this last-minute business all the time or do you find it frustrating at some points?
Sometimes it’s great, it’s fun to book a trip right at the last moment because all of a sudden you’re travelling halfway across the world with friends who you love working with. The problems are deadlines. They often end up being so short and, sometimes, it’s really difficult to get all the film processed in time.
Regarding my last question, it probably gets a bit exhausting sometimes… or perhaps not. Do you believe travelling to new destinations softens the hard work that fashion photography implies?
I wouldn’t say it makes it easier, but it does make all the hard work worth it, so maybe it does soften it. Often on trips, we wake up at 4 am to prepare to shoot at sunrise, then continue until sunset, next there is dinner and before you know it, you have to wake up again for sunrise.
Based on what criteria do you select these dreamy shooting locations?
Let’s talk about your models; I’ve noticed that they are very unalike to each other. Is there a particular feature you look for when scouting models?
I don’t have any intentions for ticking any gender/race/age boxes. I cast whom I find interesting to photograph, and try to cast the net as wide as possible to find the perfect person for every shoot.
You have worked in both studio and natural locations. Do you believe one offers more over the other? Which one do you prefer?
Of course, I prefer natural locations. My whole book is practically location so it would be pretty unlucky if I preferred the studio. I love the uncertainty of shooting with natural sceneries, you have to try and time everything so well with the light and just hope for the best, weather-wise. I’ve been pretty lucky, as it has never pissed it down on a shoot yet. But if it did, I’d be quite happy to change the shoot’s narrative to incorporate it.
Of course, you are still young. But some years ago, would you ever have pictured yourself where you are now, as a high-in-demand photographer?
I’m not sure, I spent most of my time horse riding whilst I was younger and never imagined myself doing anything else. Then, at sixteen, I sold my horse, bought a camera and decided I was going to be a photographer instead. I made a five-year plan to shoot for a Vogue title and just about managed this somehow at age twenty. I’m now spending a lot more time back home horse riding and really hope this continues into the future, as riding is home for me.
This profession has certainly opened more doors to travel than before, right? Would you say you were meant to succeed or it was just luck?
Yes, definitely, it has. As a child and teenager, I didn’t leave Wales much unless I could take my horse with me. When I started photography, I was in the right place at the right time. There weren’t many sixteen-year-old photographers when I started, so I stood out and my young age gave an illusion of talent. I imagine a lot of photographers felt quite bitter at the opportunities I was given when I started photographing. I don’t think I was that talented, but I’ve now worked really, really hard and I’m finally becoming happy with the direction that my work is taking.
Given the fact that you are an explorer, have you considered expanding your work into fashion films?
I did a fashion film for Condé Nast Traveller last year in Utah. I really enjoyed the experience and would love to do more!