When did you discover your talent or passion for art and photography?
When I was 14, maybe a bit younger, my mother gave me my first camera. It was like finding a voice that I never had; an ability to communicate and talk with a power that I didn’t know before. It was like a new superpower.
I really didn’t get any sense at that time that it could be a career, because that wasn’t talked about in either my peers or at school. But it became an enduring passion that I pursued throughout my teenage years and then after leaving Wellington. During my three years at Leeds University, there was the opportunity to work on the student newspaper and it was there that I began to sense that there might be some form of career afterwards.
The combination of a political science degree, and my photography experience with the student newspaper was perfect. When I left university I went to work in studios, but I spent a lot of time doing what you might describe as campaigning, issue led, reportage photography for friends of mine who’d left university and gone to work at War on Want, Amnesty International or similar organisations.
Had portraits always interested you the most?
In my early years I was terrified of taking pictures of people, I felt it was an imposition to stick a lens in somebody’s face; I was quite shy about that. It took me a long time to begin to understand that taking portraits was going to be my calling, my prime workspace.
I started off showing advertising agents, design groups and commissioning agents my conceptual landscape work, but they asked if I could turn my hand to portraits. I think it was because they liked my disposition; I was friendly and warm and appeared trustworthy. It slightly forced my hand into dealing with my confidence issue. Gradually through years and years of practice, taking portraits has ended up being one of my favourite life adventures; my favourite thing to do. I love taking portraits. It’s always a joy, it’s always intimate, and it’s always a revelation.
I suppose the underlying principle to my portrait photography practice is that everybody actually likes attention; it just has to be the right type of attention. You need to spend some time warming people up, listening to them and getting them to feel comfortable around you and what you’re about to do. It is important to get them involved in the co-authorship of a portrait. It’s about being very intentional, very thoughtful, very empathetic, and being very emotionally resonant.
How did you make the move from being a commission-based photographer to an Artist and Creative Communicator?
The main thrust of my early career was based around a 9 and 3 model: 12 months in a year, 9 months focused on commercial activity to pay the bills, buy the kit and rent the studios, and then 3 months really committed to social impact art projects, focused on disadvantage and social issues. I worked with Amnesty International, with street children organisations, and other charities, with people who were trying to change the world, whether it was in a small or a large way.
I would always describe it as my soul food. There was my commercial work to pay for my actual food and then there was my soul food, the bit that you need to do to have a fulfilled, interesting and engaged life.
During those three-month periods I gained some fairly deep experience of working with street children in Africa, the Americas, and Asia. Various charities started asking me if I would like to serve on their boards of directors and begin to do governance work. I ended up as chair of a global development agency focusing on street children’s rights, and today I serve on the board of a global leadership enterprise called Leader’s Quest, which is truly amazing, and I also serve as a trustee of the remarkable cultural institution Somerset House.
In my early 40s I decided that the commercial world was changing. I’d been in that space for 20 odd years and it was time to look at other spaces. I did my first deep dive art project specifically around urban expansion. The series was called BRICS and focused on the megacities of the developing worlds; the megacities of Brazil, Russia, India and China. The work was curated into the Saatchi Gallery, and then sold at Phillips Auction House.
The work sold well and gave me pause for thought; I’m really enjoying my artwork and there seems to be an appetite for the work – let’s give this a go! Fifteen years later all I now create is my own art. I’ve gone from being a commissioned creative business to being a self-led artist who creates my own work. People from across the globe visit my studios in Central London to collect my art for their businesses, their homes, their galleries, and museums.
So the BRICS series gave birth to the Exodus project, and then Timeout body of work, which are large-scale conceptual landscape images of our global mass behaviours. I am honoured to have been fortunate enough for them to become super collectable, there are a number of them in the Smithsonian Institution in DC and in multiple private collections around the world. But then six or seven years ago I began thinking about wanting to put together a huge legacy portrait piece…so my wife, Bel, who is a native of Brazil, and I sat down and said wouldn’t it be amazing, before we are under the tyranny of term-time, to take our tiny children on a journey of a lifetime and explore Brazil through a significant anthropological portrait project.
We decided to create a project called Somos Brasil: A Human Atlas of a Nation. We ran a nomination process for a 6 month period of time, to get individuals in Brazil – social change agents, journalists, community leaders, grassroot activists, local leaders – to nominate individuals in their communities who are moving the needle and creating significant social change in the streets, cities, states of Brazil. We pulled together 250 names of which we ended up bringing an edit of 100 people to cover all geographies of Brazil. We contacted them, travelled to see them, photographed them, interviewed them, and analysed their ancestral DNA. This process mapped together the three pillars of identity – visual, spoken and genetic – to tell a deeper truth about how we author our own lives, and how we co-author a more hopeful and positive future. In a sense it is continuation of the work that I did with the street children…giving a voice to the voiceless and allowing people to speak about their own lives.
We did a years’ worth of travel with the kids all over Brazil, 22,000 kilometres across all states, photographing absolutely remarkable individuals, recording their personal testimony, and getting a little bit of their precious DNA. We then mapped all that information together in a book and an exhibition, which has travelled the world from Brazil to China, Australia and now London.
The exhibition and book have a dedicated smartphone app that reads the images and activates the voice of the portrait. Some visitors to the exhibition would rush with only got ten minutes to spare, but they’d still be there ninety minutes later. The opportunity to sit and listen to these remarkable stories is a chance to connect to other human beings. In a sense it’s a little bit of theatre in a white box. The portrait so often is the chattel of the viewer, an object to judge and leave behind. The human Atlas process gives the portrait sitter a voice; the sound element creates a relationship with the viewer.
What is next for the Human Atlas project?
Somos Brasil: A Human Atlas of a Nation is the first of my Human Atlas projects. Subsequently I’ve been commissioned to do one on Germany, We: deutschland: A Human Atlas, and I’m at the moment creating one on the city of Detroit in America – I.Detroit: A Human Atlas of an American City.
I’ve just spent the last 18 months studying the city through the voices and relationships built with 100 extraordinary individuals who are re-authoring a city, which fell to its knees and was broken. But they stayed, and they are rebuilding – the grit, the determination, the vision and the love that they’ve poured into their communities is inspiring beyond belief…and I’m the artist who has the honour to record this journey, to explore the extraordinary human capital of the city and build these extraordinary friendships with remarkable people. I really have to pinch myself sometimes.
Looking ahead there’s talk of a project in India, and one in Silicon Valley. Indeed, we’re quite far along in the project for Decoded: A Human Atlas of Silicon Valley, and we’re now in the funding process. Whatever the next step is, I know it will be inspirational to keep studying the human capacity to co-author more dynamic and powerful futures for our communities.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out?
Following your heart is really important. Having the courage of your heart and a love of something, don’t let that die. Be brave. Give it a chance and then if it doesn’t work, you can get a normal job, but always give your dreams two or three years. Don’t let your vision wither before you have given it time to grow.
For those who want to pursue a creative life, I would always say let the idea be king. I’m very focused on the idea; a real passion for its primacy. It’s all about being very intentional about what you’re trying to say. If you do that you’re always going to speak with authority and more powerful voice. Its also key to be prepared to work really hard, it’s not an easy option; you’ve got to put the elbow grease in, you’ve got to pound those pavements. One has to be determined and be able to deal with disappointment. There are no silver medals in the creative world. You either get the commission or you don’t, it’s gold or nothing.
The other key to creative success is considered reinvention; don’t get stuck. We’re all so soft wired to fear change and actually more often than not, change is powerful. Especially if you are in charge of it, and you’re the one reinventing.
So in three steps: great ideas, hard work, and consistent reinvention.
– Yearbook Article 2019
How has the last year with the pandemic affected you within the Arts industry?
I have always championed the idea of reinvention and in truth the events of 2020-2021 have been a study in all our abilities to reinvent and reimagine. The Arts have been particularly hard hit, especially those working in performance.
For my studio we have been able to keep moving the needle with some projects while others are on hold or on the back burner. The planned for museum launch of my i.Detroit Human Atlas was moth balled and we reworked the launch online with a massive push in the media with multiple TV appearances and blanket press coverage in Detroit and Southwest Michigan. The final figures for the first year look good with an overall global reach of over 800m and I remain excited by the plans we have with the Kresge Foundation to take a physical exhibition back to the city in 2022. In turn book sales from the project have been excellent and we still have some off the limited edition copies with a bespoke Brian Eno single available on https://www.marcuslyon.com/artworks/idetroit
Going forward we are in the early preproduction phase of De.Coded – a Human Atlas of Silicon Valley and the Getty Museum in LA have just commissioned me to put together a feasibility study on creating a new Atlas for the city for exhibition in 2024… so there is no shortage of work in the pipeline.
In reality the pandemic is a powerful reminder to us all how fragile our existence is and how important it is to work together for a brighter future… the collateral damage of this time is heart-breaking and nothing can heal the wounds of so many lost and so many businesses and arts organisation holed beneath the waterline but if we can use this tragic moment to see the necessity for societies across the globe to work together in tandem for a more equitable & sustainable future we will at least have grabbed the opportunity that always lies at the heart if a crisis.
(Marcus Lyon April 2021)