Not happy with the way the world’s changing? Advertising professionals are far from powerless.
Rodney Rascona thinks the advertising industry could do much more good. A veteran commercials director and photographer at production company Squire London, he wants to help the expert communicators of this industry to step up for the good of humanity. The shocks of 2016 made the world look bleak. We need to turn that around as a creative community, he suggests.
For 17 years he’s worked all over the developing world to bring the harsh realities of people’s lives to light. He’s documented the 2004 Southeast Asia Tsunami, the Haitian earthquake, the Somali / Kenyan exodus, Ethiopian famine, post-genocide Rwanda, women’s rights issues in Congo, the Phillippines typhoon Haiyan and has been involved with several NGOs along the way.
In recent years he’s been working with a United Nations Foundation initiative called the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. He directed Black Inside for them – three short documentaries in Keyna, India and Peru, highlighting the importance of clean cooking equipment to women’s health.
Red Dirt Road, his short about one woman’s journey to escape the oppressive garment industry in Cambodia, established a link to the issue that he continues to explore. He’s currently working on a feature-length film on the subject called White Silk, taking a wider angle on the exploitation that is so ubiquitous.
“When you work in relief and development you end up involved with these large ethical questions,” he says. “In White Silk it’s ‘can the Western world accept that for them to get a £5 blouse at Primark there’s a whole generation of women in the developing world subsisting on $50 a month with no hope for the future?’ They become beasts of burden to the western consumer to provide that £5 blouse.”
He’s been spending time in Mexico City recently too, poised this season to direct four feature documentaries on hip hop culture, and in between all this he returns to London where his films are stitched together and post-produced with producer Phil Tidy.
Rodney’s been a professional photographer for over 30 years, and started in an altogether glossier sector, doing portraits and car advertising around the planet for international advertising and design teams. In fact, his transition to humanitarianism started with him being up for a LIFE Eisie award in New York for work on the return of the BUG for Volkswagen in 2000.
The ceremony was packed with photojournalistic heavyweights with Sebastião Salgado’s keynote speech hitting home: “Senior image makers need to be working on serious work,” Rodney recalls. “The world needs serious professional photographers, not someone just out of university or someone who just bought a camera.” “I thought what the hell? I’m an advertising guy. I don’t have access to that.”
Later that night Rodney was introduced by respected photojournalist David Burnett, to the famous Brazilian photographer and asked him for advice on photographing human issues in the developing world. He received three tips:
1. Beware of people with short fingers;
2. Before you go to a village drink half a bottle of wine. It doesn’t matter if the images are slightly out of focus but it will relax you;
3. When you’re done, drink the other half.
The next day the phone rang. It was an NGO on the other end asking Rodney to “find famine” in Ethiopia. Since then photographing and directing in the developing world has been his raison d’être.
“In the year 2000, my first assignment for a major NGO, I was sent to a desert pitch in the Ethiopian desert with an assessment team to document the tragic fallout from drought, and ended up taking photographs of children who were starving to death,” he says. “If you work on stuff like that it’s with you all the time – the images the sounds never leave you, but you can’t not want to do it more because its become part of you now, part of your DNA – your life changed forever.”
17 years later, he understands what Salgado meant about applying yourself to serious causes. An advertising professional, he’ll still shoot glossy advertising briefs very happily, his conscience salved elsewhere, but he lives for the more meaningful work.
Having collected likeminded senior image-makers – producers, editors, post-production experts etc. - Rodney’s found the best talent to surround himself with in his ethical endeavours. “I want to be plugged into the people that want to make a change,” he says. “I’ve been blessed that I have that access because whether a project has money or not, thankfully with my producer Phil Tidy, it gets made.” People want to be involved with whatever he’s doing because he’s talented and the causes he’s involved with are fulfilling to work on.
But the world needs more people like this. An Englishman who grew up as a Republican in the USA, last year was the first time Rodney’s voted Democrat. The shifts in the world that Donald Trump represents are too horrific for him to countenance. “He’s been elected President on a racist, bigoted, misogynistic, narcissistic platform with few tangible solutions to global or domestic ills,” he despairs.
“We’ve just seen probably the most cataclysmic shift of our time. If anybody thinks that Trump being elected President isn’t going to affect the world, this is the guy that’s got millions of people lined up to be deported. How are we supposed to receive him? Pretend he didn’t mean what he said? The people who put him in office will expect him to do all those things.
“Regardless of your political view, I believe we can come together, be part of compelling projects where we celebrate cultural diversity, uncover social problems needing a voice and lend a creative heart to the on-going discourse surrounding the social issues of our time.”
Rodney’s not defeatist though. He wants more people in advertising to step up and respond to the global issues that Trump signifies. “This is a call to action,” he says. “More than ever we need to have a big voice against bigotry, racism and persecution of migrants and refugees. Advertising producers and senior image-makers need to take on major issues. There’s not a lot of money in it but we have the ability to create really impactful messages.”
After 9/11 the Ad Council made a film in response to the atrocious attack. Titled I Am An American, it presented a diverse and defiant America as people of all ages, ethnicities and religions declared “I am an American” to the camera. There was no budget and no client, and Rodney finds it inspiring. “It was work done for the greater good,” he says. “We don’t need a client. The human population is the client.”
Rodney knows the talent and resources are out there, and that people are willing to face up to the challenges of our time. You’ve all seen your advertising friends ranting on social media, despairing the shifts in our world that Brexit and Trump symbolise. If those people organised, they could create messages to counteract these negative trends.
“Assuredly there are dark clouds above us but let’s see this as a call to action,” says Rodney. “A new year now, let’s have a round table meeting, invite leading filmmakers, photographers, producers, creatives, editors, all of us within the creative supply chain. Let’s not wait for something to happen, a client, a budget or motivation. Let’s recognize what the serious messages of our times are. Racism? Bigotry? The fact that some children under five are going to sleep hungry in Hackney? To offset some of this all we have to do is to organize and start creating poignant work and putting it into the community.”
London, where Rodney is based, is the ideal place to mount this response. “It’s worth talking about the collective capability within the creative community here,” he says. “One of the largest exports from London is creativity and so with this in mind, we have the ability to create honest work that people will possibly pay attention to. Instead of taking our frustrations to online chat, let’s do something face to face where we all will benefit. Shots published a feature article I wrote a couple of years ago on a similar set of thoughts where being involved on the social challenges of our times is good for creatives, agencies and clients alike.
“We’re standing on the banks of a stream. It has been flowing for all eternity in the same way. It goes round trees and rocks and follows the same path. As creatives we can stand on the bank and watch this. But if we take just one step out into that stream it changes its path. It stops around our feet. It gurgles, bubbles, goes in different directions just because of that one step. It’s incumbent on creatives to do this, to take the risk. We’re the gatekeepers of creative messages that can bring change, create empathy and compassion for others lives and along the way, educate the rest of us. We’re the ones that bring those messages together.
“For 17 years I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to leverage my image making skills to help raise awareness to serious issues – mostly in tough places around the globe, and so I’d like to play my part here at home too. So see this as a soft appeal, a friendly invitation if you will, to the other like minded creatives to help us breathe life into human challenges many face within the community. Just maybe a group of producers, filmmakers, photographers, writers, advertisers…mature professionals and the young guns among us, collectively with a bigger voice, may help to offset the sense of helplessness and hopelessness many of us feel as a direct result of the current political climate we are forced to endure.
“Perhaps it’s time to step up. Dig deep, share ideas, be advocates, maybe a bit of a zealot in spirit - and to play our part, do our best as creatives for the greater good.”