Ronan McKenzie on dropping out of university and becoming a photographer on her own terms
In September 2014, Ronan McKenzie started a BA in fashion communication at Central Saint Martins. Knowing that something wasn’t sitting right, and with ambitions to break into the industry with hands-on experience, it was just nine days later that she decided to leave the course. In the years that followed, Ronan has found her way to photography, developing a frank and intimate style of portraiture that relies on a genuine connection with her subjects. Now counting Nike, Stella McCartney and Adidas among her clients, she has proven that you don’t need formal training to get ahead; instead evolving her career and craft through commissions, a supportive creative network and a proactive approach to personal projects (think a 300-page self-published book and an acclaimed solo show). She tells us how work experience with i-D became a springboard, how artist Matthew Stone became an unofficial mentor, and why she consciously seeks inspiration outside of current photography.
Stella McCartney, Nike, MARIEYAT, Base Range, Topshop, Adidas, Nataal Media, i-D, Vogue US, Vogue Me
Sales Assistant for stores including Office, American Apparel and J.Crew (2011–2016)
Art Foundation in Fashion and Textiles, Ravensbourne (2013–2014)
How would you describe what you do?
In super-simple terms, I take photos of whatever catches my eye. I try to show how people, places, and situations look from my perspective.
My work is a mixture of personal projects and commissions, be that commercial or editorial. Within my personal work, sometimes I’m inspired by a situation or something I’ve seen or haven’t seen yet, but want to.
Within my commissions it’s always about trying to find a balance between fulfilling a client’s brief and making it very much my own work. Where possible, I like to have a say in the casting, as my work is so much about capturing people as they are. I try to shoot people I’m instinctively drawn to.
What does a typical working day look like?
I’m an 11am to 8pm sort of person, so I have the flexibility to get up, exercise and chill before starting my working day. I spend more time planning than shooting, but it does depend on the project. For example, shooting my mum at her house for [underwear and clothing label] MARIEYAT took no planning at all; I’m just capturing my mum at home wearing MARIEYAT.
When I’m not shooting, I work from home, where I spend a lot of time on my laptop; organising shoots, researching and developing briefs. Planning is broken up with meetings and calls to discuss projects, and I always take time to eat and spend a few minutes just looking out the window or getting some fresh air.
Recently I’ve been drawing references and themes from books, films and music. It’s so hard not to constantly reference other people’s images nowadays, as moodboards have become the standard way to get your ideas across to others. I’m trying more and more to research elsewhere, and sketch out my ideas with pen and paper, so that the images are coming from me, as opposed to subconsciously copying what someone else has done.
“My biggest challenge so far has truly been accepting that everyone’s path is different, and not worrying about what other people are doing.”
What do you like about working in London?
Not only is London my home but I find it to be one of the most vibrant and diverse places I’ve ever been to. Yes, it’s crazy expensive, but there is an energy and drive here that makes everything feel possible.
How does your freelance work usually come about?
At the beginning I really pushed my work – sending it to online magazines and platforms to try and get my work seen by as many people as possible, and Instagram has put my work in front of people outside of London too. But I’ve been represented by Cadence Image for almost a year now, and they have helped massively in presenting my work to a wider range of clients. Essentially they find, organise and manage my work so I can focus on taking the photos, as well as being super-supportive and helping to guide me in developing my skills and career.
Photography, like all other creative jobs, is so subjective. Sometimes you might fit the brief on paper, but the client will go with someone else. I’ve learnt that there isn’t much I can do about that, just create the best work I can, and enjoy it!
How collaborative is your work?
A lot of my personal work is just me and my camera, but it’s still a collaboration between myself and the sitter. Then of course, all editorial and commercial projects rely on teamwork. There will be a stylist, hair and makeup, sometimes an art director, set designers, assistants, photo technicians and more. Whenever I work in a team, I am trusting each person to do their bit, same way as they trust me to take the final image, and when everyone is happy and feels heard, shoots don’t feel like work at all.
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
To be honest, the whole process is enjoyable for me – from coming up with concepts or receiving briefs, developing them, meeting people and organising shoots, to seeing my final images. I feel fortunate to make a living from something I love doing, and to be able to expand that into other fields, like with HARD EARS [Ronan’s debut publication] and photography workshops.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
One that I really enjoyed was part of the Nike Women’s autumn-winter style guide. It was an insanely quick turnaround as I heard about the job at about 8pm one evening, then it was confirmed by 10pm and my flight to Chicago was at 7am the next morning. The shoot explored movement and shapes with the body, and we shot six girls including Paloma Elsesser, who is just beautiful inside and out. There was great energy on set and the team were amazing.
“Three years in education wasn’t going to be the best way for me to figure my own career out.”
What skills are essential to your job?
Having a positive attitude and being willing to work hard is essential. Being open to new experiences and letting things flow and seeing where they take you. I’ve learnt this year that sometimes things won’t work out the way you imagine, but this is all part of my development.
What tools do you use most for your work?
I carry a Moleskine agenda and unlined notebook, a MacBook and Adobe Suite (a painful £50 every month, but so worth it).
How I Got Here
What did you want to be growing up?
I remember wanting to be a vet, and my brother and I went to ‘work’ at a vet’s for a day when I was about eight, which killed that dream! During my art foundation I thought I wanted to do styling, which is why when I dropped out I began assisting stylists to get a feel for it.
My siblings and I were always encouraged to be creative, which I think enabled me to see that a creative career was possible.
What made you decide to leave university?
Within the first few days I knew it wasn’t for me. I didn’t feel excited by the course and the environment due to the (what I found to be overwhelming) negativity of my tutors and the fact that I had no interest in the first two projects that were set.
I wasn’t sure I even wanted to go to uni before applying, as I had always been more of an independent learner. It was nothing to do with any other students there, for me it was more to do with the realisation that spending three more years in education wasn’t going to be the best way for me to figure my own career out.
What were your first jobs?
My first internship was at i-D; It was a great insight into the industry to see how the publication ran. From then I’ve continued to have a good working relationship with the team, which has been essential to where I am now.
Once I left CSM, I assisted Madeleine Ostlie for a few months – as a second assistant and casting for her agency AAMO. Although I worked out I didn’t want to do styling, I started to meet more people within the industry, and Madde gave me lots of advice that gave me the confidence to plunge into my career without worrying about whether I’d been to uni or not.
Was there anything in particular that helped you at the start of your career?
Matthew Stone came to my first exhibition ‘A Black Body’ at Doomed Gallery in Dalston at the end of 2015. He bought some of my prints and we became friends. He became almost a mentor to me too; someone that I could (and continue to) look to for advice and guidance both technically and artistically.
Was there an early project that helped your development?
Earlier this year, Rachel Noel at Tate invited me to work on a short series of workshops introducing young people to photography. Planning, prepping and proposing a workshop helped develop my work, as I really had to think about exactly why I take photos. The idea that kept coming up was that no-one sees the same thing as anyone else, so whatever you see and capture is showing the way you see things.
What skills have you learnt along the way?
Having worked in retail for so long, I learnt how to talk to people. I’ve learnt how to use medium format cameras (largely through YouTube and FaceTime with my friend Ruby), and studio lights from Matthew. I’ve learnt Photoshop and InDesign, and to scan and clean my own negatives. Having some styling knowledge is useful when it comes to shapes and the way clothes fall, and how I photograph them.
Also, I now only send images to a client or publication that I want published. So many times I’ve sent a wide selection with a couple in that I hate, and those ones will always get chosen!
“Envision yourself achieving everything that you want – because if you can’t see it then no-one else will!”
What’s been your biggest challenge?
I think my biggest challenge so far has truly been accepting that everyone’s path is different, and not worrying about what other people are doing.
Could you do this job forever?
Definitely! If I wasn’t doing photography I’d probably be studying social work. My other aim in life is to make a lasting difference to the homeless crisis in London and the UK, especially focusing in on mental health and substance abuse within the black female community. I hope that in the future I will be able to expand my practice to impact this too.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
Get your work out there and make a fuss about yourself. Give yourself credit for your hard work, and envision yourself achieving everything that you want – because if you can’t see it then no-one else will!
Interview by Indi Davies
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Mention Matthew Stone