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Creatives in Conversation | Raw Material | Oliver McKenzie

Raw Material Music and Media Education Ltd. is a community arts and educational charity based in Brixton, South London. The organisation was first established in 1993, and has since focused on providing underserved demographics with formative experiences and development opportunities in the arts. Raw Material is open to any and everyone, but particularly caters to the racially, culturally and socio-economically diverse local communities of South London. They are also one of the Art Council’s Portfolio charities. Recently, they also started an events initiative called ‘Tiny Brixton’, an events venue that also further supports their work, where they host music events every two weeks. We got the opportunity to speak with Oliver McKenzie, Marketing Coordinator for Raw Material. Our conversation touched upon projects carried out by the charity, the working culture, barriers to access within creative industries along with meditations on Ollie’s own photographic practice and the mental health benefits of creative activities.

The emphasis for the charity, over the last 30 years has been two-fold; one, helping young people access technical resources , opportunities and support to advance their careers within the creative industries; second, to use the arts as a means of improving the experience of mental health struggles, and supporting the local community through creative practice.

Young people growing up are never generally encouraged to pursue a career within the arts. It’s viewed as kind of risky and unpromising. As a result you get a lot of young people who never really get the opportunity to practice instruments or get access to facilities that would enable their development as artists. A lot of young people will use our facilities to get a track that they’ve been working on professionally mixed and mastered, or they will get a music video produced with a single that they released. They might simply use our digital music production suite to gain skills and we have people running these courses so that they can actually receive education in these areas. We have these programs run on a quarterly or termly basis. And we advertise to our community primarily when looking for participants. And when we fill all the slots, that’s it. All of those people get to do those programmes.’

Whilst this is one aspect of the projects, they also run initiatives that are not about giving people careers or developing their skills as artists, but just about using music as a way to connect with others, experience group interaction, derive the social and personal benefits that are associated with that. The concept is based on ‘social prescribing’ which is a recognised form of treatment for mental health problems. It is recognised by the NHS and has been given immense appraisal, not for being a ‘solution’ but for improving and alleviating associated experiences such as isolation, loneliness, alienation and antisocial tendencies.

‘When people have low mental health, they are oftentimes instinctively opposed to things that will actually help them quite a lot. Like forming social connections, getting out of the house and doing something. Music is one of those things that is so inviting and welcoming and enjoyable that it can be the thing that does bring people together and cause positive experiences. Music provides those benefits to people. The people who participate in our programmes, sometimes they’re not musical in the strict sense of the word and so the sounds that they make aren’t what you would regard as being of a high musical quality, and it’s more like catharsis, the expression of feeling and connection with others - it doesn’t always have to be strictly quality music. It’s about the process rather than the final product’.

Despite living in a time when we’re more ‘connected’ than we’ve ever been before, owing to advancements in technology, we also live in a time when more people than ever are experiencing low mental health, and feeling extremely isolated. Whilst the last few years have seen a greater de-stigmatisation of conversations around mental health and seeking support, we still have a long way to go when it comes to structures of support and access. Considering the far-reaching benefits of public programming and social prescription activities run by Raw Material, in combination with the deep lack of such initiatives in an open and accessible way, I ask him how they manage to reach as many people as possible.

‘I think as a charity it is important that we help people by offering early intervention. We really want to offer vital support and services to those who need it. Arguably we fail to do that by just running our programmes with the same people all the time. Do we have to exclude the people who have been coming constantly, in favour of those who have never been? And perhaps do we have to allocate our programs and resources on a more of a needs basis. It’s complicated. But we are doing so much for the community, this is just another inevitable question about how we can do better.’

‘So many people testify to the benefits of that process. I think it’s quite easy to feel like there is nothing special to people just getting into a room and making noise together, but there really is, and you do experience it when you’re there. And I guess a part of photography for me is capturing something I see as inherently beautiful, and I think my aspiration as a photographer is to beautify something visually which is already beautiful in ways which aren’t strictly visual.’

Oliver’s journey within photography and community resulted from an intersection of factors. During his third year of University in Scotland, he traveled to Eastern Ukraine to pursue a research project there, exploring the socio-cultural life of people in the region. The key questions of enquiry revolved around Eastern Ukrainian self-perceptions, community and national identities and culture. Upon learning more about the nuances of the deep stigma towards the region and the people from there, and their de-characterisation by institutions of power like the government and major media outlets. Oliver initiated a photography project to enable the locals to represent themselves and tell their own stories and created a platform and a place for collaboration for local photographers.

‘A lot of young people living there kind of don’t like the fact that they live there, their environment reminds them of the fact that they have been failed by their government. The whole area has not been developed for a long time, it is run down and antiquated, originating in the Soviet period. You see elements of what people call urban decay. So I was thinking if people could photograph their environment, it would encourage them to have a more positive and inspired relationship with it. That was the first time I ever thought that photography could be used for narrative-building in this way.’

Through the course of the project, he was able to see how the medium of photography helped young people in the region redefine their relationship with their environment. His description of the project also made me think of the role of art within zones of conflict, particularly in changing the day to day lives of people living through difficult circumstances on a micro-level. The idea of being able to take small steps to reclaim some ownership over your time, and representations of yourself in volatile circumstances acts as a small act of resistance, a ‘declaration of your own freedom in a way’.

Upon pursuing Cultural Studies at SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) for his Masters’, his interest in working with culture and communities within the creative sector further grew and he began to actively look out for ways to involve his creative photographic practice into the professional aspects of his life. It was then that he came across Raw Material.

‘Since then I have been really enjoying using photography in a more professional capacity, especially using photography in the way I mentioned, as a means of telling a story: the story of the charity, the story of the programmes and of the people that attend them. That is always the kind of photography that I have enjoyed. That was the kind of photography that I thought would inspire, that I thought would be very powerful, even when I was originally in Ukraine. The kind that would tell the story of an experience. I am trying my best to do narrative photography for Raw Material because there is a story worth telling.’

The photographic medium is particularly crucial for Oliver in his own life and career. When I ask him what draws him to the form more than other forms of creative practice and what makes it suitable for community engagement he has some insights to share.

‘I think definitely yes. Photography is much more observational than other artforms, and I see my role as one of observing and capturing what I see. It’s not really about putting too much of my own artistic imprint on things, even though this happens inevitably in virtue of me having a subjective gaze.’

We discuss Raw Archives, a mini-project that he has undertaken in his role, the idea of which is to offer people a window into what happens at Raw Material through photographic vignettes of the programmes and activities. The idea behind the project is to capture the essence and energy of the space.

‘I’m not really focusing too much on people. Obviously people feature because the programs are for people, but I often capture their hands, what their hands are doing, some of the colors of the room, because that’s more central to it. I don’t think it is about egos. I think photography, especially documentary photography, is observational, there can be an artist's voice running quite strongly through it, but also it can just be a bit more unmediated. This is the thing. I think that is good about it. It is not about my own ego, or the people who do the programmes, it is much more about what it feels like to be there. Focusing on the instruments involved, the colours, people's bodies in a way, it's very visual, a little but abstract, but ultimately captures the essence of what it is about.’

When I look at the photographs he has taken for the Raw Archives, I resonate with his words even more. They are not just photographs of people playing musical instruments. They are not just photographs of an event or workshop being covered. They capture, more than anything, the frequency of the space and without even being there I am able to sense the energy. What strikes me instantly about them is the focus and the zooming into hands, textures, colors and movements of the body. They are figurative in the material they are capturing but they might as well be abstract, as he suggests, kaleidoscopic fragments of imagery that open themselves up to multiple interpretations. The removal of the whole image, and the hyper focus to me, allows more people to relate to these images and leaves room for multiple experiences to be reflected into them. The camera is used as a guiding eye, sieving through the chaos of the whole picture and magnifying the elements of focus.

‘I think zooming in is the starting point for taking an abstract photograph, because if you zoom out, you are providing something in the center with more context, literally context like the things it is part of or belongs to. The more you zoom in, the more context you remove, and so the more essential or abstract your view becomes. Well because if you go too close, you may actually lose the essence as well. It depends on what you want to focus on. There is an element of abstraction where I just focus on hands. It stops people from seeing the person as a whole person. I am kind of anonymising it, I am making it sort of universal or universally applicable.’

The photographs also deeply highlight the emphasis placed upon community and could almost be seen as a form of community building themselves.

All those attending our programmes are called members. We involve them quite a lot. We have individual relationships with all of them. We have a termly programming committee where we invite them to give feedback on the courses, we hear from them, what they enjoy, what they didn’t enjoy, what they’d like to change. We compensate them for their time, and we’ve really tried, more to an extent that I’ve seen elsewhere, to have a horizontal leadership structure and to have community involvement in our decision making processes as well, a form of ‘cultural democracy’. We’re bringing more people in to make decisions that concern them which allows us to be close and responsive to their interests and concerns..’

The concept of horizontal leadership makes me wonder how he finds the work environment, considering the deep intertwining between the personal and professional that inevitably comes with working in such a space.

‘I've been so amazed and glad that I can, and this sounds really corny, but, be myself and feel like I don’t have to pretend, and that is valued.There definitely is a work culture of getting to know people, supporting each other, not just working totally independently, people talk, people collaborate. I feel very welcomed. And just appreciated for bringing my whole personality to the office, so that’s really cool.’

It's refreshing to hear a perspective where both the internal structure and the programming of the organisation are deeply based on community. Particularly in a time when funding for the arts, much like many other industries, has been deeply impacted by the ongoing economic crisis and there remains a huge lack of healthy working environments within the industry.

When I probe a little more into that element of personal satisfaction that is so deeply tied to such a creative and community based role, Oliver's final words offer the ideal note to end our conversation on.

‘I just really admire the work of the charity. They connect young people with opportunities in the arts, they give them the essential training, education, access to facilities that they need to grow as artists. I fundamentally agree with that principle and that attracted me to the work of the charity. Also, the ways the charity supports people living with mental health conditions. From just being there and seeing how much people appreciate this, understanding that this form of social prescribing is genuinely beneficial and can be transformational for peoples’ wellbeing. That has definitely moved me and made me passionate about what I do. I am just glad that I can use my photography to this end. I think I could be somewhat satisfied doing photography in any capacity or context, but this one especially makes so much sense and feels very rewarding. All the programmes that take place that I’ve been able to experience by photographing them have been incredibly moving. And then, being able to introduce my own initiatives like Raw Archive has just furthered the sense of reward I get from being involved.’

Oliver Mckenzie is the current Marketing Coordinator for Raw Material. Previously, he served as co-founder and head of electronic music platform, Wax Collective, building the organisation from the ground up. Since then, photography and artistic direction have continued to figure in his life and career, as he now operates his own practice working with individuals and companies on a range of commercial and artistic projects. Ollie currently works in a part-time capacity at the intersection of content creation and business development, leading the public communications as well as overall marketing strategy for Raw Material. You can find more of his work here.

All the featured photographs have been taken by Ollie for Raw Music Archives.


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