Marcus Lyon: The Bigger Picture

© Marcus Lyon ‘BRIC I – Santa Teresa Rio De Janeiro, Brazil’ 2008

I have always been focused on the primacy of the idea.


The American documentary photographer Robert Capa once said that “if your pictures are not good enough you are not close enough”. But is that necessarily true? Capa was describing the way in which, in his view, a photographer should get close to a human subject or situation in order to capture the detail. This may amplify the individual narrative as frozen in a fraction of a second, but is that the whole story? If one stands too close to the tree, one cannot see the forest.

For the British photographic artist Marcus Lyon, to properly understand our human experiences we must look for the bigger picture. For him, it is not simply the momentary click of the shutter that captures the essence, one must understand the wider social, historical, economic and environmental context. In a world defined by globalisation, it is wise to look out to the horizon.

It is also important to think and not simply to feel. A tightly focused action shot may carry a certain emotional impact, but what does it tell us about the complex interweaving of circumstances that led to that moment and flow on from it? Lyon’s approach is first to think carefully about the questions he seeks to ask in his images, and then to survey the broader social landscape and deeper historical flow of events that brought us to this moment and from whence we now move forward.

If mid-twentieth-century image-making asked that we look in close detail, the accelerating global change of the new millennium demands that we understand the interconnectedness of things: of economies, of nations and of people. In this, Marcus Lyon is an artist of his age.

Marcus Lyon’s creative output has been extensive. However, in our conversation, we focused on two broad groups of photographic work: his large-scale vistas and his explorations of human diversity and social impact.

Alasdair Foster

© Marcus Lyon ‘Exodus 2 – Dubai United Arab, Emirates’ 2010


This series of articles looks at the work of photo-artists who have a different ‘way of seeing’ – one that seeks to move away from the conventions of photography as document. How would you describe your ‘way of seeing’?

I have always been focused on the primacy of the idea. It is the key to unlocking meaning and one’s guide through the act of making. I combine this with a strong commitment to the creative process of pre-visualisation – to having a clear mental picture of the finished image in my mind before I even pick up a camera, choose a location or decide on a subject. This has helped focus my work into clearly defined projects, each with its own concept and rationale built into it.

© Marcus Lyon ‘BRIC VII – Chongqing, China’ 2010

In your series ‘BRICs’ [an acronym for four major emerging national economies: Brazil, Russia, India, and China], you focus on the mass urbanisation that was already sweeping the world by the end of the first decade of this century. How did this series come about?

I had been undertaking pro-bono photographic work for non-government organisations with a social mission. A decade on, I became the chairman of two international development agencies working with urban street children. This led to a deep personal reflection upon the urban space globally. In particular, I chose to explore the megacities of the developing world, recognising these enormous urban spaces as places that illustrate both the opportunities and the challenges we face in a world where over half the global population live in cities.

You are notable for the amount of time you dedicate to volunteering for charitable and non-governmental organisations. Do you feel your life as an artist is separate from, or intimately bound up in, your public service work?

My work in Civil Society roles is integral to my life as an artist. Without service to community what are we as individuals in a human society? The role of the artist is to communicate deep truths and seek new ways of thinking. What better way of doing this than through service to one’s fellow men and women?

© Marcus Lyon ‘Exodus III – London, United Kingdom’ 2010

‘BRICs’ took a broad view of a real scene, in the following series, ‘Exodus’ and ‘Timeout’, you extended the visual possibilities across time and space, creating something that goes beyond the traditional understanding of the photograph as the document of a single moment.

I wanted to find a visual language to express deeper truths about our global mass behaviours to honour the extraordinary influence humankind has on the planet. The finished picture is constructed from hundreds, sometimes more than a thousand, images. I did this to challenge the ‘tyranny’ of 1/125th of a second.

‘Exodus’ is an exploration of the significant migrations of the early 21st Century, as people, goods and services circumnavigate the planet in increasing volumes and at accelerating speeds. I want these images to provoke questions about the huge changes in contemporary society and to do this through large-scale representations of the key themes that influence globalisation in the modern world.

© Marcus Lyon ‘Exodus VI – West Lamma Channel, South China Sea’ 2011

‘Exodus VI’ is a good example…

Making that piece was a particular joy for me, because I shot it during my honeymoon. But it was also a challenge as it involved working high above the sea in a helicopter with the doors removed. The final picture is built from approximately 500 images combined to create a harbour view that resonates with what it actually feels like to witness the West Lamma Channel. It is one of my personal favourites.

© Marcus Lyon ‘Timeout VII – Waterparks, Houston, Texas, USA’ 2017

In contrast, ‘Timeout’ focuses on leisure…

There are a billion people on the planet that no longer need to struggle to meet their basic needs. In their search for meaning they turn to another basic human instinct: exploration. Whether we travel by budget airline or luxury yacht, the human race defines its modern existence through its search for ‘redemption’ from work through recreation.

© Marcus Lyon ‘Timeout II – LAX, California, USA’ 2015

But it is an equivocal ‘redemption’; for example, in ‘Timeout II’. This was shot at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) and based on an initial sketch I made in which an imaginary airport is constructed like the spine and ribs of a skeleton. Having researched the layout of many airports, LAX proved to be the best suited to this creative vision. The final picture is a composite of more than one thousand separate images. It honours these extraordinary structures, which play such a central role in our globalised world, while also raising significant questions about humankind’s ecological footprint in the age of the Anthropocene.

© Marcus Lyon ‘Stadia I – London, United Kingdom’ 2012

In 2012, you photographed the Paralympic Games in London for a series called ‘Stadia’. While many who photograph the Paralympics feature the individuals involved, your images take in the entirety of the scene. Why did you choose this approach?

The images endeavour to inspire the viewers with a deeper sense of the complete human story behind the games, illuminating the architecture, sport, media, competitors and crowd as equal partners in a spectacle of biblical proportions. In the twenty-first century, super-large-scale sporting events have become a form of mass human worship. The stadium has become a modern temple, defining our Media Age. Backed by enormous corporate funding, the sports stadium has the ability to transform and renew. In many ways they are a modern expression of the traditional religious concept of redemption: incarnation, struggle, glorification and, ultimately, the salvation of victory.

© Marcus Lyon ‘Stadia XX – London, United Kingdom’ 2012

It is always a challenge for artists to make a living from their work. How do you balance your creative and financial needs as a photographic artist?

Many artists support their art-making through earnings from other sources such as teaching. I have been fortunate. I established my studio in the early 1990s when London was a very affordable place to live and work. I established my own gallery, The Glassworks, and sell most of my work directly to clients or at international auction. By selling directly to corporate and private collectors I not only avoid art-dealer commission fees but also develop the kind of long-term relationships that help maintain income stability. As a result, I have never had to seek a ‘day job’ to support my artistic output.

© Marcus Lyon – The Glassworks Gallery, Montford Place, London SE11

That first group of photographic projects engaged our sense of scale and time in a number of different ways. And, although people did not feature directly in many of the images, they all address issues that are driven by us human beings and by the historical moment in which we find ourselves. The next group of projects have the collective title of the ‘Human Atlas’. In them, you address those earlier ideas through a different approach; one that places people centre stage and explores not simply who they are but their individual lineage. The first of these was ‘Somos Brasil’. It’s a multifaceted artwork, so could you begin by describing its constituent parts.

‘Somos Brasil’ explores the diversity of Brazilian identity through three interconnected approaches: photographic portraiture, oral histories and DNA mapping. Here, the insights of a photographic portrait are amplified through the voice of each individual (accessed via an image-activated cell-phone app) and infographics showing the location and relative proportion of their ancestral origins as expressed in their genes. Together these three elements mapped the ancestral DNA, personal stories and visual identity of over one hundred remarkable Brazilians.

How did you select the people to be photographed?

I didn’t. They were all nominated. We ran a six-month research process asking journalists, community leaders and local experts to propose extraordinary individuals who are creating significant change for the good in their community. Together they showcase the personal, social and cultural diversity of a nation through a group of individuals who have shown their commitment to social impact in all its forms. In turn, I hope that this will encourage each of us to reflect on our own individual identities and roles in society.

Why did you select Brazil?

Brazil sits at the epicentre of many of the most challenging issues of our time: demanding educational, environmental, economic and societal challenges. The individuals represented in ‘Somos Brasil’ demonstrate just what we are capable of when we truly re-imagine our potential to create a better future and focus on hope. These are the faces of the future: they bring light to our troubled times.

Social impact projects such as ‘Somos Brasil’ and the wider ‘Human Atlas’ are conceived and created on a grand scale. How did you go about securing the funding for such ambitious projects?

These are large-scale projects spanning several years. In order to achieve the levels of budget necessary, one has to find funders whose core mission aligns with the fundamental aims of the work. These projects focus on societal change and social impact. They attract the kind of interesting sponsors whose values lie outside the more traditional art-funding models. This work is founded on a collaboration between science, anthropology and art which has proved appealing to foundations, companies and patrons who share my commitment to the values of engaged community and inspiring leadership at a time of significant disruption.

How do the public respond to the work?

The public reaction is ‘off the scale’. So much in modern society limits human experience to ‘sound bites and swipes’. The ‘Human Atlas’ asks the viewer to slow down, to see and hear real stories. To learn once more how to look and to listen. For me, it is always a delight to witness how deeply both young and old engage with these portraits, narratives and ancestral journeys. People seem overjoyed by the opportunity to actually listen deeply and connect with others

In 2019, you launched a second project in the ‘Human Atlas’ called ‘WE: deutschland’. This also emphasises community diversity through a combination of portraiture, interviews and genetic mapping. How did this project come about?

I was approached by a company whose Corporate Social Responsibility focus was to promote a more diverse and open world. They had seen ‘Somos Brasil’ and asked me to create a new project featuring a European nation. I could choose the nation and they would fund the whole project.

Why did you choose Germany?

To my mind, the most significant changes in modern Europe are around the migration of people fleeing crisis in Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Germany sits at the epicentre of these issues and has in many ways been exceptional, taking well over a million new refugees and migrants in the last four years. Germany’s transition from the extremes of mid-twentieth-century National Socialism to being the nation within the European Union that is most welcoming to refugees deserves deep consideration. With the support of this corporate funding, we conducted an in-depth nomination process to find fifty individuals who could stand to represent the breadth of modern Germany.

What are you working on now?

I am currently working on several projects, but the main focus is on ‘i.Detroit: a Human Atlas of an American City’, a new body of work focused the change agents of the city. The ‘i.Detroit’ project, commissioned by the Kresge Foundation and in partnership with the Charles H Wright Museum in Detroit, is a deep-dive exploration of the human capital of the ‘Motor City’. We are currently at the end of the production phase and just embarking on the complex process of bringing the DNA, sound and images together in a book and exhibition. This will be published and exhibited in Detroit in mid-2020.

You have described yourself as ‘annoyingly ebullient and cheerful’. Do you think that energetic optimism is an important personal trait in how you go about your art-making?

Being deeply positive has its advantages. It helps one work through things when life’s journey gets tough. And being cheerful often brings out the best in others.

What have you learned about yourself in the process of making photographs?

Making images, communicating visually, has for me been the gift that keeps on giving. It has supported me emotionally and financially. Making pictures has allowed me to travel and connect with the most fascinating people. It has brought me everything… I even photographed my wife, Bel, before we first met. Photography has been and continues to be the greatest privilege…

© Marcus Lyon ‘BRIC III – Yugo-Zapadniy Okryg, Moscow’ 2008

Biographical Notes

Born in Exeter, England, in 1965, Marcus Lyon has a degree in political science from Leeds University. He later studied leadership at Harvard Business School, and performance measurement at the Kennedy School of Government, both in the USA. Early in his career he worked with Amnesty International in Latin America and this inspired his twenty-five-year exploration of the issues at the heart of globalisation. His artworks and publications are held in a number of prestigious public and private collections including the Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC; the Art Institute of Chicago; and the Arts Council of Great Britain. His images have won numerous accolades including the B&H Gold Award 1991; Agfa Photographer of the Year 1996; Prix Pictet Nominations 2012, 2013 and 2018; three silver and one Yellow Pencil awards from D&AD (Design and Art Direction) 2018; and six awards from the British Association of Photographers. In 2021, ‘i.Detroit’ won Book of the Year at the British Book Design and Production Awards.

Outside of photography, Marcus Lyon is an energetic supporter of a number of not-for-profit organisations, serving on the board of the Somerset House Trust, London, and the global leadership organisation Leaders’ Quest. He is a Founder Ambassador for both BLESMA (for former armed services personnel who have lost limbs in the line of duty) and Home-Start UK (which trains volunteers to assist families in need), and a former Chairman of the global advocacy agency The Consortium for Street Children.

Photo: Jamey Stillings

This article was initially published in Chinese, in the December 2019 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing. The theme for the year was Ways of Seeing.