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Meet Fashion Photographer Rankin

Ahead of the launch of our A Better Future: Primark Cares campaign, we get to know the man behind the camera and talk all things sustainability and fashion.

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Jayne Bibby
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British fashion photographer Rankin was the man behind the camera on our most recent campaign A Better Future: Primark Cares. From his early portraiture in the late 1980s, to co-founding the influential magazine Dazed & Confused with Jefferson Hack, John Rankin Waddell, known simply as Rankin, has remained a force within the fashion industry for over thirty years.

With a portfolio ranging from The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Kate Moss, Kendall Jenner and The Queen, what was it about shooting Primark’s first sustainable brand campaign that really appealed? ‘Primark’s commitment to change is something that’s truly in line with my personal beliefs. To work with such a big brand focusing on sustainability in such a public way felt like a natural partnership to me.’

And Rankin believes it isn’t the designers or the fashion photographers who are the key decision makers in the fashion market place, but the big brand retailers who can make the biggest change and need to make the first move. He explains, ‘If I can walk into any shop on the high street and buy something ethical or made in an eco-conscious way then I, as a consumer, am given a chance to make a positive decision. Until that happens most people aren’t going to be able to access positive fashion.’

Rankin has always been very vocal about his passion for sustainability and the future of fashion. From speaking at the tradeshow Milano Unica last year on sustainability in the fashion industry, to creating a plastic monster for the Surfrider Foundation to raise awareness for plastic pollution in the ocean, he ensures all his projects are based on topics close to his heart.

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With sustainability such a big passion of his, we were keen to understand what ‘doing your bit for the environment’ means to him? ‘It means thinking about the impact my choices have on the environment and thinking about what this means for the future of the world.’ He continues, ‘When it comes to retailers the ultimate goal for sustainable fashion should be to leave as little negative footprint as possible, creating materials and objects that don’t harm. Whether it’s making items in a carbon neutral way, or making things with long shelf lives that people can own and love for their full lifetimes. It’s important to think about every item as something with impact, no matter how small.’

Having an engaged audience via social media, Rankin says, gives him a responsibility to promote and educate followers on positive lifestyle choices. ‘Photography is a medium a whole generation has grown up understanding and using for their own personal emotional expression - with Instagram and iPhones, for better or for worse, people are engaging more with photography today than ever before. It is a medium so entwined with contemporary culture and that makes it currently one of the best mediums for promoting change and healthy choices.’

When it comes to being more responsible for our actions, Rankin believes mental space is what we all need to achieve this, ‘I think the key is giving people time to think about their choices. I don’t believe people go out making purposeful decisions to act unsustainably or in a way that harms the planet’s future, but when you’re in a rush or under pressure who hasn’t brought a bottle of water or put something recyclable in the wrong bin? Within my studio we have a company Green Team. They make sure we are on top of waste and recycling and they keep us informed on how to live sustainably and make better buying choices.’

With over thirty years as a photographer, Rankin admits that right now is a really exciting time for photographers. He explains why, ‘There are so many photographers doing new things and really pushing the boundaries of what photography means. I love Em Cole and her work spans photography, animation, digital art… it’s all about embracing new formats and technology to create her bold style and I find that fascinating.’

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So are there any other up and coming photographers keeping him on his toes? ‘You can also look at real young up-and-comers like Karolina Wojtas who creates these bizarre surreal photoshoots with her friends and family. Because of her unique style, she shot a campaign for Marni before even graduating from her photography degree!’ He continues, ‘I’ve also recently started working with the brand Share the Mic which is a project that helps brands showcase young black talent. Through the project I met Ejatu Shaw and Callum Malcolm Kelly, two photographers who I believe are set for really big things.’

As fashion and photography go hand in hand, what kind of change does Rankin hope we will start to see from this industry? ‘I’ve never understood the impulse to treat fashion like it isn’t part of the real world. I know in magazines it is all about fantasy but when you ring-fence it from real things happening in the world you give the fashion industry a place to hide – an excuse to not worry about real issues. Fashion is such an integral part of culture, not everyone goes to the cinema or reads novels but everyone wears clothes. It is important that the fashion industry as a whole understands its impact on the world and is actively changing their working practices and work for a better future.’

As we all begin to navigate our own worlds post COVID-19, what, in Rankin’s opinion, does the future of fashion photography look like? ‘Wow, big question,’ he admits. ‘Interestingly what I’ve seen happen over the last 12 months pre-and post Covid is that people are getting more political. That is a very big shift in fashion, up until recently there would only be a few people making statements - now everyone is joining in. I think that’s brilliant and I hope it continues.’

He continues, ‘Who knows what the next fashion week will look like but the future of fashion is digital. It’s listening to the virality of information and how data, trends and the internet have made an impact on our interests and our outlook. Tech allows great connectivity and what we’ve noticed since Covid-19 is that even though creatives and designers are not in the same room, the same energy and creativity can be born.’

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And when it comes to keeping their fingers on the pulse of the next big trend Rankin’s team are renowned for it, so what are they expecting the next big sustainability focused trend to look like?

‘I’ve really loved seeing the rise in up-cycling and buying less, so it would be great to see the next sustainability focused trend will be born out of this. People now, more than ever, are thinking about what is a necessity and what isn’t and also people are understanding they can be as creative with their clothing choices, and as fashionable, without having to buy a full new wardrobe every season. I also think it’s amazing that places like Primark are now offering in-store recycling schemes so customers can now drop off pre-loved items to be recycled and stop them going to land-fill. It’s amazing and a great step towards a better future.’