Interview by Luke Das:
From the sprawling streets of Rajasthan to the tattoo subculture of Dundee, photographer Mark Leaver’s works represent the unseen and disenfranchised. He was one of Forbes 30 Under 30 and shortlisted for the Sony World Photography Awards. His photography has been published in Huck Magazine, Lens Culture and the Huffington Post, and most recently issue 10 of Loupe magazine, with an image from his series Tight making our portrait page.
Luke Das: Your style is refined and considered. How did you education in photography at Bournemouth contribute to your process?
Mark Leaver: One of my first jobs was in a photography lab. I started by assisting with the family portraits and eventually I took over as a photographer. It was a great way to learn to handle customers and build rapport with someone. After a gap year, I went to Arts University Bournemouth to study Commercial Photography. All the tutors were working photographers and shooting every week. They were inspirational. It gave me the space and time to develop my own style.
LD: Your Tattoos series has been featured in mainstream press outlets. The images shed a fresh light upon the tattoo scene and dispel stereotypes associated with it. What was your motivation to start that project?
ML: When the project began, I was not tattooed. I was not even into the tattoo scene. It is a big subculture, much more than I realised at the start. I have an old set of those pictures from university. I thought the aesthetic of grizzly guys with tattoos would make great portraits. When I got to know them, I realised that they were not that grizzly. They are people. They are sound. They are down to earth. Cammy is a big Scottish guy with a thick accent and his girlfriend is petite without any tattoos. Their portrait together was in a pristine living room and that made a very interesting composition.
LD: How long do you spend with each sitter and how much time would you like with them?
ML: It really varies from character to character. For the facial tattoo series, I traveled across the country and spent the whole day with some of the subjects. They ended up tattooing me by the end of those days. I still contact some now and I plan on seeing them again. Others might give me moments of their time to get one head shot and one wide shot. I give them as much as I can but I would never force them to do something that they do not want to do.
LD: You were shortlisted for the Sony World Photography Awards in 2018 with your Tight project. The photographs present a unique perspective of contemporary India. How did you first interact with this subculture?
ML: My good friend Elliott Gonzo and I formed a company called Hijra Collective. We were in Goa for New Year’s Eve having the time of our lives. India is crazy and there is stuff happening all the time. We captured some amazing film footage – people in temples, others praying on the beaches and street markets. One day we were wandering around and we found these bodybuilders lifting weights. They were huge. The concept of an Indian bodybuilder was not something we had considered before. We ended up staying for about a month shooting with them. When we got back to England, Alex King Freelance Journalist and member of the Hijra Collective, looked at the series and the footage. He encouraged us to go back and finish it.
The photos were well received. It gave them the opportunity to show pride in their country and their passion. The bodybuilders represent an emerging middle class and challenge the preconceptions of malnourishment in the Indian subcontinent. Working class people could not afford to do something like this – the training, supplements and equipment are all too expensive. Focusing on your image is such a middleclass thing to do. They have Arnold Schwarzenegger photos in their rooms and their dreams are to come to London.
The image that defines the piece for me is the one of Vijayan lifting an autorickshaw in a quarry. He is an autorickshaw driver and a bodybuilder in his spare time. He loves his job but he thinks about the gym when he is stuck in traffic. In quieter moments, he even does reps with it while he is standing around. Elliot and I shot with him at the gym first but we wanted to take him someone to compose the shot better. We wanted to make a poster out of it, something really iconic.
LD: Your portfolio combines reportage photographs with still life and formal portraiture. How would you define your technique?
Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment approach is not for me. I find it easier to chat to people and pose them. You can gauge if someone likes being photographed or not. Even when I am not being commissioned, I will stop people in the street. ‘Hey man. How is it going? I love your beard!’ seems to work for me!
Rembrandt lighting is always my reference. I love getting someone with their chest up, shoulders back and having the light off to one side. It is glorifies and elevates them. I have different categories for my photos. There are stills, which pick out certain details. They might be obvious but I always want to get them. After thousands of photos, I do a light edit on my computer and print them out. It really helps me figure a series out. Working in that shop when I was younger gave me a real value for prints.
LD: You were featured in Forbes 30 Under 30 Europe 2019 – Media and Marketing. That is quite an achievement. How did it feel to hear that you had been nominated?
It was a massive surprise. Suitcase Magazine sends me on freelance jobs. I might be in Madagascar for a few weeks then Transylvania after that. Serena Guen, CEO at the magazine, put me forward for the awards. I showed my housemate when I got the nomination email and we could not believe it!
Thanks for your time and good luck with the release of the film!
Issue 10 is out now. You can pick up a free copy from one of over 90 stockists across the country. Single copies, back issues and annual subscriptions are also available to purchase from our online store.
Luke Das is a lecturer, writer and photographer with an interest in traditional image making techniques. His works pay homage to photography from the past and present.