Cambridge photo diarist Sir Cam: ‘We live in an amazingly beautiful city’
Something of a social media phenomenon, the intriguingly anonymous Sir Cam is hugely passionate about the city of Cambridge and about sharing his pictures and experiences in his Cam Diary.
In fact, so interwoven is he with the cultural fabric of Cambridge that Sir Cam’s work has even been instrumental in encouraging people – students included – to move to the city.
Since first putting his photographs online in 2007, the former student at the University of Cambridge, who says he finds photography “extraordinarily therapeutic” and “almost like a spiritual experience”, has amassed 14 million views and has shared more than 14,000 images.
Under the name @camdiary, Sir Cam’s work has proved to be extremely popular on Twitter and Instagram, leading to online conversations – and face-to-face meetings and advice sessions – with people from all over the world.
This year is a significant one for Sir Cam. “It’s my 40th year in Cambridge,” he revealed. “I came as a student in 1981 to research geology at Darwin College and the city just hasn’t let me go. I’m a perpetual student here, which is a lovely state to be in in a beautiful city like Cambridge.”
Sir Cam, who says autumn is his favourite time of year in the city, started his Cam Diary to document life in Cambridge, and says: “There is so much that goes on in this tiny city out in the fens, so I thought I’d create a photo diary, which actually emerged out of a written diary – that’s why I used the word ‘diary’.
“I have effectively been diarying and journalling since I was a teenager, and it stayed when I was at Cambridge. People started taking note of my scriblings and I was offered a newspaper column, and it was called the Cam Diary.”
Sir Cam had further written work published until 2007, when he decided to put down his pen and pick up a camera. “We’re all visual,” he explained, “we see with our eyes, we know what makes a good scene. We know what we love when we see something – a beautiful painting, a beautiful view from the Backs of the city, a beautiful building...
“So I am self-taught, if you want to use that word, but we’re all visual artists in some ways, we all have an appreciation of the visual around us. Photographers.... we’re all writers and we’re all artists in a way – it’s how seriously you take something, I guess.
“We all write but we’re not all journalists, we all write but we’re not all authors. We all make a photo these days especially with our phones...
“When I started my photo diary in March 2007, to seriously go around the city documenting on a regular basis, there were no [advanced camera] phones, there was no Instagram, there was no Twitter – which encouraged me to be visual and to document.”
Sir Cam is keen to stress that his diary is solely of the city. He strives to shift the focus away from himself and onto his work – hence the pseudonym – and says that he first used the name ‘Sir Cam’ in his writing days.
“I continue to use my pen name, which pre-dates me being a photographer,” he said. “It gave me a lot of freedom to write as I wanted to, and as a photographer – as a photo diarist – it allowed me to be in places, to go quietly into meetings without people knowing who I was, and to make pictures and document.
"People afterwards would say, ‘Oh, was Sir Cam here? I’ve seen his photo on Twitter’, or whatever.”
Sir Cam, who used to travel a lot throughout mainland Europe, says that being anonymous and having this air of mystery also allows him to “lead an independent, private life” and he enjoys spending time with his large extended family.
He reveals that the 14,000 images he has shared on social media over the past 14 years are “just a portion” of all the pictures he’s taken over the years.
“It’s a passion, this kind of work,” said Sir Cam, who is also something of a history buff. “We live in an amazingly beautiful city, and it’s such a huge privilege to be out there just seeing the beauty around the city – the natural beauty, the parks, the green environment, the college gardens, the University Botanic Garden...
“There’s so much natural beauty in the city and now the cows have come back out. Which city has that? You’ve got cows in the middle of the city centre! I come from a rural setting so I just love the preservation and the conservation of the green spaces in the city.”
A committed family man, he says that Cambridge “looks different every time you go out there” and calls his regular excursions into it his “photo walks”. He said: “It’s such a tiny city, but it does offer you new visions and new sights every day because of the weather, because of the seasons...
“I love architecture, so I love buildings and streets. I love historic buildings and I love new buildings as well because I like to see what architects can produce. There are some amazing new things coming up in West Cambridge, out towards the Cavendish.
"Over the 40 years it’s been a privilege to see some of the developments – some are good and some are disappointing.”
Endlessly enthusiastic, Sir Cam fondly recalls regularly bumping into a fellow lover-of-all things Cambridge, the late Allan Brigham, while out and about. He says he feels like a recently-arrived tourist whenever he’s walking the streets of the city and that he’s constantly “wowed” by it.
Known for producing breathtaking pictures of sunrises, Sir Cam reveals that he actually finds it hard to get up early. “People see my sunrises and say, ‘Oh, Sir Cam’s been up’ as if I’m an early-riser,” he said.
“I’m not. It’s a huge challenge, but the motivation is there. When I’m out there, there’s nobody in the city – you have the place to yourself and you might be surprised by an amazing sight.
“It’s just stunning to be able to see the colours. You see these gorgeous colours from the Backs behind King’s College Chapel. To be the only one at 5am seeing that is such an extraordinary experience. I like to
share that experience, of me enjoying the beauty in the city.”
Sir Cam regularly receives messages from well-wishers, Cambridge aficionados and aspiring photographers – and even future students keen to meet up with him once they start university, having followed him on social media beforehand, and says he struggles to keep up with them all.
“I try my best,” he said. “I reply to messages, not so much on Twitter, but more on Instagram and other places.
“I try to encourage students and I do photo walks with them, and with Cambridge being a very international city, when the students go back to wherever they come from, they continue with the photo diary, so I’ve certainly inspired many photo diarists, let’s say – at least the very simple idea to go out there and connect with nature in their city and to discover their environment, and I say that it can be anywhere.
“Of course we’re lucky and we’re blessed in Cambridge, but I tell them that wherever they are there is beauty there. It’s the way you look at the world. If you’ve got beauty within you, you will see it, and photography is about seeing, it’s about looking, it’s about observing. Photography is about writing with light and you have to learn to see the light.”
Sir Cam believes that photo documentation should be treated first and foremost as an “experience”. “It’s not to get the ‘likes’, it’s not to say, ‘I’ve got a billion views or followers’ – those are distractions,” he said. “It’s nice of course, and I don’t want to sound negative – it’s a huge privilege to share.”
He added: “It is the work that is important. What’s not important is the cameraman or the camera. Students often ask me when we start talking about photography and being a photo diarist, ‘which camera?’, ‘what settings?’ and I say none of that is important.
“It’s how you look at the world which is important, it’s how you experience a city and how you observe the light and the beauty that is around you.”
As well as his work as a photo diarist, Sir Cam also set up the University of Cambridge’s Instagram account (@cambridgeuniversity), with which he is still actively involved. He notes that it is close to hitting one million followers and when it does, it will hopefully become the first European university to achieve this particular online milestone.
“We’ll certainly beat Oxford to it – hopefully!” he laughed.
Follow Sir Cam on Twitter and Instagram using @camdiary. His work can also be viewed at flickr.com/photos/camdiary.