The Expat: James Eccleston

Born: Worcestershire, UK
Lives: Almagro
Education: Graphic design degree at University of Salford
Profession: Freelance art director and creator of
Book: How to Be a Graphic Designer without Losing Your Soul
Film: Hotel Budapest
Gadget: Milk frother

While James Eccleston came to Buenos Aires with the simple intention of a little travel and language learning, four years on he’s ready to move on and will take in the rest of South America via his photography project ¿Qué te hizo feliz? (What Made You Happy?).

James says: “I was living in London and had split up with my girlfriend and we ended up selling our house as well. It had reached a point where I’d quit my full-time job and was freelancing at that time so I had a window of opportunity: I basically thought that if I didn’t leave London now, I never would.

“I came to Buenos Aires to learn Spanish and gave myself six months to see how things went before going to Australia, but then I met my ex-girlfriend and decided to stay. That was in 2010.”

A good fit
Talking about upping sticks, the freelance art director makes planning the move sound simple – because it was. James says: “I wanted to live abroad or at least travel, and I looked at Asia but that seems quite crazy and really far from home. But when I looked at Buenos Aires, it had a good mixture of being a little bit exotic but not too different. Some Spanish friends also told me it was very artistic and so that made it seem like a right fit – it was a combination of things, not just ‘I love tango.'”

But once James got to Buenos Aires, the start was a little bit hairy. “My taxi driver got lost around Ezeiza on the day I arrived and we were driving around some kind of semi-shantytown. Then we finally arrived at Billinghurst and Charcas where I lived with a family for a month, and that was hell! I had this strange idea that I would learn more Spanish doing that but it didn’t work out – the woman was mad and made very bad eggs every morning! Plus she’d shout at me for not speaking Spanish to the others staying at the house – I’d only been there a couple of days!”

Back to work
After the first two months at language school, James went travelling to other parts of the continent, and it was on his return that things started to pick up, when he found a great fit in a full-time job. He says: “They took me under their wing as a Web designer, taught me a few things and gave me a lot of context. I was really lucky as it was just seven blocks from my house, and it was a place that gave me enough space to make a few mistakes but also learn. I don’t think I’d have that chance in London as an employer would spend two seconds looking online for a specialist, whereas here the competition isn’t as wide – they saw the guy from London’s CV and though ‘cool, let’s get him in!’

“It was a very relaxed place, you didn’t have to turn up on time and people drifted in and out. You could take a long time over lunch too – in fact, that company won a ‘best workplace’ award! The owner was very cool but I remember people shouting a lot in meetings.”

When James left that job, he moved to another place to head up a design team. “I was in charge of a team of five designers so dealing with expectations was interesting! Managing matters such as turning up to work on time, at least within an hour of nine o’clock – I found the different attitudes to work difficult – that was the biggest challenge!”

And while he now speaks good Spanish, he admits it took a while to get to that point. James adds: “At my previous job, the owner just wanted to speak English to me, and although my ex-girlfriend is Argentine we always spoke English to each other. But then about a year ago, I just suddenly improved. But it still should be better!”

What made you happy?
After four years, James is slowly but surely on his way out of Argentina, although the final destination is a mystery for the time being. But one thing is certain: he’s going to travel around the continent for the next four months for his photography project ¿Qué te hizo feliz? (What Made You Happy?).

He says: “I’ve already started my project but I’m going to travel around most of Latin America and interview people, asking them what made them happy this week, then take their portrait. The aim is to have an exhibition at the end of the trip.

“I’ve always been interested in photography and I planned a journey from Buenos Aires to North America by land – that’s when I realized this was an amazing opportunity to do something. I took loads of photos last time I travelled and saw that I needed a theme or a concept. I also wanted to do something positive, rather someone from the first world moaning about the lacks of jam flavours! It’s a simple idea.

“I’ve taken lots of photos in Buenos Aires, Ushuaia, Brazil and Chile, and made a good start already. When I kick off in a few weeks, the first stop is Salta and the idea is to reach New York and focus on some Latin communities there.

“The majority of people are random, simply people I cross paths with. The other day I was walking past Abasto shopping centre and saw an old woman with a duck. I had to take a photo of her! And she said that her duck made her very happy – it was a great photo! Other gems include a really nice photo of the asador at my local parrilla – he must be about 80! – while another is of a guy walking 18 dogs, whose happiness stems from that. It’s surprising the number of people who choose their everyday life as their happiness point – it’s reassuring. Dog-walking, family and friends, ‘my duck’ and also food – those are recurrent themes!”

Although he’s lived in various parts of this capital including Once, Barrio Norte and San Telmo, James has most recently made the Abasto area his home. “I used to live in Once and there was nothing to do there. It was empty and didn’t feel very safe, plus there was a lack of sunlight as the buildings were so tall. Now I live in Almagro, which is really good – it’s not like Palermo but there are lots of cafés, bakeries and a few bars. It’s a bit hippy and very creative, and there are lots of underground theatres. It’s still a bit rough round the edges and hasn’t been gentrified yet but it has lots going on. It’s Buenos Aires!”

Buenos Aires Herald, October 25, 2014
Ph: James Eccleston

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