The photographer equals fashion’s playing field with a publication that comfortably sits legends such as Nick Knight next to promising new-gen artists
HARD EARS is a thick, old-school feeling publication; over 300 pages. Despite there being only 500 printed copies available, none of its content is online; save a few aesthetic-driven videos.
It is, as put by Ronan Mckenzie, the British photographer and creative who founded the publication – working alongside one of her oldest friends, student and graphic designer Ruby Boddington – a coffee table book which should appeal to anyone who has an eye for visuals.
Mckenzie has worked for some of the biggest names in the game, including Vogue, SHOWstudio and American Apparel, and while she is keen to stress that she and Boddington want the publication to be accessible – it has a mixture of photographers and artists you might have heard of, and those you might not – every single image on the page serves a deeply thought-through aesthetic purpose.
Containing only a handful of written pieces (Mckenzie says she always flicks through a magazine looking for the photography) the content feels energised. Ten percent of its proceeds will be going to homeless charity Crisis, and another portion to a charity that ties into the theme of the issue, in this case, because the theme is “old”, they will be donating to Alzheimer's Society. As it hits shelves, we sat down with the duo to find out more.
“With so many magazines now, I look at them and I feel like an outsider” – Ronan Mckenzie
Could you tell me a bit about where the idea for the name Hard Ears first came from? There’s a story behind it, right?
Ronan Mckenzie: Basically, I wanted it to be something that wasn’t recognisable to people in the fashion or art world. Something that was obscure so that it could translate into other streams.
I was trying to think of all these names and nothing really fitted and then I thought of “Hard Ears” – because it’s a saying my mum used to use all the time: “Hard ears won’t hear, hard ears you must feel”. I was reading this list of names out to my mum, like, “What do you think of this?” I said “Hard Ears”, and she was like “Yeah, call it that”. I think she knew it came from her so she just wanted it to be called that, but you know when something always sounds cringey at first and then it just kind of sticks?
A lot of other Caribbean kids, or people who have Caribbean parents, must have heard it all the time, too. I always kinda took from it that it’s okay to do your own thing. To be confident to learn the hard way. I was also adamant that I wanted it to be a hard cover from the beginning so it made sense. It’s HARD EARS, hardcover, it’s like a proper thing.
I’m from a Caribbean background so I was like ayyy
Ronan Mckenzie: That’s the thing, I wanted it to be a thing people could relate to. With so many magazines now, I look at them and I feel like an outsider. I came up with the idea for the magazine when I was in the garden talking to my friend. I was so bored of submitting work to magazines or hearing back they really like my work but I’m not big enough or well-known enough to do a full fashion story. I just got really bored about everything being so one-dimensional and all being about the image and the look and there being nothing behind it.
The industry just feels really elitist and really consumerist. So many magazines are 60 percent adverts. I wanted to create something that was different; that was actually really meaningful; that you actually pick up and you want to look at the pictures and you want to read it. That was the moment that I was like ‘okay, I’m just gonna do my own thing’. I found all the contributors and that kinda thing, and then Ruby came in in the editing stage.
Ruby Boddington: Oh initially, you asked me to contribute a shoot and I was like ‘what you doing about designing and editing and whatnot’ and then you were like ‘I was hoping you would do it?’
So Ruby, you’re in your third year at Central Saint Martins studying graphic design. And Ronan, you were at uni and then you dropped out and went freelance?
Ronan Mckenzie: I don’t even know if you can I say I was at uni, I went for like a week and a half. It just wasn’t really for me. I hated it so I dropped out. At the time I thought I wanted to do styling so I assisted a couple of stylists for like three months – I was just more interested in the people, their faces and stories, than the clothes and just literally dressing them up – so I sorted of shifted into photography. That was almost two years ago.
So, good progress in two years. Has this been quite a learning experience for both of you?
Ronan Mckenzie: I’m really happy with the contributors that were up for it, because I think sometimes with a new publication, a lot of people are wary to submit their work because they’re not quite sure how it’s actually going to look and feel like in the end. I’m really happy with the balance of new people and established people. You’ve got a Nick Knight interview and then two pages down you’ve got poetry by Abondance (who performed at the launch), an incredible writer. I always mention her because I think she’s so great and she’s still at college. To have her next to someone who’s been in the industry for years… you just don’t see that combo very often.
Describe what it feels like to hold a copy. It’s a thick book, right?
Ruby Boddington: We were shocked when we first got the first copies back ‘cus we we’re like ‘Oh my gosh, it’s even bigger that we thought’, which was a really nice surprise. It was initially going to be closer to A4 but we were speaking to the people at the printers and they were like ‘have you considered making it smaller’. We went with that because it felt more physically accessible and we wanted it to feel like something. Ronan didn’t want to be led by ads and we really wanted it to be uncensored and honest.
Ronan Mckenzie: Once you get advertisement involved you need to be a little be more careful about what you say, so I paid for the whole thing myself just so that I would have that control over it. There are three advertorials in it but they’re not intrusive. They’re stand-alone stories. The best example is the shots of (African textiles brand) Super YAYA.
Is there someone you would really like to reach with the magazine, is there a particular demographic you want to appeal to or think it should appeal to?
Ronan Mckenzie: I think a lot of photographers, stylists, writers, people, at least working in fashion at the moment, a lot of us are getting frustrated with how it’s going and a lot of us are really looking to link up and make something that is really our own and that doesn’t have the same connotations as like, Vogue. I want it to be for everyone. I think it is. We had people’s parents coming down and saying they love it and wanted to buy it. It’s inspired people. Even my mum, she’s always wanted to write a book and since I’ve done this she thinks she can do it too.
Ruby Boddington: For me, it sets an example for people who maybe aren’t as established, but who are really talented, to flick through it and think that they could genuinely be a part of this. Like, they can see their work sitting next to these people. And not feel like an outsider looking in. We need to change the way the industry works and work together rather than competing.
In your SHOWstudio film for the magazine’s unveiling, you mentioned that you were fed up with youth culture in the magazine industry. Is HARD EARS, which is themed around “old”, part of you challenging that?
Ronan Mckenzie: I wanted it to be theme-led or else it can end up as a mess of stuff. Especially because there are so many different elements, documentary photography, fashion photography, art, poetry, fiction, non-fiction.
I was just so bored of shooting and the girls were getting younger and younger and younger. They’re like 12, 13, 14. The new faces of all these massive campaigns are like 15 or 16. Even kids are getting roped into the fashion industry these days. They’ll be wearing a massive Balenciaga suit and it will be really gimmicky.
For example, Klein, who was in one of the videos I screened at the launch, she’s 23 but people always think she’s younger. They tell her she’s doing so well because she’s 17, but when they hear she’s actually 23 they’re not quite as impressed. That’s ridiculous. I know when you’re younger people don’t expect it of you, but accomplishment shouldn’t be based on age. I feel like you have to be so fresh for anyone to give you attention and I just wanted to counter that with “old”.
Ruby Boddington: It can be anything that encompasses old, any form of the notion of old. From that, we got a lot of family and tradition and everything.
Ronan Mckenzie: One of my favourite pieces is Ruth Ossai’s piece, which is shot in her village in Nigeria. Her grandfather passed away so she’s shooting all these elders from her village and aunties and uncles and kids. It’s just really interesting to see how that links to the theme. Ruth’s contribution sums up what HARD EARS is about, because she’s the person who asked the most questions before she agreed to it. She wanted to know the concept and why she should get involved. She got so bored of brands asking her to shoot for them but not caring about the depth of it, and it’s being one-dimensional. She was so adamant that it had to be something amazing. It changed the way I approached the whole project.
“A lot of us are getting frustrated with how it’s going and a lot of us are really looking to link up and make something that is really our own and that doesn’t have the same connotations as like, Vogue” – Ronan Kckenzie
Ruby, what are some of your favourite pieces?
Ruby Boddington: I really love the shoot that Ronan did with Ib Kamara, that’s what the cover image comes from.
Ronan Mckenzie: If you’re going to be shooting young kids, especially young black kids, you’ve really got to empower them and not drown them. In this shoot we wanted all their personalities to shine through. Ib is an artist in everything that he does. He created these incredible clothes out of different fabrics and paper clips, pins and jewels. He adorned them and their beauty and power come through.
How is family involved in the work?
Ronan Mckenzie: This year has been a tricky one for me. But family, and my mum, especially, have kept me grounded. That’s why it’s so important for me to have my mum as part of my work (she’s featured in HARD EARS). Even through all the ups and downs she inspires me so much. I’ll be like ‘Mum, can I take pictures of you naked’, or whatever and she’ll be really chill. She’s already there, got her knickers off and everything! She’s so like that. It’s cool to include your parents and not just in a tokenistic way. As well, Ruby, I think we should talk about your mums’ shoot.
It was something that I found really beautiful and interesting because when we first met, Ruby didn't really tell anyone that she had two mums. Ruby lived in Somerset at the time and it’s not the most liberal of places. In doing this it shows that you – and other people – have come a long way.
Ruby Boddington: It was really nice shooting them. Kinda funny, they were like ‘why do you wanna do this, should we smile?’ They told me I better send them the photos before they went in. I think they liked it and they've been super supportive of the whole project. They're so impressed we've managed to pull it all together. The shoot was in Dungeoness. It's very real but could also kinda be quite ‘fashion’.
Was it also important for your blackness to be reflected in the magazine, going on from works like The Black Body?
Ronan Mckenzie: It was really important for me to get black creatives and stylists involved. There's a really strong community of us doing really cool things at the moment so I wanted to connect with as many of them as possible as we are underrepresented. The poets who performed at our launch were all black and I think that was great because the crowd who turned up were very multicultural.
Ruby Boddington: That was one of the things my mum commented on. She said she'd very rarely seen so people of so many different ages, from so many different backgrounds, in one space. It was such a positive vibe.
Ronan Mckenzie: Although the magazine is tied together well there is a lot of diversity in style. One of the ones we love is from this girl called Hexa, whose Korean. She's done this amazing shoot. Thing is, people talk about black people a lot, but people who are Asian get even more sidelined. There are actually quite a few Asian artists who have contributed to the mag. So it's about blackness and me making sure that there is a good-sized space for black people, but it's also about other races and diversity in general. I did a shoot at the beginning of LGBTQI couples and it just so happened they were all interracial.
I think it's just representative of now and the time and it's cool that that comes across.
HARD EARS is available now