This interview is part of DREAMERS, a collaborative project with MCQ that couples aspiring artists to their heroes for a one-on-one advice session. The conversations are recorded, redacted, and can be read in their entirety on my.mcq.com.
Monday 5 July 2021, 5:30pm London-time
Jessica Madavo: You dropped out of university within the first week of the course, which meant you never really got the technical assistance that schools can offer. From your experience, would you say that in this day and age going to art school is necessary?
Ronan Mckenzie: I dropped out because I just didn’t feel like it was for me. I had a really strong feeling that I just didn’t want to be there and do any of the projects. And, so far, my experience has only been positive because I went straight into the industry doing internships and assisting whilst working part-time to pay for film and processing. I just learned as I went along. I know that I was at an advantage because I am from London so I lived at home and I didn’t have to worry about uprooting myself which I think definitely made it a lot easier. I think the question about art school really depends on what kind of learner you are, what kind of work you’d like to do, and what you feel you’re going to gain from the experience. I was always a very independent learner and happy to set myself projects and tasks and I never had problems finding motivation to work on my own things. If somebody is very proactive and knows what they want to do whilst being willing to work hard, then I don’t think art school is essential. It can definitely be beneficial for some people, but, in my experience, I don’t think I needed it. I would have been unhappy if I stayed and, if I wasn’t happy, then I wouldn’t have been able to create anything.
“Once you’re actually on set, then you can see where you’d like to be on set. But without being there, it can be a bit difficult to think about what the different roles are and how it all works.” – Ronan Mckenzie
Jessica: Where did you start off interning?
Ronan: I think I was in my late teens when I started interning at i-D and at a fashion PR company. In those days, I thought I wanted to do PR and, after four days, I realised it wasn’t for me. I also interned at an online shop where I did a bit of photo editing, some photography and styling, just whatever they threw at me. Those were all really valuable experiences. I never really assisted any photographers but I did assist a few stylists when I had just dropped out of university. I think work experience can be really beneficial. Once you’re actually on set, then you can see where you’d like to be on set. But without being there, it can be a bit difficult to think about what the different roles are and how it all works. But I do think that it’s good not to stay in intern roles for too long – it’s important to at some point figure out what you’ve learned and what you still need to learn, and how you can do that on your own. It’s also just to be able to create one’s own style and perspective. If we’re always looking at somebody else’s work, then our own work will obviously end up looking like theirs. I think that style develops over time and it’s important to give ourselves time to develop that and to grow individually.
Jessica: Was it a conscious decision for you to not assist a photographer?
Ronan: To be honest, I just didn’t even know it was really a thing. And I didn’t have any technical skills, so I wouldn’t have been a very good assistant anyway, because I didn’t know how anything worked. I just didn’t really think about it because I was working part-time in retail, so I wasn’t trying to make money from photography. When I first started taking pictures, I didn’t even think of it as a career, I was just doing it because I enjoyed it and wanted to see where it could go. It turned into a career, but my intentions were just to explore and enjoy myself.
“It’s a difficult industry because there’s a lot of nepotism.” – Ronan Mckenzie
Jessica: I moved to London from Johannesburg and at times I find that people only want to speak to you or show interest once they know who you are or what you can do for them. Did you experience this at all, and if so, how did you overcome it?
Ronan: It’s a difficult industry because there’s a lot of nepotism. It’s a lot about who you know and who you’re friends with, which can make it challenging to get some projects that you might like to shoot, or publications that you might like to be involved in. It’s a very tight circle… Simultaneously there might be people who are trying to climb the social ladder, so maybe at this point in your career they won’t say hi, but in two years if you’ve done some amazing work, they might suddenly pop up and act like you’re friends. Sometimes people will pop up who don’t seem to have my best interests at heart. I don’t take it very personally, I just know who I need around me to feel good, and I focus on those people. I’m not bothered about looking cool or being at a party because other people are going to be there. That whole kind of networking in the fashion industry isn’t really my thing; I’d rather have meaningful connections with people, and relationships take time to develop and grow. My practice is all about how I feel, and if I feel good collaborating with someone, then I go for it. And if I don’t feel great with that person or don’t think they really care about my wellbeing, then I’ll still be civil, of course – maybe I’ll have to do a commercial job with that person – but I just know that I won’t keep them close to my heart. As creatives, I think it’s really important to have good energy around us, because creative work is really soulful, and it’s important to know who’s really supportive of that.
“There’s no point saying that there’s no discrimination, prejudice or racism within the industry, because this whole society that we live in is built on institutionalised and systematic racism.” – Ronan Mckenzie
Jessica: Do you think that being a Black female has also influenced or affected the way that people interact with you?
Ronan: I think it’s definitely changed over the past years. Also my name is one that people look at and makes them think that I’m a white man. So there’s also that. When I go to a job or turn up on a call for a project, people are shocked to see me. I think in the first few years I definitely had times where I felt like people wouldn’t book me, or give the job I’d been pitching for to someone else who’s white. And that can be frustrating, but there’s nothing I can do about that. So I try not to get caught up on how being a woman or being Black is a negative and just focus on the projects that I can do and celebrate those. Obviously, with Black Lives Matter having another wave, there are so many projects that I know I’m getting because I’m a Black woman. That can also be challenging because you’re aware you’re getting the job because it’s ticking a box, but simultaneously if it’s a well-paid job and I can use that money to do something positive, then whatever. So it’s very personal. And sometimes it doesn’t feel good being a token, and that’s totally okay. And sometimes we’re able to use things to our advantage, and that’s also okay. There’s no point saying that there’s no discrimination, prejudice or racism within the industry, because this whole society that we live in is built on institutionalised and systematic racism. So it’s definitely there, alive and well, but I just try to let it go over my head a lot of the time and speak up if something really bothers me, or if I think it’s wrong, or if I feel it’s important for me to stand up. Otherwise, I just don’t let it affect me and I create the spaces that I want to be in.
Jessica: How do you approach starting a new project or idea?
Ronan: My projects are very literal and simple. In my practice, I have the idea, I plan it, and then I shoot it. That’s it. I don’t overthink my concepts, I guess, because my photo practice is very visual and what I’m trying to say comes from my heart and soul into the image. I just contact that person I want to shoot or put together whatever production I need for the project and just do it. I don’t really like to mull over an idea for a long time, and I’m very much an action kind of person. And I just ask, you know. I’m not scared to ask and be told ‘no.’ I think that comes from working in retail and just experiencing constant rejection. Or working in photography and I’m an option or on hold for a job, do a pitch and I don’t get it; that happens frequently. So I’m not frightened to ask somebody to be part of a project or to invest in my projects.
“In art education you get taught and somewhat forced to over-theorise everything.” – Ronan Mckenzie
Jessica: And within that process, is there quite a bit of research?
Ronan: It depends on the project. Because if there’s something really intricate like a hairstyle that I want to explore, then I’ll research that. But to be honest I really try not to research too much or over reference, because then I just end up creating something that’s already been made. I like to make work that just comes from me and that’s my idea. I’m of course asked to make mood boards for clients, but if it’s something for me then I don’t research anything other than essentials like locations or styling.
Jessica: I would say I’m quite similar in my approach, and that’s also one thing that doesn’t work at university!
Ronan: In art education you get taught and somewhat forced to over-theorise everything. Every decision needs to have a whole concept behind it, a whole research basis, you need to find other people who’ve done it… It’s very long-winded and I don’t think that’s how creativity works. I think they just make you do it like that because they cannot grade you on how good they think the work is, because that’s so subjective. That’s one thing that I knew I didn’t want to do whilst studying in art school, which is another reason I dropped out. I don’t want to have to over-explain!