Marcus Lyon: Human Atlas Explorations – Interview Revd Jonathan Evens

Marcus Lyon

Marcus Lyon is an artist whose early work took him to the slums and ghettos of the developing world to explore issues surrounding street children and child labour. His early working life working with Amnesty International in Latin America was the inspiration for his twenty-five-year exploration of the issues at the heart of globalisation. 

As a portrait artist, he has photographed a diverse range of public figures from Queen Elizabeth II, to Bill Nighy and four British Prime Ministers. His images have won numerous awards and nominations including the B&H Gold Award 1991, Agfa Photographer of the Year 1996, Prix Pictet nominations 2012, 2013 & 2015, 3 D&AD Silver and one D&AD Yellow Pencil and five AOP’s. The early 21st century saw his work move from the micro to the macro with the formation of the large scale BRIC, EXODUS and TIMEOUT series: explorations of our global mass behaviours. In recent years he has undertaken significant collaborative commissions including his Human Atlas projects that hold a mirror up to society and encourage audiences to question their own roles and responsibilities to their communities, cities and fellow human beings.

In the early 90’s he founded the Glassworks, an award-winning multidisciplinary art studio that acts as a gallery, exhibition venue and centre of excellence for commissioned and original art. Outside of the art world he is a determined social entrepreneur and an active public speaker. In the not for profit sector, he has served on the boards of the Somerset House Trust and Leaders’ Quest and is a founder Ambassador for BLESMA, Home-Start UK and the global think-tank The Consortium for Street Children.

He says that, emotionally and environmentally, the mass ideas, actions, movements of people, production processes, and the titans of political and consumer power that house them, are so huge that no single image can define their influence. As a result, he has endeavoured to create new visual languages within which he can communicate a deeper truth. We discussed his changing visual languages with a particular focus on i.Detroit, the most recent of his Human Atlas projects.

JE: i.Detroit is the third in your Human Atlas projects. Could you tell us what a Human Atlas is and how you arrived at the concept?

ML: A Human Atlas is a social impact art project that brings together a specified number of nominated change agents to tell a deeper story about how we self author and co-author, a more hopeful future through portraits, interviews, soundscapes and DNA mapping.

We arrived at the concept of the methodology quite slowly. I’m not a great believer in ‘light bulb’ moments. So, we worked over a number of years building my art practice to bring sounds and images together to try and tell more sophisticated stories and enhance the experience of looking and seeing while listening. I found it very attractive, this idea of listening to a still image. You’re quite quiet with it in a visual sense, you’re not being bombarded by live action imagery, you’re just looking at a still, but there is this wonderful powerful listening experience.

With the Human Atlas you’re listening to a voice, so you end up not only having a relationship with the portrayed, but you also have this ability to be held in a space where you have to stop and put your judgements aside. I think we can be very judgemental about two-dimensional imagery; we look at it, we make our mind up and we turn our back and we walk away. I don’t think that’s a way to truly appreciate anything in life. I think that we need to give people time.

Adding a third element was always my intention but I couldn’t really find it. We were planning to do the first one in Brazil – which was just going to be sound, pictures and research – and then I had a very fortuitous meeting with Luiz Coutinho, a well-known Brazilian geneticist. I shared with him that I was unsure about our methodology. He said, why don’t you think about doing DNA tests on everybody and create ancestral DNA mapping to give the project three dimensions. What comes with that is the extra depth of our origins with DNA. We can test and the tests connect us to each other in ways that we wouldn’t be able to do without the science. So that’s how we came about the concept, quite slowly and with a lot of help and guidance. We worked on it a great deal on Brazil. We perfected it and polished it with WE: deutchland in Germany, and then we really went all out on the i.Detroit project to build it to another level.

We’ve added Y DNA and mitochondrial DNA. That gives us very deep, super historical lines of migration right back to our earliest ancestors in Africa and, rather interestingly, our chosen route out of Africa. On the recorded pieces we’ve gone up a level there and started producing soundscapes rather than edited interviews. For these, we do extra atmosphere recordings that we layer behind the interviews. Suddenly we have this wonderful deep listening experience alongside the pictures and the migration stories of the DNA. So, by the time we finished i.Detroit, we felt we’d polished the model to a point where it really works.

JE: The Human Atlas projects have been formed in response to the paucity of vision proposed by those that call for walls and borders. You have said that we need to co-author the future through social innovation; imagining and sculpting spaces where we belong to more than our small tribes. The Human Atlas projects feature social change agents who are brave enough to build disruptive ways to answer today’s big challenges. How do you find such people and what is it about them that is being shared through these projects?

ML: I think that the real key to a Human Atlas project is the foundation you build it on. Just like any house or any life, you’ve got to build on good foundations. And the foundation of a Human Atlas project is a six month plus nomination process where we go to the communities that we are endeavouring to research, study and communicate about, and we ask them to nominate individuals in their communities who are moving the needle. Then they nominate a large group of people, sometimes upwards of 200 people, who are doing the hard work. We take that long list to a handpicked group of elders and community leaders and ask them to do the very challenging but extremely rewarding job of picking 100 individuals to represent all the facets of that community. As people who know that community, know the neighbourhoods, know the cities, know the countries, know the work that’s been done, know the issues that need to be dealt with, the nomination committee allows me to access a much deeper wisdom about who are the right people to be chosen.

Obviously, we’re going to miss a few. And, obviously in Brazil truly representing the extraordinary diversity of a country of 220 million people in 100 individuals is clearly impossible. But we do the very best we can to be extremely focused on covering all the bases up to a point of creating 47 column Excel spreadsheets to analyse everyone who’s been nominated. So we do a lot of really hard graft and, as bedrock to the project, it serves for us to understand those communities much better. So by the time we actually get to sit in the room and interview people and begin to build the books and the projects around that community we’ve actually done the deep dive right into who’s doing what, where, and on what issue.

JE: How do you think community is explored by the photographing of individuals?

ML: I like that question. Nobody’s ever asked me that before. Just as a rather wonderful aside, two of the Detroiters who were nominated separately by different people in different ways and came to the project from different sources, ended up, once we analysed all the DNA, finding out that they were related; which is a beautiful way of showing connection. I think through the book, exhibition and digital formats we see a deeper community – listening to people’s soundscapes you end up realizing that none of these people got there on their own. They’ve been deeply connected to a community of other change agents; the community of family or a community of their street or neighbourhood that supported them and held them and gave them the opportunity to step up.

We said at the beginning of the book, in every process there are those who take the seed of somebody’s idea and plant it and keep watering it. So I think that the i.Detroit project and the Human Atlas do focus on individual excellence and brilliance, but do the slow reading and listening and suddenly you realize it’s not about the individual. None of them ever say it’s about them. You only need give it one decent listen and you see it’s all about community.

JE: You’ve spoken about the experience of slow looking and slow listening. The philosopher Simone Weil said that to pay pure attention is prayer. The experience of contemplative looking in an art context has a parallel within the religious traditions and Weil brings the two together. I wonder whether that resonates at all with the experience of slow looking that you describe.

ML: I think I’m a very practical human being. We have a family motto which is, ‘always making something’. I’m not a deeply spiritual person. I sometimes reflect on this and I wish I was. But I’m a deeply passionate and energetic planet dweller and I love people. So hopefully I make up for any lack of depth with the strength of the hug I give the world that I occupy. That’s my intention with this work, to give people a chance to experience something more powerfully and with more depth. I think that’s the gift we’re trying to give. I’m very intentionally and practically building processes to help people slow down in a fast world. I think within the Human Atlas process our endeavour is to facilitate a deeper meditation on what it means to be you, what it means to be me and what it means to be we.

JE: What have you learnt about Detroit from the three years spent working on iDetroit and what have you learnt about America from your experience of Detroit?

ML: I’m going to turn that one on its head. In terms of America, we learned a lot about the great migration. I’ve travelled extensively in America. I’ve got American family. I’ve been working in North America almost all my adult life and I didn’t know about the great migration, the single largest migration of a group of people that I know of. Six million African Americans, Black Americans moving from the deep South to escape Jim Crow and all the wickedness of the racial inequality of the South to try and grab a little piece of the American dream. A very large number of them went to the northern Rust Belt cities of Detroit, Chicago, Columbus, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh. Many went to the East coast, many to the West coast, but a very, very large number went to join in the industrialization of North America and good paying jobs at The Ford Motor Co. and the like. That was an amazing, amazing story; an extraordinary story of these people who literally went from looking after the farm and picking cotton to finding new homes and a new future in the North.

In the mid ‘50s Detroit was the per capita, richest city in North America and had almost 2 million people. There was an extremely vibrant Black community there that was doing really well, a lot of entrepreneurs, Black entrepreneurs, a lot of good things happening. Obviously there was a lot of racial inequality, covenanting, redlining and discrimination in very systemic ways. We learned so much about Detroit’s extraordinary energy; the birthplace of the car, of Motown, the arsenal of democracy, the city that invented techno and so many other new things that have come out of Detroit. Detroit is America in so many ways. There’s so much that the city represents outside of Detroit.

You turn up in town and Detroiters will put you through your paces. But when you’ve passed the test and they accept you, you’re a brother not an other. Detroit is 82% Black today and once you’re in you get treated like you’ve been welcomed into a small village. Nothing is too much trouble; it is an incredibly welcoming place. Detroit is also much misrepresented, especially in the modern era of the bankruptcy and the kind of the post-industrial decline piece that we all know. So called ‘ruin porn’ is just not the story. Detroiters are really fed up with journalists coming with their own preconceptions and then going in search of the stories that back up those preconceptions. One of the reasons we got welcomed so much was that we came to tell their story with their words.

JE: In capturing something of the essence of those you photograph how much of what is captured in the final image is the result of the relationship built with the person before the shoot, what you see or sense of the individual on the day, and what the person themselves brings with them as an expression of themselves?

ML: I’ve been really humbled by the reaction to the portrait element of this project in recent weeks. We launched a few weeks ago and I’ve been truly humbled by people’s reaction. I feel my portraits are rather simple – deliberately so, in the hope that they remain uncluttered and that the audience really gets to see the person. That’s the intention of the work. I’ve pared it back to nothing and worry that they might too simple. I think that, with the reaction I’ve been getting, I have to pocket that personal insecurity. What I’m hearing is that we have created images that truly engage and bring people into the piece so that they do choose to stop, look, download the app, and listen.

In terms of the actual process, it’s a myriad of different things. I’ve been taking portraits for 35 years, and I really am, dare I say it, at a point where if I can’t take a good portrait, then I don’t know where I failed. What I try to do is build confidence in the conversation I’m having prior to the portrait session. It’s deep, meaningful, warm and connected. So, when I’m actually taking the photograph, I’m really just recording the person that I’m in conversation with. There’s no clutter at all emotionally, as we’ve got to a point where we are deeply communicating, so we are not interested in the camera by then.

It’s about having a process – quite an intense and quick process – where somebody steps into a space and knows that I have absolutely the right intention about what I’m recording. For most of the social entrepreneurs we photograph, people are genuinely not full of ego. What they’re full of is passion for the thing they want to do.

So, having that deeper conversation around who they are and beginning to get to know them prior to the interview means we get to a place where we know each other and build friendship, and then, boom, we get the photograph. Often I’m shooting 10 to 30 frames. I’m not shooting a lot of pictures. I’m not shooting so many pictures that, just by the volume of images you’re taking, you’re bound to find something that works. It’s definitely an emotional space. I’m rarely happier than when I’m taking a portrait. The intention of the way I do those portraits is to get back to the point where we are just ourselves.

JE: As a portrait artist you photographed a diverse range of public figures. Then in the early 21st century your work moved from the micro to the macro with the formation of the BRIC, EXODUS and TIMEOUT series that explore global mass behaviours. With the Human Atlas projects you are again focusing on individuals while continuing to explore global issues and changes. What have been the thought processes that have led to these changes of focus within your work?

ML: I was always very shy of taking portraits when I was a young photographer, I felt I was imposing myself on people. It really felt awkward. I used to take portfolios of landscapes to commissioning agents – magazine editors, advertising agencies, or graphic design houses – and they would ask me to take portraits. So, I got over my hang ups and insecurities about sticking a lens in somebody’s face, and it became one of my great loves and has given me so much joy; being sent all over the world to meet extraordinary people.

The journey into doing the macro photography, the big landscapes, was to try and talk about the things that I was doing in my personal life, which was working in urban spaces with street children. They were mainly children who were city based, urban children who had no home, no parents, no backup – The UN figures state that as many as 100 million children live on the streets of our cities globally and I was deeply involved in NGO leadership roles for over 15 years .

I wanted my photography to reflect that fascination with the city and the urban space. In a sense, I went from the micro, individual street children, to the macro of looking at these urban spaces where these people played out their extraordinary and difficult lives. Once I played with that space for a while, it became very interesting to go back in again and look at the people who were making a difference in those spaces, those social entrepreneurial spaces where people were trying to affect change to some of the great ills of society. It was a journey out to take some perspective and then, right now, I need to go back in again.

What is common in the Human Atlas work and the global mass behaviour work is that I have chosen to bring multiple conversations together in one space. In the Human Atlas, it’s DNA, sound and images plus mapping and other graphic and written representations of the people we study. With the BRIC, EXODUS and TIMEOUT artworks, what I created was massively complicated montages – taking literally hundreds, sometimes thousands, of images and then bringing all the pieces together, like a massive visual jigsaw puzzle, to tell a deeper truth about what the world was really like. That was based on the fact that I couldn’t communicate what I really wanted to say through a single image. It just wasn’t possible as the world was much more nuanced and much more complicated.

So, a theme that cuts right through the macro and the micro sections of that journey is about bringing lots of information together to try and piece together a deeper conversation about the world we live in, and shine a light on our own roles in society.

JE: The Human Atlas projects seek to give a voice either to the voiceless or those whose social change-making is known within their community but not more widely. How is this aspect of the projects built in and why do you consider it to be such an important element of these projects?

ML: I think it’s a theme that’s gone right through my life, not always in photography, but just behind the scenes. I think there are probably three birthplaces for that. One is that both of my parents were very passionate about supporting people and both had significant charitable endeavours right through their lives – they would always step up for others.

Then, we lost my elder brother when I was eight. That early loss left me quite confused and empty, in search of something. I think I’ve spent a life in search of being good enough for the life that I’ve got, because it’s the life that my elder brother didn’t get – a survivor’s guilt. There’s a bit of me that goes, ‘I got the chance to live this extraordinary life and be around these amazing people, and Andrew didn’t.’ The only way I can really respect and honour his memory is by being passionate about telling the true story and so I think there’s a desire to give voice to those who don’t get a chance to speak. Allied to that moment of deep teenage confusion was the fact that I was, for a period of time, quite badly bullied. For a while I was the one whose voice was being taken away because that’s what bullies do; they stop people being able to have a voice. I think, by the time I got my things together and decided who I wanted to be. I realized not everybody was going to like me, and that that was okay. I think that gave me a chance to stand up for others who didn’t get their voice heard.

The third thing was the fact that in my early photography career, I ended up meeting with two or three extremely exceptional young leaders who gave me the gift of realizing that there were people out there who were against all odds going to fight the good cause right through their life for something that they felt deeply passionate about. I don’t think all of us get that chance. Meeting a couple of key artists and key social entrepreneurs in my early 20’s, that was an inspiration for my whole life. You can see a direct correlation between what I’m doing now and those relationships that I made in my early 20s.

JE: You’ve just spoken about the way in which your identity was formed as a teenager going through those early years experiences. When you’ve spoken about identity elsewhere you have spoken of identity as a creative process. To what extent are the Human Atlas projects explorations of identity as creative process?

ML: Identity has got a bit of a dirty name; the whole idea of identity politics and how, somehow, it’s a bad thing. I thought a lot about whether identity is given or created. That sense of are we exactly who we are right from birth and, if so, we’ve got no chance of changing it or the nurture conversation that you see in Shakespeare, this has always been an inspiration. Wrapped around all of that is this beautiful possibility of a life of reinvention, of self invention, of always being able to wake up the next day and say, I can be better today than I was yesterday, I can do something today that I’ve never done before. I can see if I only open my eyes and observe properly, I’m going to see something today that I passed 1,000 times and have never seen before. I like that and it drives me and allows me to live every day to the full and not feel stuck. I see a lot of people getting stuck and I like the idea of producing work that helps people get unstuck.

JE: That leads on nicely to the last question which is about the impact that you think the Human Atlas projects have had on the communities that have been involved with them. From your experience of the Human Atlas projects to date what do you think is their impact on understandings of community both in the locations for which they were created and more widely?

ML: As the author of the work, my intention is to inspire the next generation of leaders to co-author their lives in honour of those who came before rather than be in their shadow. To look amongst their peers and look amongst their communities and see people who’ve stepped up and realize that they too can do it. So, I suppose it’s a call to arms, it’s a call to service. It’s saying somewhere out there, there’s a group of people, there’s an idea or an issue that you should be passionately involved with and you need to pick up your spade and start doing some of the hard digging. That’s my hope, that these books inspire people to do the work.

Then, the reactions I get back are myriad. I think the most telling one from Detroit was Shirley Stancato, who was on my nomination committee and is the champion of social change and racial equity in Detroit. She was CEO of New Detroit which was the go to NGO for anyone working in Detroit on racial equity issues. She’s been a great guide; took me under her wing, gave me reading lists and was always there for me whenever I was out of my depth or short of answers.

She told me two stories recently. Firstly she informed me that I had helped her see and hear stories that she never knew about people she knew really well and really intimately. She saw a different side of people. Extraordinary things. She had heard a deeper story, and that after 35 years working with these people she now knew things she had never known before. And that’s because of our work – that was so great to hear from her and significant praise from someone with such a fine intellect and passion for her people.

And then she said, ‘Marcus, my 10-year-old grandson was round here this weekend. He picked up the book, downloaded the app, and he was there for hours. He went through the whole book listening to all the stories of the African American men looking for guidance as to who he should be.”

I can feel tears welling up in my… you can hear the shake in my voice. I mean, one 10-year-old boy, that’s all it takes, because that means there’s another 10-year-old child, and there’s another nine-year out there. It’s just proof that the model works. The story of i.Detroit is one about a remarkable diverse city but the story of racial equity in North America is so much about how young African American’s aspirations are limited, how they are so often criminalized and then locked up; there are just awful, awful statistics around young Black men and their dreadful life chances in a society that has such a high level of systemic injustice. So if my book just moves the needle, even just the tiniest amount, in that boy’s life and gives him the confidence to see a life through a different lens and be able to step up, then I’ve done my work – it’s as simple as that – I will have done my work.

Top Photo: EXODUS IV – Hong Kong, China (2010) – Hong Kong, China (2010) by Marcus Lyon for EXODUS IV Left: Tiffany Brown – Portrait of Tiffany Brown by Marcus Lyon for i.DetroitRight: Dwan Dandridge – Portrait of Dwan Dandridge by Marcus Lyon for i.Detroit

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For further information and the i.Detroit book 

EXODUS IV - Hong Kong, China (2010) - Hong Kong, China (2010) by Marcus Lyon for EXODUS IV
EXODUS IV – Hong Kong, China (2010) – Hong Kong, China (2010) by Marcus Lyon for EXODUS IV