In Conversation: Michael Mayren

Overseeing oki-ni this month is photographer Michael Mayren, who has gained a reputation for his brutally honest editorials and exploration of northern male youth culture. When he’s not behind a camera, Mayren is running Brother, a model agency based around a foundation of unity, diversity and family. We caught up with him to discuss the inspiration behind his first shoot Brotherhood.

How did you get started as a photographer, was it something you grew up interested in?

I was always into art as a kid. I could never sit still and concentrate on anything for more than two minutes but I could sit and draw for hours. I had my mum’s old Olympus OM10 given to me when I was about 11 and photography started overtaking the drawing as I got a bit older. Doing anything creative has always been like therapy for me, I always feel content when I’m creating.

You’ve used the title ‘Brotherhood’ for your oki-ni takeover, can you explain the reasons behind that and the themes you’re hoping to explore?

Brotherhood is like an extension/development of Brother. Brother started as an all-male agency in 2016 and the name came from the feeling of acceptance that you get when someone calls you brother. It’s about inclusivity and family. Less than two years in and we have a girls division and we’re now launching creatives and talent with the same aesthetic. Most of the creatives are people I’ve known and worked with for years and the plan is to bring people together, let everything work hand in hand and help people with their journey.

How did you go from photography to that side of the creative industry?

Even though it’s quite a different path, it happened very organically. I started shooting for Vice, Dazed, Hero etc eight or nine years ago and street casting has always been a massive part of my aesthetic as a photographer. Between shooting editorial, I’d go into Manchester boxing gyms and walk around small towns taking portraits and a documentary style crossed over into my editorials. So early 2016 I had about 20 very interesting lads who weren’t signed and didn’t fit the typical model criteria for me to send them into agencies in Manchester, so I set something up with the intention of booking them a few jobs and it really blew up as soon as it launched.

You used models from your own agency for this shoot, can you tell us a bit about them? And the philosophy behind your agency as a whole?

I wanted to take my shoot right back to the origins of my work when I had a real northern feel to my photos and decided to shoot around Salford with 10 of my Manchester models. I mixed up the casting with a few of the boys who were in the original Brother lineup when we launched and some of our brand new boys.

The philosophy is really me doing things my way, making my own rules. There’s also a lot of love in what I do. I really care about the people I represent, I genuinely want them all to do well and enjoy the experience.

What keeps drawing you back to the city and the people?

I’ve always felt more inspired in the north more than anywhere else.

I think you can really tell when someone’s work isn’t authentic and there’s no common ground so it feels like quite a natural thing to always go back to my roots for my core inspiration.

You’ve described yourself ‘not a technical photographer’, would you say you have a more candid, gonzo style? Do you feel like that helps you tell a story especially when you’re trying to represent the underrepresented?

When I said I’m not a technical photographer, what I meant is for me, a camera is pretty far down the list of what makes someone a good photographer. Subject and connection is what makes a photo for me. You could take photos on a Polaroid camera or an iPhone and I could be blown away if the subject is something that interests me.

The dialogue between fashion and working-class, minority cultures has become quite complicated over the past few years, with issues of gentrification and cultural appropriation. Is this something your mindful of? Especially when a lot of your work deals with misrepresented or overlooked areas of society.

For me personally, working with working-class boys and different cultures isn’t part of a plan. I mean, how do you define ‘working class’? I don’t believe in giving anyone titles and categorising people based on how much money their family have and what they have to do day to day to get by. I love working with people who are charismatic, are real and are positive. Their background, heritage, race is not a deciding factor of signing or photographing someone.

However, I am aware that I’m in a position of power now, even if it’s on a small scale. And I am aware that, as diverse as the industry is becoming, there are is still a massive underrepresentation of south Asian models for example, which is something I’m really trying to push. Like imagine being a 12-year-old Indian or Pakistani kid, why do they not get to see people like themselves on websites, in magazines, on billboards. That’s something that needs to change.

Going back to your point about cultural appropriation, at Brother, we work with pretty amazing clients and because Brother is such a diverse agency, we’ve not really experienced anything like this. But I’m definitely mindful of it, I always read through briefs carefully to make sure we only book models on the right kind of jobs and to make sure no one is ever exploited or shot in a distasteful way.

I understand this is just the first part of a trilogy, can you tell us about what else you have planned for your takeover?

The next project will be shot by Salim Adam and styled by David Evans who are both represented by Brother Management. Salim shoots really incredible moving images so I’m very excited to see what he comes up with. This shoot will be shot around London with our London boys so a bit of a contrast to the first editorial.

I’ll also be directing a short film with three of the boys from our talent board. I don’t want to give too much away but it will feature a UK rapper, pro boxer and world champion breakdancer, so should be interesting. I feel honoured to be working with such dedicated and talented guys.

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