How Life Looks Through 'My Whale Eyes'

A student film project at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies (CDS) was turned this week into a 12-minute opinion video for the New York Times.

In the film, James Robinson, who graduated in 2020, shows what it feels like to live with several disabling eye conditions that have defied an array of treatments and caused him countless humiliations. Using playful graphics and enlisting his family as subjects in a series of optical tests, he invites others to view the world through his eyes.

“I don’t have a problem with the way that I see,” he says. “My only problem is with the way that I’m seen.”

During a visit to CDS prior to his senior year in high school, Robinson heard Christopher Sims of CDS describe the center's philosophy. Robinson said he immediately knew this was where he wanted to be for his four years at college.

“I found myself photographing blacksmiths in rural North Carolina, and interviewing indigenous communities on the front lines of climate change in Louisiana. In these classes and through these experiences, I no doubt became a better photographer. But it was the life-lessons that struck the hardest—lessons in gaining trust, coming to terms with one’s positionality, and finding how to get to the heart of a story, subject, or moment.

“Four years into my Duke experience, I was feeling pretty comfortable behind the camera—but in front of it, where my visual disability shone bright for all to see, I was nervous, scared and unsure of myself. In my final semester at Duke, I took Chris Sims’ capstone Doc Studies class, where I found a comfortable environment, conducive to taking personal risk. It gave me the opportunity to explore this disability from all angles and in all of its emotions—playful, serious, jovial, somber, and most importantly—vulnerable. I began by working with archival footage, then interviewed my family, and wove these aspects together with footage that I shot both at Duke, and later, after virtual learning began, in my home. 

“In my entire education, I’ve never felt such permission to be unguarded. At the end of the Spring 2020 semester, I finished what was the first draft of Whale Eyes—a twenty-three minute film.”

At CDS, Robinson was awarded the John Hope Franklin Student Documentary Award, and the Julia Harper Day Award. His 10-minute film “Louisiana’s Missing Coast” won Duke’s Koonz Human Rights Award, and was later named a finalist for the Student Academy Awards. He worked on the film as part of StudioDuke, where he was paired with his mentor, filmmaker and CDS alum Ryan White ‘04. He now works for Ryan’s Tripod Media in Los Angeles.