Inside James J. Robinson's Political Photobook
"We represent what is usually skipped over, discarded or transparently tokenised."
Our pal James J. Robinson just made his first photobook, in which he casually deconstructs white beauty in fashion photography and advocates for sustainability. The smart guy cast legends like Raenee Sydney and Madeleine Madden, alongside cool youths from South Korea and Japan, in immersive images designed to challenge the oppressive norms that exist within the fashion industry/whole world.
Called After Hours, the project saw James shoot by street light at night in an effort to promote waste reduction by showing that you don't need to hire a million lights in order to ~get the shot~.
We sat down with James to talk about the cool utopia he seeks to create in his inclusive photos.
Alexandra Manatakis: You are primarily a filmmaker, what made you want to produce a photobook?
James J. Robinson: In creativity, I find that any art form has an avenue of quick expression — if you are a painter you can do a quick drawing, etc. but if you are a filmmaker, it's impossible to just instantly make a film when you are feeling inspired. So photography has become my way of expressing cinematic creative impulses. It still requires the same general skills — casting, location scouting, choosing cameras and lighting — but it's just a quicker way to practice them.
Can you give us a bit of background on After Hours? What inspired the project?
I guess, artistically, my inspiration was the same as it is for everything I do: Japanese auteur Yasujiro Ozu and his films that focus on "moments in-between". His films will cut away to random shots irrelevant to the progression of plot and this invokes a kind of poetic realism around characters that extends their world beyond what we see on screen. Ozu, and other filmmakers who use similar techniques, like Hayao Miyazaki and Hirokazu Kore-eda, tend to describe this as "mu" or "ma" and it stresses the importance of the interval or negative space. In After Hours, by shooting exclusively at night, we worked during the in-between of busy weekdays and took advantage of this calm temporal moment when most people have switched off.
Are there any specific Ozu films that informed After Hours?
The idea for After Hours was informed by Martin Scorsese's After Hours as well as an Ozu film called That Night's Wife. It's one of his silent films made in 1930 that happens over the course of one night, and it captures this dichotomy of night being both peaceful and totally chaotic. I shot in so many places around the world, mostly after midnight, and it's interesting to see this dichotomy first-hand. For example, shooting in Jonggak (Seoul) there was this frantic post-midnight chaos of people enjoying the nightlife but this is totally antithetical to shooting at the same time in Melbourne's suburbs where it's totally peaceful.
There are some strong political and social motivations behind the book, can you talk us through those?
Basically what I am trying to explore through the book is the question: can I make fashion photography political? Can I express my opinions on institutional racism and environmentalism through a creative medium that is primarily used to sell things? Obviously there are exceptions to this, but in general, I do heaps of fashion photography and find it draining as an artist because it's difficult to assert meaning when you're so focused on making the product or model look good.
How do you hope to challenge or change that?
When you look at fashion photography as a medium, it is so frequently used to normalise this idea of white beauty. As a person of colour, understanding the way that the media enforces hegemonic white beauty through fashion photography is something that I'm motivated to deconstruct. It also all goes back to that concept of "mu" — if white beauty is the prevailing archetype of fashion photography then my cast of minorities is the "in-between" — we represent what is usually skipped over, discarded or transparently tokenised.
What were your motivations for shooting around the world?
My choice to shoot globally was concerned with fashion photography being problematic world-wide. Regardless of where you are in the world, there are always people trying to sell clothes. So, trying to encourage fashion photographers to use the medium in a more inclusive and expressive way is a universal pledge. I'm also commonly finding that across the world, the effects of colonialism continue to ripple into the industry; it is common to see white faces all over fashion advertisements in Asia for example. After Hours isn't about fashion, it's about taking a form of photography that has made people of colour feel uncomfortable in their own skin and turning it into an empowering medium where we can exist outside of the white gaze.
Can you tell us a bit about the environmental message too?
Yes, apart from advocating for the deconstruction of white beauty in fashion photography, I'm also taking a stand for energy consumption and environmentalism. The main thing that frustrates me when I am doing any form of film or photography is the amount of energy I waste on lighting. Continuous lighting consumes so much energy, especially considering how long the lights need to be on to ensure you get the right shot. With this in mind, my main motivation for doing this book was to take fashion photography into the night-time with no use of artificial light; where I could recycle lights that sit there wasting energy with no one around to consume them.
That's kind of the heart of the book I'd say — regardless of where I was shooting, I was not using any additional light. Most of the time, because After Hours was mainly shot after midnight, there was no one around and there was no real purpose for the lights to be on. So using them for the shoots not only created beautiful landscapes but it also gave these lights momentary purpose and saved energy.
How did you go about casting for After Hours?
I approached casting like I do when I make films. I'm not selling anything with these shoots so my decisions leaned towards people who could express emotion with their faces very naturally. The book is also about working with people that have inspired me in the past and have reputations for standing against the patriarchy in some form. All my work is about intersectionality and minority alliance, so casting people who have the same mindset was a very natural decision.
For example, the cover features the kind-hearted and socially conscious Raenee Sydney, who was just in Tyrone Lebon's Calvin Klein campaign and Indigenous actress and social activist, Madeline Madden. When I was 14, I remember seeing Maddy on a TV advertisement that was an address to the nation. She spoke eloquently about the future of Indigenous Australians and how everyone can help end inequality. It inspired me because I remember it forced me to look inwards and see how I could make a positive change within the community by making a change within myself at a young age; it made me conscious for the first time of what was happening in Australia and it ignited a level of social activism within me. Having her on the cover was a very deliberate decision — I couldn't think of anyone better suited to act as the face of what I'm trying to express in the book.
How would you describe the world that exists within the pages of After Hours?
A lot of the fiction work I've made in film and photography exists in an idealised world where colours are saturated, people are nice and systematic oppression does not exist. It comes from being oppressed as a queer person of colour that I want to show people a colourful utopia that I dream about — a world without oppression. Whilst that's obviously never going to exist, it's kind of nice to just try, even if it only exists in the pages a book.
Photography: James J. Robinson
Intoduction: Lucy Jones
Interview: Alexandra Manatakis