Exploring what makes us who we are

“People have the opportunity to engage in a dialogue with their identities and not feel stuck — when we feel stuck we tend to build trenches and we alienate other people,” Marcus Lyon tells What We Seee.

The photographer has embarked on one of the most nuanced and multifaceted — not to mention ambitious — projects on identity that’s ever been done. Using recorded interviews, DNA, and of, course, photography, he’s creating a human atlas.

Every person is featured with their image, their oral history, and their heritage — strands of identity in holistic harmony, rather than jostling for authority. He is currently working on  I.Detroit: A Human Atlas Of An American City, after finishing a giant project across an entire nation entitled Somos Brasil, currently exhibiting in London.

Through these projects, he’s fundamentally exploring what makes us who we are. Through painstakingly intimate portraits of individuals, the work opens up a vision of community — and a more communal future.

“My work is all about showing a community of bigger groups who don’t ‘other’ each other,” he says. “Groups who want to coauthor a more collaborative future.” But how do you start to unpick the different facets of identity? Are we who our parents were? Are we the sum of our experiences? Or what our DNA says? Lyon’s technique — and his infectiously candid personality — allows an openness and a closeness that makes this photography project and documentary hybrid so unique.

Come As You Are

“The absolute key to a human atlas project is the nomination process,” Lyon explains. The way that he finds his subjects is unusual and adds both a personal feel and an integrity to the project — citizens nominate other people to take part. Each person is somehow both remarkable and ordinary, but they are people that their communities think have a story to tell. “It’s a six-month process and I have no say whatsoever about who it is when they come in front me of me.”

Unlike many art projects — or even documentaries — there is a noticeable lack of an agenda with Lyon’s work. His enthusiasm for capturing things as they are, as well as the unusual methods he uses, add a sense of purity to the process.

“It’s a come as you are situation,” he laughs. “I photograph them just as they are — no stylist, no makeup, no tricky lighting. I’m just trying to tell their story and tell it with the right voice, their voice. When they do an interview, it’s their interview — I want to give a voice to the voiceless, so it really is their story.”

Photography, DNA tests, and interviews — it’s a process that is beyond intimate, one that seems like it could be almost invasive. It’s a testament to Lyon and his large team  — as well as the project itself — that the subjects feel comfortable enough to welcome them into the most personal aspects of their lives.

”We’ve had a couple of wary people — normally people who have been over-featured or had a journalist come in with their own idea of a person and then gone away and written that story, rather than the person’s story,” Lyon says. “I go and tell the story of the place that I’m visiting, from the eyes and voices of the people who are there — not through my preconceptions.”

Rather than projecting his own views, Lyon is committed to internalizing the nature of their individual identities — and this staggeringly personal approach shows through in the photographs. “The photographs have to be 100 percent eye-to-eye contact,” he explains. “You arrive and you look at the portrait and you are looking them in the eye. You are looking at that person.”

Our Beautiful Singularity

Marcus Lyon

For Lyon, this interest in multi-layered identity came from a deeply personal place. ”It was when I became a father that it really started,” he explains. “I was always interested and playing with identity, from studying political science at university. But I started really thinking about identity when I became a father — and being the father to two Brazenglish children. You start thinking back to one’s own childhood and what influenced you.” He thought about his brother, Andrew, who passed away when they were children — how that had been a seismic, formative event, but not one that would show up on a blood test or on a CV.  

Seeing that each individual is made up of such a rich, textured fabric made Lyon more and more interested in what makes up our identity. And how that uniqueness, that individuality, is, perhaps paradoxically, universal.

“It’s about accepting our beautiful singularity — embracing our deep connection,” he explains. “You are both unique and you are a multitude, there is something really beautiful in that. You can only get that through looking through identity in quite a creative way and being open to it.” In accepting that, there’s also a freedom — because we are not limited or defined by any one facet of our identity. “We can be who we want — and if you’re brave enough then you can take it on as a creative challenge, a creative project. Building your own identity.”

Redemption Through Commitment

Lyon is quick to point to the huge team that helped him create this project, but it’s also clear that its success is, at least in part, down to his unbridled passion and excitement for his work. ”I loved it, there were 250 people who touched this project,” he says of Somos Brasil.  “The only thing you can hold me responsible for is the idea and leading a large group of people. It’s been such a gift — and it’s been so much fun. Imagine having the excuse in your life to go to a place and go to explore the most inspirational people. People who the people from that place would nominate you to meet. If someone told you could spend your life meeting and engaging with those kind of people, you’d say yes. You’d say yes every day.”

One of the things that makes it such a rewarding project is that its message is, fundamentally, an uplifting one. “It’s beautiful, it’s just beautiful — there’s a universality in the stories,” he says. “You meet people who have experienced total redemption through commitment, through community, through selflessness, through service. No matter how many times you get knocked down — if you always focus on those around you and serving those around you and your community, somehow you get picked up. With this project, you get under the skin of sex workers and children living in poverty, you grapple with water security, inequality, and all of the major issues of our time — but through the lense of these remarkable people.”

Through diving into the minutia of their lives and their struggles, it’s a story of hope — and documenting what it means to human. All Lyon asks is that you take these people on their own terms. “Come. Witness. Listen. And make your own mind up.”

Somos Brasil is currently running as a free exhibition at the Embassy of Brazil in Trafalgar Square, London, through the 7th of June. You can learn more about I.Detroit: A Human Atlas Of An American City, We:Deutchland, and the Human Atlas project on Youtube and on Marcus Lyon’s website.