get a look inside hard ears: the rule-breaking new publication from ronan mckenzie

Featuring work by the likes of Nick Knight, Piczo and James Massiah, Ronan McKenzie's Hard Ears is an un-elitist, un-exploitative, uncensored place for honest images and words that reflect the norm and the now.

15 December 2016, 3:25pm

"This image is part of an advertorial series that I took in Abidjan with Rym Beydoun, the founder of Superyaya 100. We wanted to capture the soul and atmosphere of Abidjan so we just drove around with the clothes in the back of the car, having chats and conversations with women getting their hair done in the middle of the market and kids playing football on the beach."

"'Hard ears won't hear, own way will feel' is something that my mum said to me and my siblings hundreds of times when we were growing up. It's something that most children of Caribbean parents are likely to have heard, and usually comes before 'I'm washing my hands of you' and is basically when your parents have had enough of you not listening."

While traditionally the saying means that those who don't listen will have to learn the hard way, our photographer friend, Ronan McKenzie, took it to mean that sometimes it's okay not to listen, that "it's okay do your own thing, to be confident and just go for it… even if you're going for it on your own." With that in mind, tired of the media's obsession with youth and instead intent on celebrating tradition, family and culture, Ronan produced Hard Ears.

Calling on friends, friends of friends, insta-friends and past collaborator friends, the result is a cultural mish-mash of contributions from the UK, US, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Vietnam, Korea and Portugal. Inclusive not exclusive, the publication is full of real people and real lives -- beautiful, relatable words and pictures produced just for you.

"India Rose and Alex De Mora shot Mia Howe at her family home in her dad Adam Howe's clothes. He was and still is a very influential stylist so this story is so interesting because it brings out the playfulness of being at your parents house, and the warmth and family connection of wearing your parents clothes which some of which will definitely be older than you!"

What's Hard Ears all about then?
Hard Ears is a publication -- I keep saying magazine but it is way more like a coffee table book -- that is strong, hearty, and, I hope, relatable. An unelitist, unexploitative, uncensored place for honest images and words that reflect the norm and the now. Born out of my frustration with publications being too much of a popularity contest, or flicking through the pages and feeling like an outsider, I wanted to create a strong theme-led publication that is beautiful and full of incredible content. It's so unusual to find people as established as Nick Knight or Piczo in the pages next to insanely talented but new artists like Abondance Matanda and Hyunjung Hexa Koo. I think it's so important to appreciate talent for what it is and now how old you are or how many people have heard of you.

When did you first dream it up?
I was sitting in my garden back in April with my friend Donnika and we were talking about my work and how it was all going. We ended up talking about publications and how I found it frustrating that some big names might like my work but would never commission me to shoot a big story because of my age, experience, or (lack of haha) Insta followers or popularity. I was bored of a lot of magazines being guided by advertising and being unable to shoot things exactly the way I wanted to or with who I wanted, and Donnika suggested I start my own publication and I thought yeah... why not.

"Wendy Huynh is another amazing photographer that I was so happy to have involved in Hard Ears. Her photos are shot in Vietnam and they capture a beautiful still and calmness of the country."

Do you have a favourite feature or page?
Oh I have so many favourites! Some of my favourite pieces are Ruth Ossai's series of her family and friends in her Nigerian village Nssuka, Rosie Marks' AMERICA series, Elizabeth Lee and Neesha Tulsi Champaneria's CHAMPA series, Jackson Bowley's beauty portraits and Abondance Matanda, Will Stowe and James Massiah's poetry.

You celebrate real people. Do you think there comes a point when big brands jumping on the street-cast trend becomes a problem?
No, I think the more diversity in the type of people that we see in big brands and campaigns the better. The problem comes when big brands use street-cast people because they can pay them less than signed models, that's an issue!

"Hetty Douglas painted this piece in response to us discussing how frustrating it is that people almost have a sell-by date nowadays. The younger you are, the more impressive you are, and if you're not brand new and unseen then you're almost irrelevant. Hetty said, 'I feel old and I'm 24... I mean it's great kids are becoming successful at a young age but how long does that last and how will that affect them when it's gone.'"

Hard Ears is very international. Was that always the intention or did you start local?
I knew from the beginning that I wanted it to represent more than just London. One reason is that I'm exposed to so much imagery online every single day from photographers, stylists, artists, writers etc. in other countries that I learn from and that inspires me and it was important to make that a part of it. And just because the contributors that live in London are from so many different places and as a lot of people shot their friends or family it was just inevitable that some wouldn't be in the UK. Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Vietnam, Korea, Portugal and America are just some of the places that images were taken in!

The theme for the first issue is 'old'. What does old mean to you and why did you select that theme?
I decided on the theme because I'm just so bored of youth culture being shoved at me from every angle! I'm frustrated with the consumerist, throwaway attitude that comes with the feeling that everything needs to be the newest, the youngest, and nothing that isn't brand new is valued. My dad used to always say "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" and I wanted to run with a theme that was both broad and appreciated the notion of 'old' and whatever that can be interpreted as. Old to me is; family, tradition, culture, history, ideas, thoughts, people, memories and so much more!

"This is from a 20 page story that I shot with Toni-Blaze Ibekwe because I've just never seen an editorial shoot with solely beautiful, elegant, black girls. We wanted to shoot a story that was simple, hardly directed so the girls were just themselves, and give it an amount of pages that an all black model story just never gets!"

This is your first publication. Was it harder or easier than you expected?
I funded Hard Ears myself which was very important to me so that I was able to set the tone exactly how I wanted it to be. I didn't want any of the content to be influenced by money, and I wanted to be able to be truly uncensored in the way that images or written pieces could be totally honest without worrying about offending anyone who is funding the magazine. In terms of putting the actual magazine together, I didn't know what to expect! From the very beginning when I started contacting people that I wanted to contribute, or even before that when I discussed it with friends I had a super positive response and it all went quite smoothly from there. My friend Ruby jumped on board when I was getting all the content back in, and did all the editing and design of HARD EARS with me which was great as we've been friends for like 8/9 years now, so she knew exactly what I wanted the outcome to be, and balanced me perfectly - even when I wanted all the text to be in justified text format.

While you don't rule out ads entirely, you approach them differently to most...
Advertising in most magazines is so obtrusive! It makes up 30-60% a lot of of magazines and while yes, I understand that a big part of magazines and fashion imagery is selling, I don't see why it can't be part of an idea or a story because if the advertiser wants to have their ad in a specific magazine it's because they feel the audience might relate to it, so why can't it become a story? I have three advertorials in Hard Ears and they're all part of stories that would stand-alone even if they weren't ads, and that's how I want to approach advertising in the future. For example; with MARIEYAT, we filmed dancers dancing in her pieces, exploring movement and connection, and with Base Range I shot my mum working out in her front garden, which is sat alongside a piece she wrote about growing up in Barbados and how important food was.

"This image is from a series on seaside games arcades that I commissioned Alice Zoo to shoot. I was so fascinated by that weird forced happiness of games arcades, where kids go after school and have an ice cream while it's pouring with rain outside and there'll be a gambling addict in the corner throwing their last pennies away on slot machines." 

Why did you select Dickies to collaborate with on merch?
Dickies are a brand that have been going for for almost 100 years, who pride themselves in creating durable workwear which lasts. One of their lines reads 'Hard Working, Hard Wearing' which aligns itself perfectly with Hard Ears. The point of Hard Ears is that is means something, it's something that will last, so it made sense to collaborate with Dickies and I was so happy that they went for it!

Did you always intend on donating some of the profits to Crisis?
Always. I've been volunteering at Crisis for the past two Christmases, and will be again next week. But as I'm a freelance photographer with an erratic schedule living in London, it's so hard to give any more time or money that that to causes that are important, so through creating my own publication, I'm creating a stream of income that will allow me to donate to charity and I also hope that it makes people think more about it. 20% of all profits will be donated to charity, 10% will consistently be Crisis and the other will be based on the theme; so as the theme for the first issue is "OLD", the other 10% will be donated to Alzheimer's Society.

Which other independent magazines do you particularly respect?
The Mushpit is wicked! I also love Office Magazine, True Photo Journal and Unemployed.

"Matt King and Joseph Delaney's shoot, Bad Hair, is a story that resembles school photos with super elaborately styled hair. It's funny to me that when you're young and get a haircut it's almost the end of the world and now all of these "bad hairstyles" are so trendy and cool, and this plays with this idea."


Text Francesca Dunn
Images courtesy Hard Ears