Welcome to our new series Ways of Seeing, in which two artists sit down to discuss the nuances of their work, trade industry secrets, and catch up on their latest projects. The only catch? One of them is on staff at W magazine. In this week’s edition, visuals editor Michael Beckert chats with Ronan Mckenzie, who has shot cover stars like Solange, Serena Williams, and FKA Twigs. Lately, though, she’s been turning deeply inward—posting a series of portraits featuring herself and her partner in quarantine on her Instagram account. Here, the British photographer expands on black joy, her use of color to tell a story, and the film she made in collaboration with Gucci.
I wanted to talk about your editorial work. Regardless of which celebrity you’re shooting, whether it’s Solange or a friend, you have a way of approaching each subject in the same way. Do you feel like you can approach any shape or color and make it fit in your work?
I’ve been doing this for just over five years now, and I always loved working in natural light. I think that came from not knowing anything about lighting—not knowing how to use lights or having access to lights, even—so that just kind of fell into my hands. But as I explored more of that, I realized that I do like being able to work with what’s in front of me. Therefore, I love natural light. When it’s there, it’s there, and I can do whatever I want with it. I developed my whole style through that, and with that. I love the way that light falls on the skin, especially black skin, which is what a lot of my subjects or people that I work with are, black or ethnic minorities.
I try to approach everyone in the same manner. Whether I’m shooting Serena Williams, Solange, or my mom, I try to put everyone on a level playing field; no one’s on a pedestal, so that I’m able to connect with them. That brings through a human aspect that’s threaded through all of my work. I try to keep that integrity as much as I can because it’s important that people know that these celebrities are normal people, same way that my mom and my siblings or my cousins are normal people.
The last year or so, I’ve been working within color stories. It started with my love and appreciation of brown growing over the last couple of years. A lot of the work that I’ve been doing in the last year is all within brown, blue and white palettes. Those are the colors that I like to work in the most.
It’s really important to me that, if I’m shooting more than one person, there’s some sort of connection: they know each other, or they’re friends, or they’re a couple. I’m really interested in exploring relationships and friendships, especially when it comes to black people and sharing more images of black joy and black relation.
Something that I really love about photography right now is that a high fashion image can be joyous. I remember when I first started looking at photography, probably ten years ago, and it was really trendy for models to look angry or upset. These days, models are allowed to smile, and the image is still championed by the industry.
When I’m looking at images, I respond more to something that is a real emotion or is a real moment, than just seeing something looking moody and cold. I think the way people are responding to images has changed because the industry has opened up, not only in terms of the types of models and in terms of people of color, but also size and age. There are personalities being shot more now, and they have their own agenda with them. I’ve only been doing it for five years, but I feel like maybe it’s more of a relationship between the photographer and the subject, as opposed to the photographer imposing whatever they want the shoot to be.
When you are approaching a subject that is well-known—one that comes with their own agenda—how do you go about making sure both of your needs are met photographically?
I really just make sure that the things that I can control, like the light, and if I have a little input on styling or whatever I can say, I’ve said. I also make it quite clear when I’m coming into those situations with celebrities, what the image is going to be for me and that there has to be a level of flexibility. I’ve turned down many shoots with different celebrities or big personalities because I didn’t feel I was going to be able to collaborate. At this point, I would prefer to shoot somebody that nobody knows, and be able to do it in a way that is mutually representative of her, than shoot, I don’t know, Beyoncé, and be in a situation where no one can tell that’s my image.
It’s scary when you first start saying no, isn’t it? Did you say yes to a lot of things in the beginning that you didn’t want to?
Honestly, 1000%. In the beginning, I said yes to everything. I’ve done tons of shoots that I still find on Pinterest, and I’m like, “Oh my god, that’s awful.” It’s really important to try, because if I never try, then I won’t be so sure that I want to do what I want to do. My style in work will develop as I do, but it’s really important at the beginning to be open. This one horrible shoot that I did last June really changed my perspective on things because it was with a stylist that I wanted to work with. The shoot just really didn’t go how I wanted it to go, and I feel like I’d done it for the wrong reasons, for this certain publication and things like that. After that shoot happened, I just promised myself that I was not going to do anything that didn’t feel right just for a tithe or to shoot a person. That’s only come after four and a half, almost five years of doing it.
How do you bounce back from a bad shoot?
I think you just need a hug from someone you care about, someone who can give you a bit of sympathy, a bit of empathy. I just need a good set of friends, a good set of peers who bring me back up. I think it’s really about having the right people around you who care about you.
How did your new film, WATA, which you just released in partnership with Gucci, come about?
I did the film in collaboration with my friend Joy—we had been talking about collaborating for a long time. Last year, we literally sat down for a tea, and within an hour, we had the whole treatment. It just really popped off. That was last summer, but then Boiler Room decided not to commission new works. We were like, “We really want to make this film happen.” So, in about September, we just started working. “Okay, who has cash? Who can we get to fund this film?” Because obviously to do it properly, we needed a good size budget, and we really wanted to execute it properly. So, we started pitching, and by December, Gucci had agreed. So that was, what, six months to finalize funding and get somebody to sponsor it.
Then we filmed at the end of January. We were going to have a launch and an exhibition at the end of March, but we had to put that on hold. Then, Boiler Room came back and said they were having this online film festival. Even though Garage technically released the film, they were the media partner for a shorter version.
What is the film about?
It’s the story of Mami Wata, who is a water deity, and is prevalent in mythology and stories from West and Central Africa. She’s a character who was spoken about through Joy’s childhood. In a lot of African and Caribbean households, she’s someone who’s kind of known. A lot of the people on set were familiar with her story and had their own iterations of it. Joy told me about Mami Wata initially at that tea that we had. We were really drawn to her story because, from Joy’s recollection, she’s this mermaid who’s known to draw people into her water. They disappear, and when they come back, they have increased wealth, health, and positivity in their stance on life. We really wanted to use her in the narrative to illustrate the story of movement of music—and touching on the wild, long, journey of people from Africa ending up in London.
What does the pitching process look like for a project like this one?
Joy and I wrote a list of as many people as we could think of, who either were connected to film, or had film funds, or just brands that had a lot of money. Anyone that we had an email address for, or that we could find online. We literally just tried, tried, tried. Gucci really resonated with us because Joy had already worked with them on a project before, so we had a direct contact.
I think what I’ve learnt is that collaboration can be difficult. Once someone puts money in something, there may be compromise, or there may be things that you have to do differently. We’re really lucky because Gucci didn’t infringe on our vision at all.
When I look at this film, I don’t even necessarily read it as a fashion film. I’m not sure if that’s on purpose, but it feels like the clothes are related to the characters’ identities as opposed to Gucci. Was that on purpose?
We really wanted it to mainly be about the story, and we wanted it to be about the colors, the gradients of colors and the journey of the people. So, when it came to the styling, I was also, again, lucky that a really good friend of mine, Tess Herbert, who’s an incredible stylist I work with all the time, flew in for the project. She’s so great because her method of styling makes people an incredible, uplifted version of themselves. I would say, in a way, that I feel like nobody in the film looked dressed. They all looked like they were wearing their own clothes, which is something that, again, is really important to me.
Since there was a lot of dancing in the film, I was wondering about the rehearsal process. Were there separate days to create the choreography? Or did it come together day of?
There really wasn’t vigorous choreography; it wasn’t so much about dancing, it was more about the attitude and the energy. We had one rehearsal day, the day before the first day of the shoot—Joy and I had put together a couple of references, videos of Tshala Muana, and Seun Kuti on stage. Abdourahman, our choreographer, was able to tell the talent, “Just do whatever you want to do in reaction to this song.” The casting was really special because everyone had their own vision for what it was going to be.
When it came to set design, did you build the brown room, for example, and shine light through to make it look a bit more real?
Exactly, we worked with this amazing set designer that I worked with a couple times, named Sophie Durham. She put that all together the morning of. We didn’t have pre-light days or prep days for set.
The film is really special because I had never heard of the story of Mami Wata—probably because I’m a white guy from New Jersey. But the idea of transformation and community really resonated with me.
I’m from a Caribbean household, and I wasn’t familiar with the story either. I think it’s one that comes up a lot, but it’s also one that, if you hear it, you can respond in your own way, you know? It’s not one that you have to know before. It’s one that, I think, a lot of people just respond to journeying.
I like to end interviews by asking photographers what they are most proud of in their careers so far, all accolades aside.
I think I’m most proud of getting to a place where I’m genuinely comfortable and happy. I know that I can say no, and that that’s okay. I’m doing this for me. There are so many shoots that have led me to this point of feeling content, hopeful, and excited, but the thing I would say I’m most proud of is that I genuinely enjoy it and I really am happy.