Photos: James Mitchell
James Mitchell is one of the foremost triathlon photographers. Traveling around the world photographing the world’s best long distance triathletes, you’ll find Mitchell right in the action on the back of a motorcycle, at the finish line, and even underwater to get the perfect shot. But before he was JM Photography and known for his incredible underwater shots, he was a website designer who was afraid of open water.
Mitchell’s fear of the open water started on a holiday. “I went to an aqua park in Florida where you could swim with fish. The water was so cold, and I had a panic attack,” Mitchell says. “I blamed it on the fish,” he laughs. Despite living on the island of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, for twelve years Mitchell was too afraid to go in the open water until his friend, a local triathlon coach, needed a new website. “I was doing website design back then and I was telling him about my fear of the open water. He thought it was a breath control issue and invited me out to the beach. I showed up in a kite surfing wetsuit with a face mask for snorkeling,” Mitchell recalls. “He gave me my first pair of swim goggles and we swam 25 meters. The next time we did 50 meters, then 100 meters, and every day we did a bit more. I was doing two kilometers non-stop within two weeks.”
“I figured out my fear was irrational and that once I had control of my breathing…Well, I got to the point where I lost that fear and I felt like I could swim the Channel,” Mitchell smiles. After he conquered his fear, Mitchell started to join his friend on the bike after swimming and met other triathletes. It wasn’t long until Mitchell did his first triathlon, an Olympic distance, and then, only eight weeks after that, he finished his first Ironman. “I did five full Ironmans and a few half distance races after that.”
By then, Mitchell had moved away from website design and more into photography, specifically, into triathlon photography, merging his two passions. Swimming photoshoots proved to be the most challenging. “The more shoots I did with pro athletes, the more I realized I couldn’t get the photos I wanted above the surface; so, I started looking at how to take the best photos underwater,” Mitchell says.
Mitchell experimented with different underwater housing for his camera, various settings, and even with what he was wearing. “It was practice, practice, practice. Working out what angles work, how to stay underwater without floating, using different breathing methods. I even bought a dive tank at one point,” he says. “But simplicity is best. Now my base set up is my camera, Outtex housing [a flexible waterproof silicone cover], a dive belt, wetsuit, swim cap, and swimming goggles.” Goggles proved to be one of the last pieces of the puzzle. “I always struggled with goggles, taking them on and off to review images, but I can leave THEMAGIC5 goggles on and still see the back of the camera. I can even look through the viewfinder underwater. They don’t cloud up or leak and I can shoot a full session without having to take them off. I can actually see more of what I’m doing.”
From having a fear of the open water to working in it, Mitchell says he now enjoys being underwater. “It’s peaceful. There’s no sound except the swimmer passing and the beat of their kick,” he says. Still, working in an environment that is constantly changing, where you must hold your breath, and you only have a second to get the perfect shot, the water is still one of his greatest challenges as a photographer. “The light is particularly difficult because it changes all the time but that’s also why I love shooting underwater.”
One of Mitchell’s hardest underwater shoots was in a more controlled water environment: the London Aquatic Center. Although he was working with pro triathlete power-couple Lucy Charles-Barclay and Reece Barclay, the photoshoot had nothing to do with triathlon. After shooting their wedding, Mitchell had the idea to do an underwater shoot with the two athletes in their wedding attire. “I had never shot in an indoor pool before,” Mitchell says. “Since I had flown over for the wedding, I couldn’t take all my underwater equipment, namely my diving belt because it’s so heavy,” he explains. “I couldn’t stay underwater long enough before floating to the surface. The solution: my friend, who is also a pro triathlon photographer, stripped down to his underwear and stood on my shoulders to hold me down under the water! We also didn’t anticipate the weight of the wedding dress. Lucy said she was worried a few times she wouldn’t be able to resurface. Lucky for us, she’s an incredible swimmer and can hold her breath for a long time.”
Mitchell’s impressionable work has been in and on the cover of books and magazines, on television, and, of course, in all forms of digital media. While his friends joke that he “just clicks a camera button and that’s it,” Mitchell says it’s more than learning the technical side of things. “I’m always looking for that moment where someone is working hard—the bubbles out of the nose, the energy of them coming past—I want that in the photo. It’s not just someone in motion, it’s capturing the energy flowing.”