Armed with a camera, four dresses, a small makeup kit, and no permit to shoot there, Robert Hayman and Jay Jackson had as long as the people on the Los Angeles Metro would allow them. The result? Stunning images of Jay in floor-length, gorgeous gowns, and a welcome splash of color against the mundane scenes of the city’s underground public transportation.
Robert has been taking photos of Jay—the choreographer, musician, and drag queen professionally known as Laganja Estranja—for nearly a decade. At the heart of their work is the love they’ve grown for each other through their collaboration. “When you hear photographer and muse, you assume there must be some sort of hierarchy, but we’re very much all in together,” Jay said.
Together, Robert and Jay have done over 125 shoots. For as long as they’ve been the powerhouse duo of iconographer and muse, Jay and Robert have been creating art this way: with vision, courage, spontaneity, and fun.
And with a smaller budget to back Robert’s larger-than-life ideas, they’ve had to “guerilla-style” many of their photoshoots. “I mean, I don’t think that the Metro of Los Angeles expects people to come in with garment bags and cameras and walk onto the subway, and start shooting fashion pictures,” Robert said.
The resourcefulness and creativity at the heart of Robert’s shoots are what drew Jay to Robert’s work in the first place. After Robert reached out to Jay for a photo shoot in Los Angeles and she saw his work, Jay jumped at the opportunity.
Robert and Jay’s first shoot was at Jay’s home with three looks. “It wasn’t like some big money photoshoot with strobe lights and monitors and a crew and this and that,” Jay said. Working with Robert, Jay immediately saw how he was able to create dynamic looks with whatever was available to him, including breaking up plastic forks to create nails. “He was able to be so creative and really think outside the box, and then create something that was so high art.”
Since that first shoot nearly a decade ago, the pair have appeared in magazines, have shot three music videos, and self-produced two seasons of a YouTube series called “Muse Me.” Now, as they’re looking forward to what the future has in store, Robert and Jay reflect on the incredible bond and friendship they have, one that transcends the art they both treasure so deeply.
The two recognized a kindred spirit in each other almost immediately. “I would say probably very instantaneously, I knew that he was a special person when I met him,” Jay said. “He’s just kooky. And so am I.”
Their friendship grew outside of their photoshoots, over years of working together and exploring their creativity.
The pair is similarly “kooky,” as Jay would say, and eccentric and interesting in a way that has bonded them from the start, even before they met.
Like many of Jay’s fans, Robert first saw her on television, when Laganja Estranja appeared in season six of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Watching the show with his now-husband Hector, Robert remembers pausing the show and rewinding it to get the name ‘Laganja Estranja.’ “I said to Hector, literally, ‘I could be friends with her. She has got my sense of humor. I think she’s gorgeous. She seems cool. And I love her quirky, weird eccentricity. I think I would jive with her,’ Robert recalled. “Never ever ever imagining that that would actually happen.”
Hector has been a critical part of Jay and Robert’s creative process from the start. When Robert first started asking for Hector’s assistance with shoots, it was out of convenience. “It just turns out that he’s really good at it,” Robert said. “Half of what we’ve done would have been not as realized, the images wouldn’t have been as realized as they are without his help.”
The bond between Robert, Hector, and Jay extends far beyond the camera. In fact, the trio all have complementary tattoos: Robert has the letters “AL”; Hector has “WA”; and Jay has “YS.” Put together, it represents the pact they’ve made to “ALWAYS” be friends, no matter what.
“Nothing is going to come between us. No fighting about anything is ever going to ruin our friendship,” Robert. It’s especially important to them to have this kind of friendship in an entertainment industry town like Los Angeles. “In this world, and in this town in particular, you almost have to have pacts like that. Pacts of fierce loyalty,” Robert said.
Jay and Robert both struggle with the parts of Los Angeles that don’t inspire integrity and kindness in the creative community. It’s part of why they value their friendship and working relationship so much; it feels rare to find something so true and genuine in Tinseltown.
Mr. Warburton Magazine editor-at-large, Heather Duffy, sat down with Jay and Robert and saw the strength of their friendship and the love between them. “Seeing the relationship between Jay and Robert firsthand is a beautiful blending of trust and creativity intertwined to tell a stunning visual story that leaves a lasting impact,” she said. “In many ways, their friendship is one of support and accountability so that they both stay true to who they are — a tricky thing to do in Hollywood.”
“I just don’t think that I would be anywhere near where I am today,” Jay said when asked what her life would be like without Robert. “I really feel like him and Hector’s belief in me and their support, emotionally, is really one of the main reasons that I’ve kept going and that I even still keep going.”
Robert shares that sentiment: “I don’t know where I would be both creatively and in my career without Jay in my life.”
Their mutual support and commitment to creating authentic art with integrity is at the core of their work. Driven by an ethos of living freely and being real, creating their way is far more important to the pair than traditional success.
“We often say to each other that we would rather become successful and know that we did it, keeping our fucking integrity and not selling our fucking souls or being vicious or horrible or manipulative,” Robert said.
Both personally and as a public figure, Jay is guided by a mission of being genuine and good. “Jay is literally, and I’m not kidding when I say this, the most conscientious person I think I have ever met in my life,” Robert said.
Living authentically is not easy by any means, especially for Jay, but it’s definitely worth it. Jay feels a responsibility to those who have followed her journey to live as genuinely, as truly, and as kindly as she can. “What I try to do with my work is empower people to be their most authentic, vibrant self,” she said. “I think that’s why my transition, even though it came later in life, was such a big move not only for my followers but also for myself because it’s something I’d known for a really long time.”
Jay came out as transgender in 2021 and felt immense support from Robert and Hector, along with her parents, and her fans online. While incredibly grateful and astounded by the outpouring of love, she noted that her experience is not universal for all trans women. “To see an international support of that was really beautiful. But I think also what kind of struck me at that time, too, was l had another sister who came out right after me, who was of color, and she did not receive the same support,” Jay said. “So I think a lot of the support that I received media-wise, did happen to do with the fact that I was a white person.”
This awareness and commitment to living authentically and without fear bleeds into her artistic activism, and Jay feels that her responsibility to do what’s right has only been amplified by the platform she’s created. During the summer of 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic raged and the #BlackLivesMatter movement took to protesting following the murder of George Floyd, Jay remembers she and Robert felt a need to do something.
“We can’t just sit here, we have to make art about things,” she remembered thinking. “We have to use our voices during this time more than ever.”
On June 1, 2020, Jay posted to Laganja Estranga’s YouTube channel “BLUE,” a short film directed by Robert. The caption notes how “it’s important for everyone to be active in this war, especially people with platforms” and signs off #BlackLivesMatter. “BLUE” wasn’t their only creative project during lockdown. Both Jay and Robert are driven by the need to keep making art for people to see. During the pandemic, this feeling manifested into “Muse Me,” the YouTube series that gives viewers behind-the-scenes insight into the pair’s creative process; a video behind a shot.
In each episode, Robert explains the vision and inspiration for the look and shot, discussing the plan with Jay, and voiceovers from the pair give both funny quips and explanations. In the third episode of Season 1, “Pride Of Caligula,” Jay in a voice-over of Robert spray-painting her body while she holds a joint says, “It may not have been the smartest idea to smoke near aerosol, but a true model must always remain lit.”
In these episodes, the natural artistry of both muse and iconographer is clear. Jackson is a natural in front of a camera, and Robert does more than set up the best photo; with each shoot, he creates a masterpiece.
With a background in interior design, Robert knows how to craft a vision and emulate an idea.
To actualize Robert’s visions, Jay has been in some bizarre positions, to say the least. “Everything he makes me do is uncomfortable,” Jay said. “There’s never been a shoot where I’m like, ‘Well, this one was easy.’”
Jay’s trust in Robert is practically unwavering, and she is always willing to collaborate (or, as she would say it, agree to whatever). “99 percent of the time, yes, I trust him. I’ve seen his work. I know his work. I know what he’s capable of,” Jay said.
This trust carries Jay through the most challenging shoots, and it’s these shoots she finds herself coming back to. “I always remember the shoots that are the hardest, because I think it takes a lot of me as an artist to be present and to be doing all of this,” she said.
And Robert admires how Jay gives her all to what they create together. “Jay is artistically great because she’s unafraid. She trusts me. We like to push the envelope,” Robert said.
Jay’s faith in Robert always pays off. No matter how strange the environment Robert has created for a shoot, Jay trusts the end product will be something eye-catching, astonishing, and beautiful.
To get a real sense of what this process was like first-hand, Heather spent an afternoon getting shot by Robert. “I had the benefit of knowing what to expect since I had seen Robert’s incredible work. So, I was not entirely surprised when he asked me casually to pick up a lobster from the market,” Heather said. While she knew the lobster certainly wouldn’t be for dinner, she had no idea how it would fit into the photos she and Robert were going to take. “It turns out it would be strapped on my head,” she laughed. In true Robert fashion, he did the shoot in a house under complete construction, illustrating his ability to effortlessly turn challenging surroundings and circumstances into art.
It was clear to Heather, just as it was to Jay that first shoot, that Robert’s vision for the photos couldn’t be clearer. “His direction was so specific that he was clearly in his creative flow, which made being photographed by him much easier than I anticipated,” she said. “Granted, I did not have to trek to the desert in 6-inch heels as Jay did!”
Despite the incredible, high art quality of the images Robert creates, practically nothing about these shoots but Jay’s nails are perfectly manicured. By allowing room for spontaneity and surprise in his work, Robert incorporates mistakes and challenges into his art.
“My best work comes from the mistakes,” Robert said. Oftentimes an underexposed shot, or even an overexposed one, can reveal an incredible image when Robert starts working on it in Photoshop. “It just appears and you’re like, ‘Oh, that lighting mistake was a lighting gift,’” he said.
With vision, heart, and a talented and brave muse, the only thing this duo lacks is a robust budget. This deficit often forces creativity and pushes Robert to explore his vision in unique and resourceful ways, from plastic forks to lobsters. According to Robert, most of his shoots with Jay cost $50 or less.
“I do think that that is one of the reasons why his work is so incredible,” Jay said. “He’s able to take household items and things that you would never imagine could be turned into beautiful art on a very limited budget.”
For the most part, Robert enjoys using what’s around him to create beautiful shots, whether he’s making clothes out of Mylar or wire. “I think budgets can fuck you over creatively,” he said. “Do I wish I had a bigger budget sometimes? Sure. Because there are things that I would do.” With a proper budget, Robert could get access to more incredible places to shoot Jay, and better fabric for the dresses he wants to make.
Jay agrees. When thinking about the future of her work with Robert, having the funding for bigger projects is the first thing to come to her mind. “We haven’t ever had a budget, so that’s what I would really love to have,” Jay said. “I just think it would take it to the next level.”
“But I know Robert and I,” she added. “No matter what, we’re going to always continue to make art together, with or without a budget.”
Through navigating Los Angeles and the industry, at the heart of this photographer and muse’s relationship is an enduring friendship. In many ways, the relationship between Robert and Jay is more familial than anything else. “We’re family, we fight all the time,” Jay said. “I mean, we fight all the time, but we never leave a conversation without saying ‘I love you’ and hugging each other.”
With a decade of work under their belt, the pair share pride in the work they’ve created together. “The body of work that we have both produced together is something we are both very proud of when you lay it out,” Robert said. “You see it all at once all these images. It blows my mind away, and I’m the one that made it.”
You can count on the pair to continue to do their thing, their way, regardless of how many likes and views. That’s why it’s so important to Robert and Jay to keep their authenticity and integrity secure when going about their work. That way, when the next level of success does come to the pair, they will have done so on their own terms. “It might not even happen,” Robert said. “And if it doesn’t, I’m okay with that, because the journey has been beautiful, fruitful, and fun.”
Heather Duffy contributed reporting to this article
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