Filipino–Australian photographer James J. Robinson empowers his subjects – whether celebrated or unknown – with an aesthetic of excess. By Michael Sun.

Photographer James J. Robinson

Photographer James J. Robinson.
Photographer James J. Robinson.
Credit: Supplied

James J. Robinson loves chainsaws. In all their unwieldy violence, they’ve appeared in the unlikeliest of hands over the Filipino–Australian polymath’s decade-long career. Most recently, one’s been brandished by Camp Cope’s Georgia Maq, garbed in nun’s habit and outsize crucifix, in a snarling photographic protest outside George Pell’s former diocese. Before that, Parasite star Park So-dam held one like an instrument, perched atop a banquet setting, cutting her way – literally – into a whitewashed film academy.

And then there’s the glorious Stihl catching the light just right in a shoot with Robinson’s great-aunt, the late Aunty Norma. There’s something sublime about the Patrick Bateman air of it all – her sumptuous furs, the glint behind her sunglasses, the deranged glee, as if to say: don’t mess with me.

Excess is the point. The chainsaw is an outlandish prop, but it’s also an externalisation of the power Robinson hopes to imbue in his subjects – celebrities and family alike – over a career that encompasses still image, lighting design, documentary and an upcoming feature film.

If photography as Susan Sontag understood it was “subliminal murder”, then Robinson’s is reanimation. The people he shoots wrest back their agency through any means possible. “James is … deeply invested in bringing intentionality and care into his work,” says author Fariha Róisín, who recognised a kindred spirit when he photographed her for a magazine interview in 2017. “[He’s] actively worked to bring that into spaces so devoid of that level of being.”

As Robinson himself tells me: “My job isn’t to be like, ‘I’m the photographer and this is my eye, and I’m showing the world what I think of you.’ I want you to tell me how you want to be seen.”

When we meet for coffee in Sydney’s inner west, it’s already been a day of omens for Robinson. He’d flown up from Melbourne the morning before to shoot musician Thelma Plum for the cover of the newly relaunched InStyle Australia. But on his way to the airport, he had a sinking realisation: he’d left his luggage, with all his camera gear, at home.

With a MacGyver-esque save with borrowed equipment, he managed to make it work – though not without a spell of blinding rain and gale-force winds. “It was pissing down … I was like ‘Is Mercury in retrograde?’ And it was.”

He’s also preparing for his upcoming exhibition, On Golden Days, which is showing at Melbourne’s Hillvale Gallery as part of biennial photography festival PHOTO 2022 before heading to Tokyo later this year. As his first solo show, it marks another milestone in a career full of them.

In the past few years he has accrued international credits like badges, having shot everyone from chart-topping rapper Megan Thee Stallion to Euphoria’s breakout star Sydney Sweeney. On Golden Days feels more personal by default – a break from producing work for others to fully gestate ideas that he’s been ruminating on for his entire career: critiques of Hollywood’s myth-making machine and the white history it has constructed in its wake.

The result is a series of 10 images and one short film that recast classic American genres – the musical, the western, the Hughesian coming-of-age – with east and south-east Asian characters. Beehives and bouffants abound. One image, the show’s standout, looks like it could belong anywhere from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes to Singin’ in the Rain, a huddle of suited male admirers surrounding their diva under stage light. Another features a model standing akimbo in a leather vest, her gun cocked in a parody of the cowboy – a figure Robinson sees as a coloniser. “The cowboy narrative is someone who comes into a community of outlaws and helps ‘save’ them … like, that’s what the Spanish did to my fucking home country. And they fucked up our country by being like, ‘We’re going to bring Christianity to the Philippines and make them civilised.’ ”

On Golden Days is a culmination of Robinson’s hyperbolic fantasies. His photography has always felt like a mirage. Certain visual elements have become his signature: the hypersaturated hues that bathe his subjects in neon glows; the dramatic wisps of fog machine smoke floating across the frame. His style has been described as otherworldly, but I’d say it’s more an elevation of our present world into one – just out of reach – that we wish we inhabited. Robinson gives us permission to romanticise. There are threads of poetry sewn into each of our existences, his work proselytises. If only we could unravel their mysteries.

Suddenly, it becomes clear that a sculpted reality is taking place in this cafe, too. There are people in all black hoisting lighting rigs and lenses. In the corner, actors – we assume – have emerged from nowhere, taking their positions as last-minute adjustments flurry around them: a loose hair tucked back into place, a table nudged this way or that. We have somehow become interlopers in this shoot.

“Are you extras?” a director asks us, and Robinson wonders what they’re making. It ends up being a Foxtel drama. “Get that Screen Australia funding!” he jokes, as we’re unceremoniously ushered out, facing a drizzle that rapidly becomes a downpour. When we arrive at the next place – an outside table at a local joint, metres away from a bus stop that periodically heaves with noise – we are mildly soaked.

Robinson is unfazed. He zips up his windbreaker a little tighter. It feels fitting: a sudden downpour forms part of Robinson’s first light-bulb moment, when he realised the poeticism of life itself. Raised in Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs by a white father and a Filipina mother, he felt alienated from his richer, whiter peers, navigating a universally diasporic kind of trauma. He remembers a kindergarten teacher who sneered at his usage of a Tagalog word in class. “I felt like I was in trouble … I struggled for a really long time by being like, ‘I’m just going to lean into my whiteness, because that constantly gets me into the good books.’ I’m realising the different ways that it still affects my behaviour.”

He learnt to be a quiet observer – “I was a nerd,” he says – and one day, at his Catholic high school, he witnessed a miracle. “We had a brand new chapel that no one ever went near during recess or anything, and then one day it was pouring – and everyone went to the chapel to be under the eaves so they could be dry. I was like: holy shit, if that was in a book, I’d be like, ‘This is such a beautiful metaphor for people running to the church in times of need but not being there otherwise.’ There’s subtext in real life too. There is poetry in things that aren’t controlled by a person.”

That realisation led him to the “emotional imagery” of Tumblr’s golden era, he admits sheepishly. The emotion, of course, was teen angst. Experimenting with his dad’s film camera, he soon started posting his own shots of friends posing with perfectly curated Penguin Classics in thick-rimmed glasses, or holding vinyls “in those hats with the dangly…” He erupts into manic laughter before he can finish describing the get-up.

He moved to New York at 21, fresh out of university, to pursue photography seriously. “It fucked my mental health. It felt like there was so much work happening every day, and that to keep up, you also needed to be working every single day. It’s just so not sustainable … and it really fucks with your ego.”

As Robinson’s star grew, picking up bylines in Vogue and Wonderland magazines with the likes of Kylie Jenner before his lens, so did his mounting indecision – around his place in the industry, as well as what he felt was the misalignment between his political values and those of the brands he was working for. When he was starting out, a peer advised him to measure success not by quality but by the quantity of his commercial work.

“It’s so performative!” he says. “I had a big identity crisis [after doing] a job for Burberry in the same year that all these reports were coming out about Burberry burning their stock that doesn’t sell. Capitalism is at the root of so many of the systems I disagree with, so why do I want my work to exist in that world? Why do I want my work to essentially just make money?”

He spent a few years adrift, hurtling between countries as he balanced precariously between work and everything else, the scales always, inevitably, tilted towards the former. In a stroke of luck he ended up back in Melbourne, reunited with his partner, just as borders between Australia and the United States were closing.

Lockdown gave him time: to read Vit Thanh Nguyn’s Nothing Ever Dies, which introduced him to the commodification of nostalgia – the way “memory is essentially farmed by corporations … to sell you an idea of the past, to sell you an idea of history”.To reflect on a Cathy Park Hong essay from Minor Feelings, where she calls Wes Anderson’s characters “mid-century white, the scrubbed white of Life magazine ads”, the happy-go-lucky tweens of Anderson’s ’60s pastiche Moonrise Kingdom frolicking in a hermetic pastoral fantasy that shields them from the civil rights movement of their era. To sit in his increasing discomfort around the films and genres he adored so much.

“I love musicals,” he confesses. “I know every single word to Phantom of the Opera. This last week I got back into Chicago again. I feel like I don’t let that out very often … [But] this is a genre that has excluded us so much in the past.”

This was the genesis of On Golden Days – a corrective to past oversights, an alternative history that imagines a utopia where our cultural vernacular isn’t written by white media. “If I had authentic representation, where would I be with my insecurities? And where would I be with my shame by now?”

Robinson is well-versed in the galvanising power of art. I guess we have to talk about it, I tell him – “it” being the high school uniform he set on fire last November in response to the sexual assault allegations against a former student. The school was Melbourne’s elite Catholic institution St Kevin’s and the narrative was nothing new to any of its alumni. Within hours, the photograph Robinson took of the now-iconic burning blazer, black plumes of smoke spilling across the school oval, undammed a wave of responses from other victims of the “insidious culture” that is, he says, ingrained into private, religious schooling.

Robinson continues to receive messages from people sharing their own tales of shame and healing. “I think there had always been a bit of an echo chamber, where I felt I could deconstruct political things in subtle ways in my work, but it wasn’t until the burning blazer that I realised, ‘Oh!’ ” – he lights up – “ ‘you can actually have literal effects [on people].’ ”

The experience has given him a sense of optimism for his latest exhibition – so much so that I can tell he thinks I’m being too cynical when I ask him about On Golden Days’ representational politics. Might they feel insufficient in the face of increasing anti-Asian violence – a trend that has surged despite vast gains in Asian visibility within film and entertainment?

“It’s patience,” he says. “There’s such a tendency to be like, ‘Well, what’s the point of things like Crazy Rich Asians if this is still happening? Maybe we should just stop trying?’ I think it’s about making sure we don’t lose hope and we don’t lose that drive. It almost feels like a response [from the establishment]: ‘Stop trying, we’re always going to have that power.’ But … it’s not going to make us stop.

“What do people of colour know more than persevering? It’s embedded into our DNA.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 30, 2022 as "Everyday miracles".

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