James J. Robinson‘s images look as if they could be plucked straight out your favourite movie—which makes sense, given that filmmaking was his first love.
Robinson is that confusing dichotomy of a humble overachiever; at just 17, he’d co-founded agency and publishing house AEVOE, where he managed over 40 artists from around the globe, connecting them with clients and publishing their work. Now in his mid-twenties, he’s shot with everyone from the New York Times to Rihanna, Vogue and Tame Impala, but it’s really capturing the lives of people who don’t often get the spotlight that keeps his fire burning. A passionate advocate for LGBTQIA rights (his image of a nun with a chainsaw outside George Pell’s former archdiocese should tell you all you need to know about his view of the institutions that continue to govern Australia), Robinson uses his gift of photography to tell the stories of the people he never saw in front of the camera growing up. The word ‘genius’ is overcooked these days but, fuck it: this kid’s a genius.
What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?
Wordle–I’m hooked. It’s the first thing I think of when I’m even remotely conscious.
What’s a project or series you’ve worked on lately that you’ve been super proud of?
I’m currently in the middle of shooting my first proper solo exhibition, On Golden Days. It’s the biggest project I’ve ever done where I’m in complete creative control, thanks to the very generous support of the Australia Council for the Arts. For the past few years, I’ve been reflecting on the nostalgia industry after seeing the resurgence of 90’s fashion and watching films like Licorice Pizza or Moonrise Kingdom that operate on the director’s longing for the past. It made me think, ‘I wish I grew up in the’ 60s.’
But reflecting deeper on this, I thought, wait a minute: I’m queer, very in touch with my femininity, and also half Filipino… I maybe wouldn’t have had the best time. On Golden Days deconstructs the white perspective of the nostalgia industry. It calls into question how damaging it can be to always show the past in such a positive light because while it may have been an incredible time for someone like Paul Thomas Anderson or Wes Anderson, it can stop us from reconciling with painful history; and in turn, make it easier to make the same mistakes. You’ll see how I deconstruct this when I announce the show, but I have the most incredible team of 50 cast and crew helping me bring the idea to life and it’s the most creatively fulfilled I’ve felt in a long time.
You recently created work aligned with Equality Australia regarding the Equal Opportunity Amendment Bill. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you see your work playing a part in important issues like these?
I struggled for a long time in the vacuum of the film and photography industry, wondering how I could make work that aligned closer to my ethics. The art and especially the fashion world can sometimes feel elitist and self-serving. How can visual arts actually help people? I went back to my own relationship with the media and realised I really started my journey toward healing after beginning to see depictions of myself in films like Moonlight or Like Father, Like Son.
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Since then, I’ve tried to harness the power of visibility to help people feel seen and encourage the steps toward generational or societal healing. Seeing teams like Equality Australia gave me such a deep admiration for the people who are trying to make the world a better place, and finding a way to do that with my profession, even in a small way, has been very energising and directional.
You’ve also mentioned that you’ve been trying to find ways to reduce the carbon footprint of your shoots, which is something that doesn’t get spoken about too much. What advice would you give to any photographers out there trying to do the same?
I did a shoot for a sustainable brand in LA a few years ago, and it felt incredibly performative to have flown people from around the world to shoot, have single-use plastic on set, and separate cars for each crew and cast. All for a brand trying to sell an image of sustainability? I now have a sustainability guideline I share with clients for any commercial projects. This involves using local talent and crew, offsetting carbon for any absolutely necessary flights, carpooling where possible, no plastic on set, bringing our own water bottles, using LED lighting over Tungsten, and figuring out compost and recycling plans where possible.
What was the last thing you read, saw, or listened to that inspired you?
I saw Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s animated documentary Flee at the Sydney Film Festival last year, and it’s still all I think about. Seeing the intersection of social issues like displacement and queerness told in such a sincere way absolutely gutted me. It really reinforced my understanding of the power of visibility.
You’ve shot some pretty iconic people over the years. Who’s been one of your favourite people in front of the camera?
Photographing Vanessa Hudgens was particularly incredible. She’s also half Filipino, and I had a primarily Asian crew working on our set. There was this immediate sense of family and closeness between all of us, which I believe really disarms someone when they get in front of the camera.
What’s another talent people might not know you have?
I still have a lot to learn, but I’m a pretty good cook. I’ve been cooking for everyone before we shoot on certain sets recently. I think it can help break down some unhelpful power dynamics if you do something thoughtful in service to the whole crew.
What does the world need more of in 2022?
Listening. There’s no point in giving voices to people who haven’t had one if everyone is still talking all the time.