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Ronan Mckenzie: “I believe that there is space for everyone”

Enam Asiama for the Rodarte 4 × Universal Standard campaign. © Ronan McKenzie.

The emerging artist’s candid editorials establish her as a powerful creative force

This article was published in issue #7891 of British Journal of Photography. Visit the BJP Shop to purchase the magazine here.

Across the range of images produced by Ronan Mckenzie, the arresting stares of her subjects are mesmerising, asserting their autonomy while embodying the photographer’s own artistic vision. That balance is a skill that many image-makers spend a lifetime perfecting, but Mckenzie moved into photography just five years ago in 2014, while working as an assistant stylist. Even though she has no formal training in the medium, her retail jobs honed an ability to prioritise the people in front of her, helping them feel visible and comfortable with themselves in her presence.

La’Shaunae Steward for the US Foundation campaign. © Ronan Mckenzie.

In 2018, Mckenzie’s ability to connect with sitters prompted inclusive fashion brand Universal Standard [above] to approach her about collaborating. “They opened my eyes to the importance of representing real people, making me re-evaluate the way I photograph and face my own prejudice in order to see the beauty in others,” she says.

When the brand released their Foundation collection, and collaborated with high-fashion label Rodarte, [below] Mckenzie photographed the campaigns, publishing images of a truly diverse series of women wearing the apparel. “The beauty of commercial work for me, even though it’s not always where you can be the most free, is that it impacts so many people on a daily basis, so it has the power to change people’s perspective – even if it’s subconscious.”

Enam Asiama for the Rodarte 4 × Universal Standard campaign. © Ronan McKenzie.

In an editorial story for Luncheon Magazine, titled Present, Finally, [below] Mckenzie again cast a range of people across generations, creating a group that inspired her personally. For the first time, she was given the space in a reputable fashion context to showcase a narrative that was important to her. “In this story, I felt I could finally take up the space I wanted to without having to explain myself,” she says.

From the series Present, Finally. © Ronan McKenzie.

This everyday storytelling extends to her work with Our Place, a mission-driven cookware brand based in LA. For a recent campaign, Mckenzie created beautiful images of designer Akua Shabaka cooking and eating at home with her family. The photographs feel like personal snapshots with an editorial flare, again bound together by the carnal gaze that Mckenzie is a master at illuminating.

In addition to campaigns and editorial shoots, from May to November 2019, Mckenzie exhibited a project she created in response to Andrea Levy’s Small Island, and Helen Edmundson’s adaptation of the novel for the National Theatre [below]. The images, striking in their cinematic edge, colours and clothing, respond to the postwar journey of Caribbean men and women between 1948 and 1971. “For me, this project was about highlighting the importance of diversity and community, and the importance of supporting each other to make sure we are all valued,” she says. “It’s about respecting where your neighbours come from, and appreciating their place in England as valid.”

From the series Small Island. © Ronan McKenzie.

Mckenzie’s momentum shows no signs of slowing any time soon. She hopes to push her creativity further by exploring new mediums, emboldening her storytelling with film, objects and exhibitions. Her first solo show since A Black Body in 2015 is scheduled for 2020, and will confirm her name as one that’s here to stay. “Collaboration is so important, but so is the establishment of individuality,” she reflects. “I believe that there is space for everyone, and as much as I love photography, I’m ready to explore other things on my own now too.”

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Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Deputy Commissioning Editor. This was preceded by a degree in English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.