Whitehot Magazine

James Hayman: A Narrative Life Through Images

James Hayman, New Orleans. Courtesy of the artist.

By NOAH SONNENBURG, February 2021

A decade ago, James Hayman would have described himself as a director who took photographs on the side. Years later, the poles have flipped for Hayman, and his photographic work now takes precedence. Regardless of medium, however, Hayman is obsessed with storytelling. Be it film or still photography, he perceives his world through narrative. The fixation started early. 

Hayman was an early adopter of binge-watching movies. In his home state of New Jersey, local television stations would play classic black-and-white films throughout the night. At the young age of seven, Hayman and his mother, who he fondly describes as a night owl, would stay up late watching the great films of the 30s, 40s, and 50s. Watching grayscale figures dance across the screen, he became entranced by the stories which emanated from their television set.

As Hayman describes it, these late-night movie viewings were “the kernel of fascination” which would grow into a prodigious career in film and television. But James Hayman has always had parallel passions. Film, of course, has been one of his great loves, but still photography always played a vital role in his life.

Hayman was introduced to still photography by his uncle. Later, a family friend would gift Hayman a small collection of used darkroom equipment. Equipped with these gifts and an old Konica SLR, he pursued this interest with great dedication.

At the start of his undergraduate college career in Washington, DC, Hayman pursued a major in photojournalism. Loving what he was learning, he began working for the American University news service in the summer of his second year.

James Hayman, Mexico. Courtesy of the artist.

His very first assignment was at the White House, when he was told to get a shot of President Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev in the Rose Garden. It was a dream of a first assignment, but the excitement changed when Hayman reached the press area.

“It was a defining moment in my artistic career,” Hayman reflects. “It was July in Washington, DC. I had to wear a jacket and tie. The only jacket I had was a corduroy sport coat. So it felt like it was 150 degrees.” Navigating the halls of power in a sweltering corduroy blazer, Hayman’s joy evaporated as his expectations of a more artful form of photojournalism disappeared.

“I got in with my press credentials and it was like a shark feeding,” Hayman recalls. “There was a crowd of photographers and people were pushing to the front. There was a whole hierarchy and it really put me off that form of photojournalism. I mean, I got the shot and they used it and all of that, but I then realized that really wasn't my comfort zone.”

His comfort zone instead was more in line with the process of street photography: finding beauty in everyday life. For the following years, all the way through his graduate film studies at New York University, Hayman would live and breathe movies. His career in film and television would carry him around the country and the world, offering him the opportunity to practice his photography as an amateur, exploring new cultures and communities through his lens.

Hayman characterizes his now decades-long photographic practice as location-specific. Boasting an oeuvre with shots ranging from Machu Picchu to the Taj Mahal, his shots reflect their place of origin in brilliant detail.

James Hayman, New Orleans. Courtesy of the artist.

His most recent collection of photographs were taken over the last six years in New Orleans, LA. Having spent those years producing and directing NCIS: New Orleans, Hayman had the incredible opportunity to explore the city between filming.

“I find that in both mediums,” Hayman notes, “whether it’s film and television or photography, going to a new place just opens up my eyes. So, when I moved to New Orleans six years ago, [the city] just exploded for me artistically.”

Pouring over Hayman’s photographs, one of his signature techniques makes an immediate impression on its viewers. The honesty of emotion in his subjects and their comfort (or discomfort) with the camera all come as a result of his interest in participatory photography. Inspired largely by the participatory photography of Danny Lyon, Hayman enjoys parlaying with his subjects before he activates the shutter of his camera.

“I used to think that the best way to photograph was to be invisible,” Hayman recollects. “I then transitioned into observing people on the street, interacting with them, and then asking if I could photograph them. I’d then photograph them while we talked. It created a different dynamic. It was interesting how people, knowing they were being photographed, would present themselves.”

James Hayman, Peru. Courtesy of the artist.

This two-way street of participant photography is absolutely essential to understanding and appreciating the work of Hayman. As early as 1976, he became deeply involved in philanthropic work. Between his work with the United Nations, supporting Pack Essentials in New Orleans, and starting All Are One, a pandemic relief charity with his wife, Hayman continues to give back to the world in numerous ways. His work, by extension, shines a light on those less fortunate.

“For the photos that I take that are in that socially conscious group,” Hayman notes. “I would want my audience to understand the plight of the underclass. That would be the political motivation for me.”

Crucially however, Hayman’s work captures life. Early on in his work, he lived with a drive to capture ‘perfect moments,’ and to minimize his editing process as much as possible. Today however, that philosophy has changed. This extension of the photographic process helps him discover and highlight the narrative in the frame.

“If I go to New Orleans or New York or Los Angeles and I'm living in the moment, images will come to me,” Hayman says. “I feel like sometimes you need to actually put your camera down and live life. But most of the time I'm trying to do both to be in the moment and then record that moment.”

For more, please visit James Hayman’s website: www.jameshayman.com

Instagram: @jhaymanphotography. WM

Noah Sonnenburg

Noah Sonnenburg is a freelance writer based in Pasadena, CA. His work covers automobiles, film, fine art and entertainment.

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