Photographer James J. Robinson captures cinematic stills of some of the world’s biggest stars

Photography – Ally Chen and James J. Robinson
Words by Indah Dwyer

Authenticity and vulnerability meets celebrity.

James J Robinson’s images are striking. His take on the world is poetic but not romanticised, and his photographs are otherworldly but often shot in ordinary places. His Instagram is like opening the door to an alien planet, one that’s predominantly populated with famous celebrities like Kylie Jenner, Rihanna, Lily Rose-Depp and awe-inspiring creatives. His work is so aesthetic it hurts, but we’re not here to just talk about pretty pictures.

James is a Melbourne born Australian-Filipino photographer and filmmaker. Currently residing in New York, he has made a name for himself through the use of analog mediums and the intimate nature of his portrait photography. We spoke to him four years ago in an article titled ‘Young people doing cool things’, and today that title still rings true. Oh, and he’s a real Cancerian – something he brings up more than once during our interview.

“I’ve always been inspired through photography,” James says. “But once trying it, I realised it can actually be a means to do something rather than just taking photos.” James aired this idea in a Ted Talk he did in April last year. He was inspired by asking himself how he can do work that aligns more with his politics and moral compass. “When I started reflecting and reviewing all my insecurities, I pinpointed them back to high school and experiences growing up,” he says. “Then I started to see how much of an effect media had played on shaping my identity.”

Once James realized how much media had effected him, it confirmed to him the power it has to shape personalities, give people hope or even make someone feel included. “It can be a means to affect someone beyond just interesting them,” James says. “I’m someone who loves taking care of people. When I realised I could couple that with my work it just gave me so much more motivation.”

Growing up, films helped positively shape James’ identity, particularly Asian cinema. “Film is a really quick medium that can help heal people in many ways,” James says. “A lot of times I have been in a bad mood or a certain mood and watching a film has lifted my spirits, which means it has the capacity to heal.” 

This love of film is perhaps why James’ most memorable connection so far with a subject was when he photographed LuLu Wang, the director of The Farewell, earlier last year on the rooftop of his house in New York. “There was this amazing energy of her completely trusting me even though she didn’t know me,” he laughs. “It is so nice that someone can trust your vision and where you’re coming from.”

It’s this trust and openness that creates an experience for his subjects that is authentic. Whether shooting celebrities or including his diverse friends and family members, James casts people he finds interesting beyond what they do or how they are known. “My work is all about creating a character and then building up some form of the narrative,” he explains.

His use of lighting helps bring his characters to life – it’s how you feel the atmosphere rather than see it. Bathed in intense neon light, the subjects appear like a still from an art-house movie. “When I was reading the work of all these different authors that had this form of poetic realism, I started to visualise all these scenes in my head and how I could bring it to life,” James says. 

His imagination was fuelled by experimentation, something he was able to explore while taking photos of his friends in Melbourne. “I was just trying to hyperbolise someone’s personality into something or bring it down the front of the camera,” James says. “Taking photos of friends or family members that are a bit more shy to me is such an aesthetic way of shooting.”

When it comes to the day of the shoot James will always take that extra step to ensure everyone is safe and feeling comfortable on set, especially when it comes to the female models. 

“It is important to sit down with them and ask if anyone on set is making them feel uncomfortable, or [whether] I am asking them to do something that makes them uncomfortable,” James says. “I need to give them the space to tell me that. If there is something making them feel uncomfortable, I need to remove what is happening out of the equation.” 

This openness is how James approaches each shoot, and he has a level of transparency that is too often absent in the industry. “You have to drop all ego on set,” he explains. And rightly so, because being a fangirl is unfortunately not part of the job description. To James, it is as simple as “…working with them rather than against them.” 

“They’re not with a celebrity, I’m not a big photographer, I’m not even a photographer,” he says. “I’m just someone meeting another person. I’m just wanting to capture who they are and break down the concept of profile.” 

What James is doing goes a little deeper than just capturing people in their element. James is exposing us to all the different forms that beauty takes. By including his beautiful queer friends, he has used his skills to capture real people in ways that feel authentic to them. 

The result is honest images that capture his practice and his subject in that given moment. When you look at his photos, you can almost hear him say, ‘Look, I love this person; now you can see how beautiful they are too.’ 

You can view more of James’ work here.

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