The mystery of Facebook phenomenon Villager Jim - hailed as the 'Banksy of Sheffield'
His success is a classic tale of right place, right time and one which made an unhappy businessman a famous photographer. His identity is a mystery, earning him the tag the Banksy of photography.
So who is Villager Jim and how did his luck change?
He’s 55, is actually called Jim and lives in a village in the Peak District but wants to keep the exact location vague.
Jim doesn’t like fuss and is worried about the recent spate of dog nappings. His dogs feature on many of his pictures so he would be an obvious target.
And it was a dog picture which transformed the former software company boss into Villager Jim, a man with 335,000 Facebook followers whose most famous image has done £200,000 worth of business.
It all started when he snapped his labrador Dilly asleep in a chair and the image went viral. “I’d got a new lens and as Dilly started to sleep I leaned over and took her picture. It ended up changing my career.”
That’s because it has had 70 million views. “It was a picture of the moment, a combination of things you couldn’t make up if you did it a million times. It melted people’s hearts.”
Now he rubs shoulders with the Duke of Devonshire, who gives him access to private places and writes to him. “He’s been wonderful, sent me letters, all handwritten and in beautiful script. It’s a joy to get from someone so busy to tell me how much he loves my pictures. It’s not a bad contact to have.”
A rare public appearance was on Tv’s Countryfile with Helen Skelton. “All we did was giggle, but it was a fabulous experience and an incredible boost.”
His online shop has been running for about five years and he now has a warehouse to store the gifts which are made from his images.
A device is used to change his photos to a digital format which lasers can cut out and make coasters, mats, trinkets, you name, they do it.
There’s so many Jim needs a forklift truck. “The proudest achievement is my forklift!
“I’ve worked hard, I work every day of the year, even Christmas Day, I’m taking photos. I take photos on holiday, I live and breathe it, that never stops. It equals hard work and it also equals good experiences.”
He started the business by selling greetings cards which had his pictures on. “We went into newsagents and gift shops, 15 places and got 14 orders.
“So we were producing greetings cars and then I got a spread in The Times of Dilly pictures. A card company saw the pictures and got hold of me. They said you do the pictures, we’ll do the cards.”
Whatever he posts seems to work as his Facebook page gets 1,000 new recruits each week and he’s happy to help others.
“I met a guy on my travels who was a wildlife photographer who was telling me about Facebook and how he couldn’t get more than 400 followers. I gave him a shove on my page and he ended up with 22,000.”
What is his secret? “People love the variety of pictures and also we offer a storyline because I go out every day and post at least three pictures.
“It’s like a fisherman, you never know what you’re going to catch.”
It’s a long way from his software company which sold pioneering website designs. He built the business to a point where it employed 25 staff but he wasn’t enjoying it. “I fell out with my business partner, I got grey hairs and I got ill.”
That was nine years ago. He endured months of suffering and saw 10 consultants before finally being diagnosed with diabetic neuropathy. “I was in bed for about six months and I dreamt about photos.
“A locum consultant diagnosed me in Buxton, I got the right medication and was out of bed in 10 weeks. I decided I should do what I wanted to.”
Jim was born in Sheffield and grew up in Tom Lane, Nether Green. His business was in Sheffield but after his Subaru car was stolen he decided to get out.
A day trip to the Peak District with his wife proved fruitful when they saw a house for sale, put in an offer and moved.
The Peak District means so much to him he decided to run a Let’s Go Peak District Facebook site which has 92,000 followers.
“Sheffield will always be home but the Peak District means freedom.”
His biggest selling image is called the Ascent of Stag, taken in September 2014. “It’s on everything from table mats to canvases. It has probably done about £200,000 worth of business.
“When I first put it out people were saying it was photoshopped but I don’t do that. You’ll never find me removing something, what you see is what you get.
“This was a really soggy, foggy day and I was out near Chatsworth looking at Edensor Church.
“I was just before the church when I saw a guy with breeches on and then I saw two stags with their antlers up. Then another got up and another.
“I strapped my camera on and just thought, stay there, you are all in order.
“My heart was going through my chest, I kept thinking this isn’t happening.
“It was all thanks to a guy walking who the stags heard and got up in height order.”
A little bit of luck, which also happened with a picture he calls Bambi’s Friends. “I saw a deer between two trees and as I took the picture a squirrel shot out and got in the frame. It was a one in a million.”
So why the mystery over his identity? His quest for privacy has drawn comparisons with Banksy and started when he left a book of his photographs in a local pub.
“The landlord kept pointing me out when all I wanted was to have a quiet pint! I said the next book I published would have a made-up name for a laugh. Now it’s a brand!”
A brand which has won awards including a BBC Springwatch competition in 2012 with a starlings picture chosen from 50,000 entries.
He also won the British Wildlife Photography Awards 2013/2014, followed by Press Photo of the Year 2015 and 2016, then appeared on the BBC Countryfile show.
With the expanding range of merchandise and exciting opportunities ahead, Villager Jim is still bemused by his fame.
"I don't think most people want to know who I am," he said.
"That, together with the pictures and titles, make up what Villager Jim is about, I think."
He added: "We are an absolute nation of animal lovers - there is this annoyance that everything in the news is negative and people just want to escape for a bit."
Jim loves what he’s doing now and wouldn’t change it for anything. “Even if I won the lottery tomorrow I would still be doing exactly what I am doing. I don’t consider it work. I do work hard, I was up at 3am today and won’t finish until 7pm and I do that seven days a week.”
Villager Jim’s Facebook page is at https://www.facebook.com/VillagerJim and the online shop is at www.villagerjimsshop.com