Some people are just so talented it hurts. One of said talented people is James J Robinson. But rather than be jealous of the Melbourne photographer and filmmaker, we’re pretty stoked because this homegrown talent is making waves around the world with his moody, thought-provoking work.
He first picked up a camera at 18 and in just five short years, he’s become one of the most exciting young talents in the industry boasting clients like The New York Times, Vogue Magazine, Nylon and Adidas, as well as working with the likes of Kylie Jenner and Rihanna.
Now living and working in New York, he’s returning to Australia next month to speak at TEDxYouth in Sydney. He carved some time out of his busy schedule to chat with us about cinematic inspirations, knowing your worth and the importance of being a nice person.
What triggered your passion for photography?
My passion for photography is really triggered from my love of other things, rather than photography itself. When I was younger I didn't have the resources to be making film, and as much as I love literature, I don't really have the patience to write a book or poetry, so photography was a natural path for me and a super quick and easy way to use the same skills that I was learning from other mediums. Photography encapsulates a lot of the things that I love about literature, telling a story and building characters, in the same way that I can practice the technical skills of setting up a shop, casting and finding locations when I make a film.
Have you done any courses to hone your craft?
I have a degree in film and television from Swinburne University, but I wouldn't say it helped me hone my craft. My experience in the industry was always at odds with what my teachers were telling me.
So getting a more hands on experience was more helpful for you?
Yes, definitely. Photography or filmmaking is so subjective and unless you have teachers who understand that and can critique in a really objective way, it's kind of difficult to actually teach something like that. I found that when I was actually in the industry and doing jobs and learning all the skills and meeting other people who were doing the same kind of work, that was really what formed my education more so than my degree.
How did you break into the industry?
Putting it simply and honestly, it's just a mix of luck, hard work and the people that you're friends with. Melbourne was such a great place to start for me because so many of my friends were musicians, fashion designers and models so it was a really natural process of collaboration and through that I was able to refine my skills. I also had a lot of support from local publications after doing a bit of free work for them which helped get my name out there.
And making your mark?
It’s a really saturated industry, so the main thing that was important to me was to build a brand that would differentiate myself from other people's work. From the very beginning, the way that I was lighting photos to the mediums I was shooting on and the people I was casting was always kind of different to what other photographers where doing. Having that point of difference was what allowed me to start being recognised.
What inspires your work?
Many things but mostly Asian cinema. Being half Filipino, I grew up watching it and am constantly inspired by my favourite filmmakers from Taiwan, Korea and Japan. A lot of people describe my work as being cinematic. I guess when I'm directing models, I'm not really asking them to pose in a certain way, I'm thinking who is this model, what's their character and what's something they could be doing in the shot?
It's a tough industry, what's something you've had to overcome and how did you do it?
There’s a lot but mainly dealing with people who underestimated my skills because of my age. I started out when I was just 18, so things like clients paying less than the going rate was pretty common. Now that I've moved to New York and I've established a professional career, I’ve really learnt how you're meant to be treated as the artist. I know now that whenever someone asks me for a last-minute edit on something that I need to charge for that.
What's been some of your biggest “fuck yeah” moments so far?
I guess the parameters for what defines a ‘fuck yeah’ moment is always kind of different the more you progress. For me, being able to shoot my grandma for a fashion magazine was just as big a fuck yeah moment as being asked to shoot a project for Rihanna.
How much has social media played a part in your journey?
It’s played a huge part. Most of my clients here in New York and back in Australia find my work through Instagram. Social media also means that artists no longer need to rely on an industry to exhibit their work. It puts them in control of their brand.
What is your advice for someone trying to pursue a career in film and photography?
I think it's really important for me to not be one of those photographers who is like work for free and work really hard. That's what I did, I worked for free for a long time, but I also recognise that I was really lucky to be able to live with my parents while I was kicking off my career and my financial situation allowed me to work for free. Realistically most artist aren't going to be able to afford going down that path and working for free all the time. So, my best advice to people is to trust in your taste and be a nice person. Knowing what kind of work you like is really all you need because then you have a standard that you can set yourself and work towards it.
It's also so important to be really nice and not get too competitive or jealous in the industry. Having friends in it makes it so much more fun and easier to get jobs. You build up a reputation so quickly if you're rude to people on set or you're mean to anyone. So I think more than anything else really just being a nice person is enough to make a good impression when you're first starting out; that's really what's going to bolster you in the long run in the industry.
Finally, what’s an average day like for James J Robinson?
6am: I have clients in Australia, Asia and Europe so I always wake up to a full inbox.
9am: I'm always in post-production for a job, so now it’s time to edit.
12pm: I make some lunch and hit the gym.
2pm: I meet with clients, drop off film to get processed and pick up equipment for another shoot.
6pm: I love shooting at sunset, so I’ll be behind the camera.
9pm: Dinner is cooked and I'm off to bed.
If you want to hear more from James J Robinson, you can get your tickets for TEDxYouth here.
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Image Credit: Supplied, Oyster Magazine