All images by RONAN MCKENZIE
Ronan McKenzie is shamelessly carving a name for herself in the Fashion industry with raw, honest and unbiased photography. Based in East London’s Walthamstow, the inspiringly humble freelance photographer formed the A Black Body exhibition at Doomed Gallery in Dalston earlier this year. The exhibition featured a series of images, shot and styled by McKenzie, exploring the intricacies of Black identities, in resistance to persistent stereotypes. Outside of the personal project-turned-exhibition, Ronan McKenzie is Creative Director at One Boutique and continues to work with Marques’ Almeida and Dazed and Confused.
Ahead of her upcoming project with TATE Future, commencing in June, and the multifarious projects this rising star is currently working on, Ronan McKenzie found the time to discuss her career so far, fashion industry issues and exciting future prospects.
How did you first get into Photography and Fashion?
I was always sort of into fashion. I had loads of cringey phases of dressing up and always experimented with the way I dressed. I started working at Office when I finished secondary school and met my friend Kerry there who worked in Fashion PR. She gave me my first proper introduction to the Fashion industry by getting to intern at her office. She introduced me to another now good friend of mine who would get me interning at i-D when I was 17. I thought I wanted to be a stylist when I finished my Art Foundation. I took photos here and there of friends, but nothing serious. It was only when I quit university and started assisting stylists on shoots that I began to get more interested in Photography.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
I would describe my aesthetic as real and honest. I never edit or retouch any of my photos other than the classic cropping and brightening here and there. I like things to look and just generally be true.
How would you say has heritage influenced your creative work or approach?
Being a Black female who wants to see a diverse range of races and personalities in Fashion, and the wider media in general, has influenced my work. I have the power to choose who and what I shoot. I can create the work that I want to see more of.
What is something that needs to be changed within the fashion industry?
I think the Fashion industry needs to take more risks with young creatives, and with the ideas and imagery that’s being put out in general. I feel that the Fashion industry is somewhat becoming stagnant. Although there are a lot of amazing young people making incredible work, big fashion magazines and houses rarely trust in those people to commission them for good jobs. Instead they stick to people with big names who are just recreating the same thing over and over again.
How did you go about creating the images for A Black Body exhibition?
For A Black Body, I just shot exactly what I’d have loved to see more of growing up and even now: confident Black people, personalities and individuals, honest and unassuming. And for that imagery to be appreciated by all different types of people who take away that it’s great to be yourself.
What are the common misconceptions about people of colour you, or people close to you, have had to challenge?
There is still so much prejudice, negative judgments and expectations against people of colour that I find it too negative to go into. I’d rather focus on what can be done to create equality and understanding across all races. I think a big part of that is being exposed to a variety of different literature, art, media that isn’t biased.
Did you face difficulty casting models for you A Black Body series?
No, not at all. A lot of the people I photographed were friends and family. The models who weren’t became friends by talking about the project and understanding what I was trying to do. It seemed to me that a lot of the people I photographed had similar feelings or understood how I was feeling and why I wanted to create A Black Body. They were happy to be a part of it. The support was incredible.
Having plus sized sections in shops or plus sized shows is like having a “Black authors” section in bookshops. It’s great that you sell Black authors’ books, but why aren’t they just included under the usual headings like Art, Fiction and Travel?
In an interview with i-D, you said you would like to start an agency because of the lack of Black, Asian and South American models represented in the industry. Is this something you still intend to do?
I’ve got something brewing…
What are some issues that still need to be challenged within the fashion industry?
One thing I think is really important is inclusion. Take size for example, I have a problem with plus-sized models being drawn attention to. If you’re going to include different size models in a casting, show or shop, amazing. Good on you if that’s what you want to do. But it should be included in the general swing of things and not be a separate thing. Having plus sized sections in shops or plus sized shows is like having a “black authors” section in bookshops. It’s great that you sell black authors’ books, but why aren’t they just included under the usual headings like Art, Fiction and Travel?
Do you think our generation is more vocally political than previous generations?
Our generation is the most connected.. We know more and can be more conscious of political issues that are happening. There are platforms now to share thoughts and vocalise how you feel which weren’t available before.
You went against the grain and opted out of going to Central Saint Martins. What informed this decision and would you say there are problems within Arts education?
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go to university or if I wanted to do my own thing. So when I began Saint Martins and wasn’t feeling it, I was quick to leave. I always trust my intuition. I was coming home feeling down and not putting any effort in to my projects. I knew it just wasn’t for me. To be honest, I was at Saint Martins for a grand total of two weeks so I haven’t experienced much Arts education, except for my Art Foundation. The main problem I found on my foundation is that tutors don’t always expect or see the best in you. When I told my tutors I was only applying to Saint Martins, they saw it as arrogant. They told me I wouldn’t get in so it would be best to have a backup. If I didn’t have such strong support and self-belief from home then I don’t know where I’d be now.
What is the biggest lesson you’ve learnt from your career so far?
Every shoot I’m learning more and more. Just the other day a photographer, I really admire and look up to, showed me how to use studio lights. Something so simple but it was someone investing their time in me, to give me a one-on-one walk-through was amazing. I think the biggest lesson I’ve learnt so far in my very short career is just to be 100% true to myself. To not see anyone or anything as worth being spoken down to or treated like shit for. You can offer me a million-pound job or the opportunity to shoot Re-Edition covers for the next 20 years, but if you treat me like shit then it’s not worth it.
How do you balance creativity and commerce? Can the two coexist without sacrificing one for the other?
Oh, I definitely think so! I’m just taking every opportunity that comes my way at the moment in an effort to learn. But at the same time, I won’t take any job that sacrifices my work feeling like mine. Of course, we all need money to survive but that’s why I have a part time job. I don’t need to do anything that doesn’t feel right just for money.
What are your plans for the rest of 2016 and where can we expect to see your work exhibited next?
I’m so excited about this year because it feels like I’m really developing my style and being given amazing opportunities so far which I hope continues! I’m actually exhibiting a live project at TATE FUTURE in June, which I’m super excited about so keep your eyes peeled for that! I just want to keep rolling on this path, keep enjoying myself and just see where life takes me.