Creative Lives — We talk belonging and authenticity with creative director, stylist and casting director Charlotte James

Posted 28 March 2018 Interview by Arielle Bier

Keeping one foot in London for commercial work and the other in Wales for inspiration and personal projects, Charlotte James has found an ideal work-life balance. Graduating with a degree in fashion communication at the University of the West of England in 2012, she initially set her sights on becoming a stylist, but soon progressed to creative director and casting director for clients such as Ace and Tate, Getty Creative and Stella McCartney. Working collaboratively and building trust is a key part of her creative politic: “I give the subjects choice by not using them as a blank canvas. They are a part of the image making, as much as I am.” Here, Charlotte tells us about her filmmaking ambitions, her passion for youth work and how she’s been able to connect with and celebrate her local community.

Charlotte James

Job Title

Freelance Creative Director, Casting Director and Stylist

Based

Merthyr Tydfil, Wales

Education

BA Fashion Communication, University of the West of England (2009–2012)

Clients

Ace and Tate, Getty Creative, National Museum of Wales, Stella McCartney, Crack Magazine, SSAW Magazine

Website
Social Media

Charlotte, photographed by Sebastián Bruno

Day-to-Day

How would you describe what you do? 
My work ranges from creative direction to casting and styling. In the last few years, I’ve also produced fashion workshops and photo shoots for young people in Wales.

Clients employ me as a stylist or casting director. I source clothes and costumes and street cast people for music videos, advertisements and editorials. This involves working closely with the client and director or photographer to define their requirements and provide them with multiple options, which bring our ideas to life.

What does a typical working day look like? 
Every day can be different, depending on what job I’m working on. If it’s a casting job, I start by envisioning the characters needed, and begin approaching people or organisations through email, on the street or via social media. Then I begin the selection process with my collaborators, so we can start confirming people for the photo shoot. This could mean being out street casting or spending a lot of time on my laptop and phone. 

If it’s a styling job, I spend the day working on my laptop to a brief set by the client or director, sourcing clothes online or via stores. For an editorial, I might call in clothes via email, look at lookbooks, or visit PR agencies to select designers for the shoot day.

For the youth group, I work closely with my collaborator, photographer Clémentine Schneidermann, and youth group organisers, planning new workshops and setting themes. This could be a making or styling workshop, for which I’ll need to source materials or clothes donations.

Sisters, with photographer Dean Davies

What do you like about working in London and Wales?  
I split my time between London and Wales. There are more paid job opportunities for creatives in London, but it’s not an essential place to be for my work. I make most of my personal work in Wales and travel to London to work with clients or magazines. 

I moved back to Wales a couple of years ago. I find it easier to be creative here – I’m more inspired by the people and backdrop. Interesting characters are easier to come across, and I like that I can walk into my local social club and cast everyone for a photoshoot. 

“Interesting characters are easier to come across. I can walk into my local social club and cast everyone for a photoshoot.”

My collaborators, Clémentine Schneidermann and Sebastián Bruno, also live and work in Wales, so we can make work here that we want to make without too much pressure or cost.  

Working here is really important to me. I’ve built trust here, so I can walk into a pub and ask to shoot, and they are up for it. Everyone is part of a team and supports each other. I also feel like it’s really important to show people that things are happening here. 

Ffasiwn, a series created with Clementine Schnierdermann

Ffasiwn, a series created with Clementine Schnierdermann

Ffasiwn, a series created with Clementine Schnierdermann

How does your freelance work usually come about? 
Photographers and directors recommend me to producers and clients. A lot of photographers message me through Instagram, so that’s been a good platform to show my work. 

How collaborative is your work?
It’s the most important part, because I’m collaborating with a photographer, the subject and now the youth groups I work with – including subjects’ families. You have a responsibility to authentically represent communities and young people. Doing this work requires a lot of thought, planning and conversation, and you have to be aware of what the people you work with are going to get from these projects.

The same goes for a client, because my job is to provide them with a look or character that suits the mood board or treatment, so there is always a lot of back and forth until the shoot day. 

What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job? 
The most enjoyable part is working with young people and seeing their confidence grow, and also working with photographers whose work I find inspiring. The least enjoyable part at the moment is that I’m always broke!

Ffasiwn, a series created with Clementine Schnierdermann

What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months? 
I loved developing the fashion youth project with Clémentine. For nearly three years, we’ve created interactive workshops with young people from the area. The workshops focus on self-expression, idea generation, styling and photography, providing opportunities to learn new skills and take part in a photo shoot for their final project. The series will be exhibited at the Martin Parr Foundation next year and all the young people who took part will be able to view what they’ve created in an exhibition space. 

“I give the subjects choice by not using them as a blank canvas. They are a part of the image making, as much as I am.”

What skills are essential to your job?
Being persistent with your goals, organisation and communication! 

Are you currently working on any side projects?
I’m working with Sebastián Bruno on a project in Wales and I’m about to start a new collaboration with photographer Dean Davies, art director Josie Gealer and Getty Images on a portrait series capturing siblings from North West England. I’m also planning to make a film with the Evans girls.

What tools do you use most for your work? 
A laptop for emails, research and mood boards. My phone, camera and notebook for casting. Charity shops and costume rentals have also been my go-to for clothes and materials since living in Wales. 

Merthyr Rising with photographer Tom Johnson

How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up?
A ghost hunter!

How is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
I studied fashion communication at University of the West of England. It introduced me to the role of a stylist and what that entails. Before that, I didn’t know what a stylist was, so it set me on the path.

What were your first jobs? 
My first job was working in a chocolate factory when I was 16, and my first creative job was working on a small music video. At that point, I already started working on fashion shoots for Crack Magazine. I once did an internship for a fashion magazine while at university, which only lasted a week and a half. I quickly realised that internships weren’t for me, plus, I couldn’t afford to do them long-term. 

“You have a responsibility to authentically represent the communities and young people featured in the images.”

SSAW Spring Summer 2018 with Leon Mark

What one person helped you the most at the start of your career?
Personal tutors at college and university, especially with building my confidence and showing me different paths to take.

Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development? 
Merthyr Rising shot in collaboration with photographer Tom Johnson. It was the first time I met and worked with a photographer who was able to visualise the kind of image I wanted to be making. These images focus on challenging stereotypes in minority communities, and representing them in a positive light. The fashion elevated the characters and narrative of the series. 

I give the subjects choice by not using them as a blank canvas. They are a part of the image making, as much as I am

Merthyr Rising with photographer Tom Johnson

What skills have you learnt along the way? 
Photoshoot production from start to finish, which includes working collaboratively with photographers, casting, scouting and securing locations, sourcing clothes and building relationships with the subjects.

What’s been your biggest challenge?
Trying to earn a living wage in London and making the work I wanted to create while balancing commercial jobs. When I moved back to Wales I began creating the work I wanted to be making.

What would you like to do next? 
I would like to direct short films, in line with the work I’ve been making, and start a youth group with Clémentine. 

Merthyr Rising with photographer Tom Johnson

Merthyr Rising with photographer Tom Johnson

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to become a freelance creative director?
Don’t compare yourself to others and keep pushing forward. Giving advice to young people is difficult, because you don’t always know what limitations they might face. Advising everyone to stick with education and go to university is easier said than done.

I’d definitely encourage young people, creative or not, to find local youth groups to attend. Being part of a group is really important. It gives you a sense of belonging and improves your ability to work with others, which is key in the creative industry.

With social media, it’s more likely that young people compare themselves to what they see online, which I’d advise against. Everyone comes from a different place and sometimes people climb the ladder much quicker than others. 

Posted 28 March 2018 Interview by Arielle Bier
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Photography
Mentions: Charlotte James
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