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Honest, Raw, and Sometimes Beautiful: Photography with Tillman James

Honest, raw, and sometimes beautiful: Meet Savannah-based photographer, Tillman James. Tillman’s work is a beautiful compilation of empathy, love, beauty, obsession, and heartbreak. Starting with a pink Barbie camera, her work has grown to a level of relevance and importance.

We caught up with the photographer to discuss her artistic voice, concepts, and pulling yourself out of a creative rut. Check it out below.

Where are you from and how has your background shaped you as an artist?

So, when I first got interested in taking photos I was living in South Carolina and I was 16. I think I was a little hesitant to really come out and say I wanted to be an artist because I didn’t think I was living in the area where I could actually do it and no one would really take me seriously. So I would make photos (terrible ones) here and there, mostly of my younger sister, but I never really let myself go there with it till I got to SCAD in Savannah.

Looking back I can see how wrong I was. You can make great art anywhere and some of my favorite people I’ve worked with are actually from South Carolina. I feel like following your dreams is essential to being happy but that also requires you to take a huge chance on yourself, and I don’t think I was ready to do that until I got to SCAD. I think having that background definitely made me learn to work really hard and be persistent, kinda like I’m still trying to prove myself.

How would you describe your artistic voice?

I think that it has changed a lot. I was looking through old work the other day and I had two images pulled up on my screen. One was pretty recent, and the other one was from two years ago and it didn’t even look like the same person made them.

I think my work definitely grows with me. Some of my old stuff looks very insecure and immature to me, kinda like I was trying to be something I wasn’t and you can see it in the work. I am pretty sure what I do and how I do it, and what my photos look like, will always be changing, and thats really exciting. I think I will always aim to tell stories with my work and I will always aim to make you feel something, whether that be nostalgia, heartbreak, love, or even confusion [laughs]. I want my photos to be a total representation of who I am and what Im feeling or have felt, so I know I want my voice to ultimately be really honest, raw, and sometimes beautiful.

What do you want to say with your photographs?

Every artist I have met makes there work out of love, like when it boils down to it everything they make has this beautiful, obsessive energy. But when you really look at what they make, I think love is the driving factor. I think that’s the same with me and my photos. My photography and some of my current ideas just reek of love, it’s honestly gross. I photograph to remember things and to remember what it feels like to be this young and full of possibilities. My hope is when you see my work you want to crawl inside the photo and live in it. I like to photograph people out of their comfort zones and watching them become someone they didn’t know they could be because I want to remind people that life can be really beautiful and free and not at all what we expect.

Do you come up with your own concepts?

I do! Recently though, I’ve been collaborating with my models and other photographers and we all pull our ideas, clothes, and funds, and make one super concept. Every photoshoot I do, I always have this seed of an idea of what I think I want it to be and what I want it to look like, but I’ve learned to be really relaxed about that because nothing ever goes according to plan. To make a photoshoot successful, you have to do what feels right and trust your gut, and thats usually when your best work gets made.

Where do you get the inspiration when you do come up with your own concepts? I know for me, the worst thing that I can do is go searching on other photographers’ social media and I want to use their idea, but I can’t because they just did it.

When I need ideas, I need to do something really mindless. Sometimes, I will go for a walk or go to a store and look around and kinda force myself to find inspiration. Music and movies have always been a really big go to for me when I need new ideas. Sometimes I will read too. I’ve learned though that when I’m feeling pretty drained, it’s because I need to change something up.

What do you shoot with?

So I have a Luminix camera that I love and a pentax for film. I also have a Canon 6D but I’m about to buy a little point and shoot film camera and I’m so excited to start making work with that.

Do you remember your first camera?

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Ya! It was a little pink barbie polaroid camera! I think I got it when I was five. I was moving a few weeks ago and my sister came and helped me and we found an old family album. My mom had saved most of the photos that I took with it, I don’t know why I got rid of that camera, it still worked! I want to buy another one.

I think that we all have a photo that was our changing point. A photo that inspired the rest of our shooting style. Which photo was that for you?

I was a sophomore in college and we had to do a presentation on artists that we were inspired by, and one of my classmates brought in Olivia Bees’ work, and something just clicked when I saw it. I spent like the next week just pouring over everything she did. I remember looking at her work and thinking that I had never seen work that looked so free, and young and it was exactly what I wanted to do. I still obsessively look at her photos, she just somehow manages to put youth, surprise, and so much emotion into all her work and it resonates so well with me.

Right now, I seem to be in a creative rut, where I just can’t find inspiration from any one specific thing. What advice would you give to someone experiencing that exact thing?

That is the worst feeling, I get so frustrated and annoyed with myself when I start feeling like that. Usually, I feel that way when I have become too comfortable. I get in bad creative ruts when I start to rely on certain things to make my photos special. I rely on the same models, the same locations, nudity, the same clothes etc. And then of course I start making the same photo over and over and I start to hate my work.

The best advice I can give you is that when you feel like you’re in a rut, really change everything about how you would usually approach a shoot. Go to a location you have never shot at before, try and find a model you have never worked with before, and use clothes and props that you were maybe nervous to use. Kinda force yourself to wake up and make the shoot work. It’s really easy for me to see something that worked once and keep doing it, but it eventually ends up being boring and I would rather have a shoot that didn’t work at all because I tried something and it didn’t work, than a shoot that looks like something I keep making.

Finally, where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?

AHHH haha I don’t know! Hopefully not starving or living in a hole haha. I just want to keep making and sharing my work forever and see where that takes me. My dreams feel too big to put into words. I am very excited about the future and I’m interested in what I’m going to make and see and learn. 

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