The Way I See It: Rankin
Fashion and portrait photographer John Rankin Waddell, aka Rankin, has photographed a host of legends, from the Stones to the Spice Girls, and Madonna queen of pop, to Queen Elizabeth II. He also founded magazines Dazed & Confused and Hunger, and set up an agency, Rankin Creative. He talks to Carol Cooper about protests, periods and his passion for making – not taking – pictures.
I’m originally from Glasgow, from a very working class background. My family didn’t have a knowledge of art but Mum could draw a little bit and Dad learned to play piano by ear.
I was very nosy from a young age, very cheeky and inquisitive, and I was encouraged to ask questions. My parents gave me self-belief. My dad said to me, “In England they send kids to private schools to learn to be confident, in Glasgow you’re born confident.”
When I made the decision to switch from studying accountancy to photography, my dad didn’t talk to me for a year.
My parents set me up to be creative, which is weird because they didn’t want me to be a creative. When I made the decision to switch from studying accountancy to photography my dad didn’t talk to me for a year. But they still let me live in the house and they looked after me while I studied.
I did want to make them proud, but being an artist back in the late 80s and early 90s wasn’t something that would have impressed my parents. Maybe that’s why I like to see myself as more of a commercial photographer than an artist.
When I found photography I just went for it, I was obsessive about it. I read everything I could read about photography within six months.
Robert Downey Jr., Entertainment Weekly, 2008. © Rankin.
Being creative is in my blood. When you realise you’re creative it’s an amazing thing and I had that when I was 19. The funniest thing was when my dad came to my final show at Barnfield College in Luton before I went to the London College of Printing to do my degree.
He was wearing a pastel suit and looked like Des O’Connor. He stood by my work for the whole evening asking people, “What do you think of his work?” Afterwards he drove me home and said, “You’re either going to be a complete success or you’re going to be a complete failure. And I’m happy with that.”
I love the beginning, I love the brief, I love the strategy. I still get goosebumps about a good idea.
Maybe it’s because I didn’t have creative influences growing up that I always approach every photographic project as a blank sheet of paper. I don’t carry the weight of other people’s ideas around. I’ve always made my own mind up.
I’m not Helmut Newton or Annie Leibovitz, I don’t have the same style every time. The only thing that I do that’s the same is approach work as a blank sheet of paper.
Rankin Creative's Rules Rewritten campaign, with Gwendoline Christie, for Rolls Royce, Phanton, 2019. © Rankin.
I love starting a piece of work. I love the beginning, I love the brief, I love the strategy. I still get goosebumps about a good idea.
If you’re a young photographer and you’re given a camera that does everything for you, in a way your responsibility goes out the window.
There’s a difference between people that take great pictures and people that make great pictures. I make pictures. I had to learn how to do it, it took me five, maybe six years, and I’m still learning. That learning goes hand in hand with the ideology, the ethos, the morality around photography.
All photography is a lie because it’s always through a lens, which creates a frame and a perspective. I’ve always said I’m looking for the honesty in the lie.
You can’t beat me on craft, I’m sorry, but I’m so obsessive about photography. I sound like a bit of a wanker when I say it but it’s true.
All photography is a lie because it’s always through a lens, which immediately creates a frame and a perspective. I’ve always said I’m looking for the honesty in the lie – so I’m looking for the truth.
HRH Queen Elizabeth II, 2002. © Rankin.
The best photography is when people use it in a way that tells a story and gives you a view into a world. So if you’ve got a big character and you take a wide angle lens and you go really close up, you’re empathetic to them.
I don’t mean that you agree with them, you’re empathising humanely with them to try and show how you see them in that moment. You’re trying to get their character and personality into the picture. Sometimes they can also see themselves in the picture and they’ll go, “Shit, how did you do that?” I get a buzz thinking about it.
Before I photographed the Queen I did my research, which I don’t do normally. Usually I like to view people empirically, very much based on what my senses pick up.
The Queen was an incredible woman. Before I photographed her I did my research, which I don’t do normally. Usually I like to view people empirically, very much based on what my senses pick up. But with the Queen no one really talked about the person, they talked about the position.
So I really researched her and tried to see through her status. This was pre [TV series] The Crown, so my approach was pretty unique. She was placed in that position by birth and she couldn’t have played her part better. I think that kind of commitment is extraordinary. So that’s who I saw when I met her.
Stuart and Doreen Lawrence, The Lost For Words exhibition for Royal London, 2020. © Rankin.
I originally wanted to be a documentary photographer and I’d say at least 25 per cent of my work is about social issues. I like working for NGOs or charities where I’m trying to change people's perspective on things yeah yeah and say and then you can you send done generous but yeah answer this one just rang that's great that sent it is actually a brand-new lace intended to set it up as a new lease.
I’m very pro Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil, I’m very pro demonstration. XR is a really good example of where democracy and the right to protest is being eroded. We should all be applauding them, not deriding them. So they made your life inconvenient, what about when you’re getting flooded out of your house? How convenient is that?
Anybody who knows anything about social justice and history will tell you nothing changes unless people demonstrate. The suffragettes are a good example because they did resort to violence and we’ve mythologised this as a tokenistic, single period in time. But that’s why things changed.
I can’t stand the way that we’ve demonised demonstrations. We’ve given the police the power to make decisions they don’t want to make. We can’t celebrate democracy unless you can give people the right to protest.
The right to protest is being eroded. We should all be applauding XR, not deriding them. So they made your life inconvenient? What about when your house is getting flooded? How convenient is that?
I was at Cannes Lions when Greenpeace protestors invaded one of the beaches and they were climbing The Palais. People were saying, “Oh God, I wish they’d just stop it.” I was going, “No, if anything you should be really celebrating those people because they’re doing all the hard work; all the heavy lifting for you.”
I do think humour is one of the best ways to get a political message across. The Joe Lycett response to Liz Truss being interviewed by Laura Kuenssberg was genius.
Comedian Joe Lycett responding to Liz Truss's interview on Sunday with Laura Kuenssberg, 2022.
I think that the thing about being a creative is you’ve got to be very obsessive. If you’re not inquisitive and obsessive by nature and you don’t want to be a problem-solver then commercial creativity isn’t really your bag.
I think that we’re right in the epicentre of revolution and we’re all trying to make sense of it.
I don’t think this period is like any time before. We have had another industrial revolution. It has infiltrated our lives in an extraordinary way, almost by osmosis.
There is a generation gap in terms of perspectives on what’s necessary for creating work. But there’s also been a digital revolution and a photographic revolution, which has levelled the playing field a bit for people that have no talent. What took me five years to learn is now what a five-year-old can do. Anybody can be a creator now, but being a creative is a calling.
The relationship people have with cultural artefacts has changed. We don’t have to wait for a film to come on TV, we just get it on our mobile phones and it’s very disposable. Students might read a print out of an excerpt of a book for class, rather than the whole book. They’ll probably then throw the print outs away rather than have ownership of the book.
I have to accept we’re just older. I don’t want to be the wanker in the corner going, “back in my day we used to…”
We consume a photograph in milliseconds and my job is weird because I have to work around that. But at the same time I want the photographs to be legends. As a photographer I want to make something that will live for ever.
Björk, for Dazed & Confused magazine, Issue 16, 1995. © Rankin.
The difference between before the digital revolution and now is this: before, if you’d created a successful campaign the client would revel in the success of it with you for maybe a couple of weeks, whereas now the dopamine hit of that probably lasts a day and then it’s forgotten. But I have to accept we’re just older. I don’t want to be the wanker in the corner going, “back in my day we used to…”
However, I don’t know if the way that colleges work with kids has changed, but I feel students are not being driven to the same wide range of reference points as I was when I was a student. Back then, if you’d not seen Hitchcock’s Rear Window you’d be a laughing stock.
We’re all affected by the technological revolution. It affects our physical and mental existence.
The new generation is very hardworking, but when you say to them, “You should watch this movie” or “You should study that photo” it’s just another piece of information in a tsunami of information. They’re being told to consume things all the time. In a way, people of my generation have got more skills to be able to deal with the tsunami, because we have one foot in the past and one in the now.
Great creativity comes from debate. I love chatting with people who you can disagree with. It’s good if you can have one or two people in the room who are the contrarians, the nosy ones, the annoying ones…
I don’t think this period is like any time before. We have had another industrial revolution. It has infiltrated our lives in an extraordinary way, almost by osmosis, to the point that it’s something we depend on. Products and sales infiltrate our daily existence in all manner of ways and it’s overwhelming for everyone. Our assumption is that digital natives are swimming on top of it, and I don’t think they are.
Rankin Creative's campaign for Samsonite Business, 2017 © Rankin.
We’re all affected by the technological revolution. It affects our physical and mental existence. The tech companies don’t really care about this because they’re already five to ten years ahead. This is the revolution I’m talking about. I love Google and Netflix, but we’ve created massive separations politically, socially and generationally.
This goes back to my view on the need to question everything. That’s the thing about creativity, whether you’re working for an ad agency or on your own as an artist. You’re trying to work out the world and show your perspective on it.
In 2013 the BBC asked me, “We’d like to do a project with you, what would you like to do?” I said, “I’d like to do death.” I could see their faces fall…
I started a creative agency because I could see that there was a massive shift from what I’d been doing in the 90s and early noughties. Up until 2015 I felt a lot of the agencies were losing their way because digital and social had changed the world. I didn’t want to be left behind, I didn’t want to be part of the old paradigm.
For four or five years there was a disconnect between what creative agencies were doing and what the audience was interested in. I think it has got better and things are more interesting now.
Rankin Creative's campaign for Lego, 90 Years of Play, 2022. © Rankin.
Three years ago I started Rankin Creative. After years of working with other agencies, I wanted to go to the source creatively and work directly with clients. It’s been a revelation for me and a massive learning curve. In that time we’ve created and commissioned some incredible work, including a book about death for Royal London, an amazing campaign for Lego and lots of work for Rolls Royce. We have an incredibly talented team, a proper creative force, who live by the mantra ‘question everything’.
I interviewed and photographed people who were terminally ill. It was the best thing I could have done because my parents had died about eight years prior to that and I hadn’t dealt with it.
Great creativity comes from debate. I love chatting with people who you can disagree with. It’s good if you can have one or two people in the room who are the contrarians, the nosy ones, the annoying ones… I always used to say that my job was to point out the elephant in the room. I love doing that.
In 2013 the BBC asked me, “We’d like to do a project with you, what would you like to do?” I said, “I’d like to do death.” I could see their faces fall… But they got me a space in Liverpool to create an exhibition and made a documentary about me making the work. It was called Alive in the Face of Death and I interviewed and photographed people who were terminally ill. It was the best thing I could have done because my parents had died about eight years prior to that and I hadn’t dealt with it.
If I died tomorrow I think I’d be OK about it. I’m happy that I’ve had a good life.
What was amazing about that project was learning how to confront death and talk to people about it. I met the literary editor Diana Athill, who had written about death and was so smart and bright. She said: “We’re all born, we all live, we all die and the most important thing is that it’s exactly the same as being born, it’s just the opposite."
How To Die Well, a book project for Royal London, 2021. © Rankin.
I’m very interested in death. I got the insurance company Royal London to do a book called How to Die Well. It’s fantastic, especially if somebody’s dealing with end-of-life stuff. When I was doing media interviews about it, every single interviewer had a story they wanted to tell me about death: “My dog died,”; “My cousin’s got a terminal illness,”; “My grandmother passed last year”.
It made me think we should do a national biographical piece where people can write their stories in and have a national memorial piece.
If I died tomorrow I think I’d be OK about it. I’m happy that I’ve had a good life. I was on a flight recently and I was sitting next to a man who said, “Oh, I’m 70,” and I’m like, “Well that’s only 14 years away from me.” He was almost diminished because of it and I thought, “I’m not going to be diminished because I’m 56, I’m going to go out fighting.”
Police x Lewis Hamilton, Spring /Summer, 2020. © Rankin.
Another project I did that touched on a taboo subject, was about endometriosis. I was approached by the insurance company, Standard Life who wanted to do something on hidden illnesses. They asked me if I’d heard of endometriosis and I hadn’t. I looked it up. One in seven women have it. I was like, “What the fuck?!”
People ask me, “Why do you love photography?” and it’s because it allows me to show people how I see the world.
I’d love to do a documentary on it because I’m shocked at how badly it’s been dealt with by the medical community. Again, it’s a taboo, people don’t talk about it like they don’t talk about periods. What if you couldn’t get out of bed for three days every month because of something that people don’t want to talk about.
I met fifteen women with it when I did the interviews and some of them really made me cry. I was upset about how it was affecting their lives on a crazy scale.
People ask me, “Why do you love photography?” and it’s because it allows me to show people how I see the world. How fucking amazing is that? It’s extraordinary.
For me, everything is about the human condition. The more I do what I do, the more I realise that’s what drives me.