James Bannister on finding individuality, authenticity and truth through photography

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After spending years making work in the USA, a new commission from Leica will see Bannister turning his camera to his native Britain — where he seeks to dig beneath the surface of how people and places ‘present’, instead capturing their essence.

As a medium grounded in the interaction between people, often mediated through conversation, mutual curiosity, and understanding, photography has long been used as a method for interpreting the nuances of individuality. This desire to truly see things as they are – whether it’s the complexity of a person or the intricacies of a landscape – is immediately palpable in the work of James Bannister.

The latest photographer to be commissioned to create new work for the historic camera brand, Leica, in collaboration with 1854, Bannister’s still portraits somehow feel kinetic: saturated with the smells, temperatures, and textures that coursed in front of his camera the moment he clicked his shutter. “I think that photography can be good at getting under the cracks of presentation, to what lies underneath,” he reflects. “The exploration and questioning of what is going on underneath it all is a theme that I keep finding in my work.” For the upcoming Leica commission, the UK-based photographer is tasked with developing a unique body of work around ‘individuality’ — a natural fit for his years-long exploration of the medium.

© James Bannister

The commission, titled Witnesses of: Individuality, will allow Bannister to further build on the themes of connection and authenticity that have been constellating his process throughout his career. After years of seeking out connections as a foreigner in Las Vegas, Nevada, and California, he has decided to implement that fresh-eyed inquisitiveness on what he initially wrote off as too familiar: Britain, his home. In the wake of Brexit and the pandemic, he notes that the people and places he once deemed familiar are in fact full of unknowns — and now is the perfect time to rediscover them. In addition to the £5,000 commission fee, Bannister will also be granted a place on the new Leica Lab course, regarded as one of the industry’s most respected online educational courses for developing photographic artists.

“You can’t compartmentalise anything creative because it’s about getting out of your own way, and letting what’s inside of you come out”

– James Bannister

When speaking about his practice, Bannister continuously cites the importance of connection, and how photography allows him to foster his own relationship to the universe, visualising and feeling the way he processes the world. “When I look at something and get an intuitive feeling, the images of those moments always turn out the strongest, and they’re the ones that ultimately end up connecting with other people, too,” he says. “I wait to inhabit that feeling before photographing anything — whether it’s a person or place.” This way of seeing isn’t only apparent in his personal projects, but across his editorial work, which includes clients such as Harper’s Bazaar and TOAST. “It’s become obvious to me that you can’t compartmentalise anything creative,” he continues, “because it’s about getting out of your own way, and letting what’s inside of you come out.”

But there’s no quick fix or shortcut to inhabiting this kind of creative headspace. Bannister acknowledges that tapping into it takes patience — which is why he favours slower methods. In using intricate equipment, by the time he actually makes an image, a relationship with his subject has been established. “When I make portraits, I try to find the truth of a person, rather than what they are trying to present to the world,” he says. “Presentation is something that we all do, and the great thing about using slow equipment is that it makes time for the artifice to drift away.”

© James Bannister
© James Bannister

The slow process also allows Bannister to remove himself from the work as much as possible, letting his subjects’ individuality take centre stage. “To be truly unbiased is unachievable, especially because I edit my pictures into a larger framework of images,” he says. Looking through the faces and places of his past projects, full of soft features and introspective vulnerability, it’s apparent that this is where Bannister’s hand is strongest: while he’s mastered the sensorial density of the large-format process, it’s his selections, whittled down into cohesive visual stories, that truly bring his mosaicked moments to life. “Photography is so fragmented, so I try to use narrative to give it some form; to have one picture communicate with the next,” he explains. “If I’ve done things correctly, the pictures should feel honest, and my presence shouldn’t get in the way of that.”

Ultimately, for Bannister, the Witnesses of: Individuality commission is an opportunity to harness the power of photography, which has historically been used to perpetuate false narratives in moments of crisis, to cultivate solidarity, not polarisation, amongst his viewers. “Photography plays a huge role in moulding the national collective psyche, and it is the responsibility of photographers, editors, and commissioners to be mindful about how they wield it,” he says. “My goal with this project is to generate a willingness in others to be open to different perspectives, and for people to be their authentic selves. Individuality should never be used as something pernicious, divisive, or scary. As individuals, we should seek to unite, not divide.”

© James Bannister

The Witnesses of: Individuality commission is a collaboration between Studio 1854 and Leica. Want to work with major brands and NGOs on compelling, cause-conscious campaigns? View our current commission opportunities.

Find out more about Leica here

Cat Lachowskyj

Cat Lachowskyj is a freelance writer, editor and researcher based in London. Prior to pursuing a career in writing, she trained as an archivist in Toronto, developing research on colonial photography albums at the Archive of Modern Conflict. She has completed residencies and fellowships at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Ryerson Image Centre and the Rijksmuseum, and her current research interests involve psychoanalytical approaches to photography and archives. Cat’s writing has appeared in many publications including Unseen Magazine, The British Journal of Photography, Foam Magazine and American Suburb X, and she has held editing roles at both Unseen Magazine and LensCulture.