Photographer and filmmaker James J. Robinson

“I still have a lot to learn, and I will only learn it if I slow down and listen.”

Have you ever stalked someone on LinkedIn and wondered how they managed to land that insanely awesome job? While that might seem like smooth sailing, there’s no doubt been a lot of hard work to get there.

So what lessons have been learned and what skills have proven invaluable in taking them from daydreaming about success to actually being at the top of their industry?


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welcome to how i got herewhere we chat with successful people in their respective fields about how they landed their awesome jobs, exploring the highs and lows, failures and victories, and most importantly the knowledge, tips and practical tricks they gleaned along the way.

At this year’s Melbourne Fashion Festival, we’re taking our beloved how i got here live series and interviewed three fashion industry insiders on how they landed their dream job. If you can’t make it to Melbourne, don’t worry – we’ll be sharing career stories and advice from our interviewees here too.

The first is James J. Robinson, an internationally acclaimed photographer born in Melbourne and based in Los Angeles. Late last year, a picture James took of a burning school blazer took the Australian media by storm. To capture the image, he broke into his alma mater, St. Kevins College in Melbourne. It was a protest against the school, which he said “is a bubble where privileged young men can repeat oppression without consequence, before graduating with flying colors in public.”

Although he is a wildly successful artist who has worked with Rihanna and Kylie Jenner, James’ photographs at St. Kevins speak to what matters most about his work – thinking critically about what art communicates to its audience and create accordingly. We talked to James about rolling with the punches, parting ways with his work and how slowing down helps him learn.

What do you do and what is your official function?

I am an artist working in several different mediums. I guess I’m best known publicly for my photography and film, but I also write, produce and do lighting design and supporting work.

Take us back to your beginnings. Did you study to get into your chosen field, or did you start with an entry-level internship/role and work your way up? Tell us the story.

I’ll be honest because I think there’s a lesson to be learned – in fact, I never wanted to be a photographer and never really cared about my career in the industry. Writing films has always been my true passion, and this whole career in photography has been just a beautiful part of the journey. I guess basically, I studied film while running a small creative agency right out of high school.

Initially, it was more of an event photography business where I managed a few photographers. I worked for a lot of friends for free through this company, and that’s how I started shooting my own work. I found it really fun collaborating with so many friends and bouncing their creative energy. The collaborative element is what really appealed to me. After graduating, I moved straight to New York, where I began to shape my creative identity and form a cohesive sense of style that felt right to me. I also encountered a lot of failures.

I applied for a lot of jobs I didn’t get, ended up working a little more for free than I should have, and been through dozens of creative blocks. The thing is, I never wanted to be a photographer, so it was easy to keep these things from affecting me too much. If I was up for an exciting job and didn’t get it, I ignored it and kept working because I knew it was never really the field I wanted to be in anyway. It was this easy-going persistence and non-attachment that really paved my way, and it’s a good thing to practice in any career.

I always rode the wave and didn’t think too much about it when things calm down. A number of friends at the top of the industry all agree that the most successful creatives aren’t really the most talented, they’re just the ones who can roll with the punches and learn not to go in circles over time. So I guess that was my path, just a lot of perseverance, patience and non-attachment.

What challenges/barriers did you face to get to where you are now? Can you name one in particular?

I really struggled with my mental health when I moved to New York for work. Work is plentiful and fruitful there, but like everywhere, the social life can be a bit toxic if you’re not self-aware. Sure, there’s a really sincere side to the city as well, but in the industry I was in, with the insecurities I had and being only 21? I was like a lamb asking for a visa for the slaughterhouse. Before I knew it, people defined me solely by the work I did and the followers I had.

I remember asking someone for a lighter on my first night out in New York, they said, “Sure, but what’s your Instagram?” “. It’s very NYC to be networked at every social event, but it formed a pattern where I would articulate my identity to the work I was doing. I ceased to exist as a person outside of @james.pdf and that led to a lot of anxiety and self-esteem issues. When your self-esteem and social worth stem only from your career, there’s nothing left to hold you back when something goes wrong. The whole earth is moving under you.

It was a hard lesson to learn, but an important one. Now I have a much stronger understanding of ego and have found a way to keep my work from defining me, and this, by extension, provides me with a stronger sense of direction and purpose. intention behind what I do.

What do you want people to know about your industry/your role?

There is an ethical responsibility to working in this industry. Growing up and being the recipient of the media I create now, I deeply understand how thoughtless narratives and images can be damaging to someone’s sense of the world and identity.

If you’re going to create something that will be seen by a large audience, be sure to think deeply about some ways your audience might take it. I don’t mean critically, I mean emotionally and subtextually. Why are you taking this image and what does it communicate?

What is the best part of your role?

Being able to work in a creative practice where you have the freedom to show your point of view has left me with some very beautiful work that follows the twists and turns in the formation of my identity. Looking back on my folio is almost like a blueprint for my personal growth. It doesn’t mean much to anyone but me, but it’s humbling to look back and see that even in times when I thought I had it all figured out, there was still so much to learn. My work means so much to me because it’s like a nuanced autobiography that only I can read.

What would surprise people in your role?

Honestly, working in the commercial world and shooting with celebrities can be boring. The projects that seem the most fun for my friends are the ones I have the least fun on. Maybe I’m speaking in hyperbole – there’s still room to take advantage, but when there’s great talent attached or a high-paying client, the space for you to be creative becomes more and more. small.

Ultimately, you may find yourself having to fight when there are so many contracts, brands, and email chains to filter out an idea. That’s why I’ve never stopped filming family members and working with friends – even if there’s no money in it, there’s a freedom to go wild creatively that is often not offered at this stage of my career without a fight.

What skills have served you well in your industry?

Growing up, I mainly studied literature and philosophy, so I had developed a very strong sense of semiotics and subtext before I started filming professionally. It has served me really well because I have the language to rationalize and understand each of my creative decisions.

I like to intellectualize my work and be meticulous every step of the way, if only for myself. This makes the process of writing the treatment (which ends up being 70% of my work as an artist) really enjoyable. Clients really respond to depth, but more importantly, it just means there’s no part of the process that I don’t find fun.

What advice would you give to someone who one day wants to play a role like yours?

Slow down, there’s no rush. Social media creates a kind of hypervisibility where it feels like everyone is taking one step at a time. It can push you to work without taking a break. Coming from someone who overworked right out of high school, I now really appreciate age and wisdom. There was a working standard that I was dying to create, but I realized that nuance only comes with age and patience.

When I was 18, I was writing scripts and photographic treatments that touched on particular ideas, but I didn’t have the maturity to give them real insight. I still have a lot to learn, and I will only learn it if I slow down and listen. In the words of Jeanette Winterson, shared by my wonderful friend Fariha Róisín, “I don’t write everyday, I read everyday, I think everyday, I work in the garden everyday and I recognize in the nature the same complicity.” This philosophy applies to every practice I can think of.

How about some practical advice?

Put a late payment clause on your invoices and let your client know before accepting a job. More than half of my clients don’t pay my bills on time. When you have rent to pay, it can be detrimental. Even worse is when you run out of expenses. Charge 10% more each week after they miss their deadline and apply it. It’s industry standard, so don’t worry about being too harsh. It also means that the customer won’t get into the habit the next time someone sends an invoice.

Read the rest of the How I Got Here series here.

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