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Rankin: On celebrity selfies, Instagram and shooting the Queen

One of my pet projects is helping people understand the different between a selfie and a self-portrait. This matters more than ever as Instagram and influencer marketing move away from shallow, manipulated images, to authentic photographs that tell the story behind the face.

So it was great to hear the British photographer Rankin interviewed on the BBC this morning by Mishal Husain. Many of his projects focus on the impact of selfie-social culture on our well-being and the art of photography itself.

Here’s a transcript of the interview. Strongly recommend as well that you take a look at Rankin’s portrait work. We can’t all be professional photographers working with Bowie, the Stones and Tom Hardy. But there are still elements of composition, lighting and colour that everyone can learn from, whether you’re a digital marketeer or an aspiring influencer.

Mishal Husain: Three decades behind the lens have seen the award-winning photographer and director Rankin capture everyone from Kate Moss and Madonna to Tony Blair and the Queen.

It’s also a time period in which cameras and the editing of pictures have changed beyond what he probably imagined when he began his career. He’ll be speaking at the Latitude Festival in Suffolk this weekend about his work and here he is the studio now, good morning.

What do you think are the biggest changes that you’ve seen in those 30 years?

Rankin: Oh, wow. Well, the biggest change is that everyone is now a photographer. One of the most exciting things for me about everybody having a camera in their pocket on their phone was that idea of the democratisation of photography.  

But what’s happened is some good things but there are some very negative things. The moment that Apple put a camera on the side of the phone so you could look at yourself there’s this deluge of imagery of people taking self-portraits. And these self-portraits became what we now call the selfie.

Those images are for me the most two-dimensional rudimentary brand exercise and it’s embarrassing. They’re homogenous, they’re awful, they show you nothing.

I think you’re saying that they’re bad pictures, but they’re also negative for us as human beings?

Not only are they bad in that you’re creating an image of yourself that isn’t you, you’re creating images that are just like other people. It’s also this idea of needing to put something on social media that people like and those likes being addictive and creating feelings of inadequacy and anxiety is something that’s real.

It’s happening. It happens to me. I am 53 and I still am like what’s going on and do people like my work, are people giving me gratification [on Instagram and other social platforms].

Do you think that your industry has played a role in creating that culture? When you take pictures and then you look at them afterwards. You must be touching up, you must be improving them in some way or other?

I think we were. I think as an industry when Photoshop came along and became very easily usable by most photographers it was like a playground, we were all children in this playground with this new toy and we all used it.

There’s no question that I was guilty of doing that at the time. I also did a lot of work at the time creating images that weren’t retouched and weren’t touched up. I think that what’s interesting to me now is that kind of technology is available on an app and you can download it. You can do retouching on your own face. So the industry’s grown up and become more purpose-driven and more interested in, you know, showing a reality and showing what people are really like.

Isn’t the more dangerous thing than retouching a face, making people thinner, did you used to do that?

I mean everybody’s done that.

Do you still do that?

No, absolutely not now. I mean it’s very much, it would be almost kind of like be seen as a problem to do that now and not just because I think the media really jumped on it. Because the reality of photography is about trying to create images that show you something about someone that actually reveals something. Even if you’re selling a product, you’re trying to show something that people can aspire to.

I mean literally 12-year-olds can download apps where you can do a before and after, change the size of your eyes, change the size of your lips. It’s that easy and really that is something now where the audience have got that power and that control. And it’s celebrities that are using it on themselves and creating these images that are actually what people aspire to.

And in terms of your own celebrity photographs, I’m imagining that the models or the actors are easier than Prime Ministers or royalty. Well, you’ve done Tony Blair and the Queen.

Yeah. I mean in some ways they’re [models and actors] not because they have a publicist. So now you have to deal with whether they liked the image or not. Whereas politicians don’t really have that choice. You take the picture and that’s it. Or with the queen. She’s not really allowed to have a personal opinion. So it goes through the press office there and whether they like it themselves.

But I mean, I’ve dealt with both and I would much prefer to deal with politicians and royalty than to deal with actors. not because I don’t like them…

What was the Queen like as a subject?

The Queen’s really funny and she was very humorous. She laughed when something fell off my camera and I knew that I had to capture that. I think the thing is that actors generally play a character. So being themselves in front of a camera, it’s not because they’re actors they are being difficult, it’s because being themselves is more difficult than being a character. I love photographing actors because you can really collaborate with them. But it’s not as easy as photographing the Prime Minister.

Rankin, thank you very much.

Pleasure.

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