British photographer John Rankin is one of the most distinguishable and prolific pop culture photographers of his generation. Yet, what perhaps truly sets his career apart from that of his contemporaries is his activism and the way he documents socio-political issues.
Earlier this year, shortly after collaborating with Phil Ropy for the Surfrider Foundation, a grassroots non-profit environmental organization that works to protect and preserve the world's oceans, Rankin’s agency teamed with filmmaker Richard Curtis to create a series of short clips for climate change activists Extinction Rebellion. “This was one of those projects that came through in a totally unique way. I’ve been a supporter of Extinction Rebellion [XR] for a while now, but the collaboration on this project started as a last minute phone call,” said Rankin. “I worked with Richard on a film for Public Health England called ‘Every Mind Matters’ and he wanted to know if I could join forces with XR and him on a project.”
The short film, titled #WhereIsYourPlan, featured a diverse mix of people from all ages voicing their concerns regarding the destruction of forests, oceans and wildlife. A number of famous faces, including Daisy Lowe, Simon Amstell, and Ellie Goulding were also part of the cast. “Richard came up with a really strong concept that illustrated the idea of ‘One Lifetime’ by featuring someone from every generation in the video,” he clarified. “That meant diversity was going to be key. And not just across age groups either. This is a problem that affects us all - no matter who you are or where you’re from.”
A few months ago, Rankin tackled less tangible but equally worrisome matters: social media and how potentially harmful it can become, especially when unchecked. “I mean, there are regulations on what you see on TV, there are regulations on what you read in newspaper and books,” Rankin stated, “but then there are no regulations on the internet. What the fuck is that about?” Trends that seem to concern and interest him the most, are those forming around computer generated image (CGI) beauty, such as face editing apps and digital avatars. When asked whether he perceives these as a new danger or merely as another step in the evolution of beauty, he is quick to reply, obviously having had the chance to ponder the issue: “The two sides are wrapped up in each other. Of course it feels dangerous because 10-year-olds can alter their faces with retouching tools that are gamified, but it’s also going to provide us with lots of fun things we can do. There is already a sub-culture of extreme beauty that is growing and is very like punk from the 70’s. They 100% are pushing the boundaries of what it means to be IRL [in real life] and what life could be like as an avatar. That in itself is fascinating and an inherently existential question.”
From this questioning, emerged Selfie Harm, part of a project by Rankin, M&C Saatchi, and MT Art Agency called Visual Diet, which examines how imagery can affect someone’s mental health. The initiative sheds light on the potentially detrimental impact of hyper glamorized photos that showcase unnaturally perfect posts on social media. For Selfie Harm, Ranking shot the portraits of 15 teenagers and asked them to edit their pictures to make them more social-media friendly. “It’s time to acknowledge the damaging effects that social media has on people’s self-image,” read Rankin’s caption of the project’s launch.
When probed about the future or whether he believes a solution is in sight, his stance seems unexpectedly pragmatic but genuine. “Like all forms of evolution, good and bad things will come from it,” he replied. “Personally, it makes me want to live in reality, but that is just me!” His follow up, which comes a few minutes later, shortly after we conclude the interview, feels more in-line with his work, presenting a thought that applies to us all, and not just to the individual. “You know, I feel like we’re all in GPS mode at the moment. The whole society just seems to be on GPS mode. What we need to do is turn off the GPS, look at the map, figure out what we’ve done wrong and then get back to trying to work it out.”