Rihanna as lensed by the photographer Russell James

No matter how myopic our view of portraiture becomes in an age of self-authorship and, perhaps more contentiously, self-inflicted distortion, the practice remains at its core an exchange between two. Few mediums or genres are as reliant on this reciprocity as portraiture is; few practitioners understand this as well as Russell James. In a career spanning two decades and a practice encompassing landscape photography, photojournalism with a focus on global Indigenous cultures, and, conversely, fashion photography, the West Australian photographer has amassed a body of work that privileges above all that exchange between two oftentimes vulnerable parties, no matter who his subject happens to be – be it a Clinton or, arguably most famously for James, an Angel.

On occasion of returning to Australia last month to accept the inaugural International Impact Honouree as part of the Australian Fashion Laureate, James reveals to GRAZIA the stories behind the portraits and their subjects who have left an indelible impression on his eye. Below, he speaks to the power and prominence of mentorship in his life and work – a process that, similarly, extends both ways between subject and lensman.

“Returning home to receive an Australian Laureate Award was an extraordinary experience. I feel very lucky to have received recognition in different countries around the world, however, there is nothing quite as special as being recognised in the place you love most by the people from within your own industry. As International Impact Honouree, I realise it comes with a responsibility to give back to the industry that does so much around the world. Receiving this award reminded me that mentorship is everything. At different stages of my career, I have been so fortunate to have had mentors to turn to and count on. Even now, there are people I call for advice and I often reconsider my approach after receiving their counsel. The need for mentorship never stop, both in providing it and receiving it.

“So the images I am presenting here aren’t perhaps ‘fashion’ or some of the supermodels that may be anticipated, however, they are images [of subjects] who have had a great impact on me.”

Tile and cover image: Russell James/Courtesy of the artist