Born in Kingston, Jamaica, much of Photographer and Filmmaker Ryan Eccleston’s early years were spent constantly on the move travelling and living abroad. Due to his father’s work with the United Nations, Eccleston had the opportunity to see and experience many cultures and countries around the world including: the USA, Egypt, and Israel. His travels sparked in him a curiosity to explore the human condition through issues such as identity, culture, faith, economics, and legacy. A true global citizen, as an adult Eccleston moved to Ethiopia where he worked and lived for several years as a photographer and cinematography consultant. Ryan’s work has been showcased in Trinidad & Tobago, Greece, Art Basel Miami, Switzerland, Jamaica and at the United Nations Headquarters.
Now, BetterShared catches up with Ryan Eccleston:
You had somewhat of a “nomadic childhood”, which of the countries that you visited did you enjoy the most and why?
It’s really hard because each one is so vastly different; each one has its own characteristics and brings out a different element in you. I don’t have a favourite unfortunately. It’s interesting in the sense that you find out that people are the same but very different, the nuances are there but ultimately people just want to be happy. You kind of learn to touch and go with people in the sense that you begin to understand that everything isn’t the same everywhere. What’s normal in one place is very abnormal in another and that’s ok because there’s no right or wrong, it isn’t so rigid like that. I think as human beings we always want to survive, so whatever is practiced in a certain place is really for survival or evolution. Even if it seems arbitrary today, there was a real purpose for it maybe fifty years ago. Marriage rights and dowry in Jamaica makes no sense, but if you’re looking at Kenya where someone getting married is a rite of passage, it does.
If you could spend time in a further three countries, where would you go and why?
Brazil, definitely. Brazil makes absolutely brilliant films, there’s a lot of great artists from Brazil, especially architects and it’s a country that has contributed to the world in many different ways. Japan as well because I love technology, and lastly, I would say South Africa.
“People are a big thing for me, especially the nuances that tie people together.”
How would you describe your particular photography/ filmmaking style?
Up-close and personal portraits, something that I call the book of life. For example, if someone’s a carpenter, I like to look at what lead him to carpentry. Filmmaking stretches me a bit more because there’s more planning that goes into filming, you have to put a story together. It all has to make sense because with films you cannot slap images together and always expect it to work. Filmmaking is like writing a song, sometimes the lyrics make sense sometimes they don’t. Still images are pretty much instantaneous, but with filming you’re trying to arrange sound and visuals, it’s somewhat sensory. It’s much more difficult making films.
So, what’s your favourite film?
City of God by Fernando Meirelles, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou by Wes Anderson, The Godfather and Scarface because it has such a hero’s arc. I like whenever films show the character arc of a person, the evolution good or bad of a person. I also like Other World Cinema, so movies that come out of Africa and Asia. Viva Riva! from the Congo is a good one.
If you could work with anyone in the industry, who would it be?
What would you say is your favourite photograph that you’ve taken to date?
I think one that has resonated with me is ‘All in A Days work’ which I took in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia. To me it was like a crossroads between time and space. You have a young woman walking through the developed outpost of Dire Dawa whilst a young man rides a bicycle, and then there is somebody coming out of a shop covered with posters for a karate school and coca cola signs.
“Sometimes photographs are like paintings, I realise that when I’m taking photos, I’m capturing many moving parts.”
What do you consider as your greatest achievement professionally?
Having my short film, The Heartbeat of a City, screened in multiple festivals. It was a project that came out of a curiosity that I had. For it to be shown in Nigeria, in Ghana, Chale Wote, it’s so surreal to me. The Chale Wote Film festival in James Town, Ghana, was something that I remember dreaming about 6 or 7 years ago. It’s something that I’m really proud of.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently working on three different films, one is a documentary about Jonkonnu which is our traditional masquerade dance, but it’s not as prominent as it was decades ago. Another thing that I’m working on is called Use which is a traditional festival in the Caribbean, but it came from the Middle East. It was brought here by Indian indentured servants that came to the Caribbean; I’ve been documenting that for the past six years through photos. Lastly, I’m making a documentary on general Jamaican culture which I’ve been documenting since 2014.
If you had an unlimited budget at your disposal, what would be your dream production project?
A film that encompasses the cultures of the entire Caribbean because I think the Caribbean is a very interesting place. It’s a repository for so many cultures. If you go to Surinam, you have people of Indonesian and Malayan descent, you also have the Mong people in Surinam and people that speak Dutch. You go to Trinidad, and you have a strong Indian influence there as well as in Guyana, so that makes it very interesting. Then you go over to Grenada, Jamaica, you have the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, the Dutch-speaking Caribbean, and the French-speaking Caribbean. Additionally, you have the Caribbean coasts of mainland countries like Belize, Columbia, French Guyana, and Costa Rico. For instance, in the Caribbean you have three countries that have an Indian majority which are Surinam, Guyana and Trinidad. Then you have other countries that have large European populations and others that have a strong Indigenous presence, Guyana for example. The Kalinago people, the Miskito people, the Carib people, the Maroons, the Chinese influence, the Lebanese influence, the Jewish influence- so, it’s really diverse in my opinion. We don’t really dig deep into it, and I think that all of this is a great contribution to the world. When people think of the Caribbean they think: Christian, Slavery, Jamaica, and people of African descent only, which I think is a disservice to the Caribbean.
For me I see it as a mission, for all of us as creatives. It’s our mission as creatives to move the Caribbean away from just being a tourism destination and the legacy of slavery. I think a lot of the time people believe that if you assert the existence of other cultures in the Caribbean then you are denying your African heritage. However, for me it’s not that. It’s the truth, it is what it is. There is a reason why in Monserat they celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day and not in Jamaica. There’s a reason why things like Bacchanal and Carnival are bigger in Eastern Caribbean Islands than the West. Carnival was exported to Jamaica in the early 1990s’s. Here in Jamaica there’s a strong Jewish influence and that’s because Jews from the Iberian Peninsula settled here. So, you have surnames like De Sousa, Enriquez, Nunez, Gomez which stem from Jews who fled the Spanish Inquisition. For me, these are things that we have to remember. I’m interested in these things not from a progressive standpoint, but from a matter of fact.
Shop Ryan's art here.