In this interview, Marksteen Adamson talks about what Christmas means to him, which cameras he uses, and what he considers makes a great portrait.

How did this series come about?
I find Christmas a testing time. A mixed bag of conflicting, heightened emotions. It’s the season of happiness and sadness, unity and loneliness, anger and tolerance, war and peace. Hosting a Christmas gathering is never an easy feat; it’s like throwing a yin and yang yo-yo as we try to keep the perpetual motion of decency on track, in the hope of maintaining civil interactions and a sense of normality. Inevitably, the festive soiree begins to unravel as any underlying familial issues that have built up over the year start to emerge. Nevertheless, we tentatively march on, slightly fearful, but always hopeful. I wanted to do a study about our individual differences at this time, to see if I could find common ground.

It almost seems like a premonition of Christmas in 2020: photographing every family member on his/her own.
For me, as a half-Dane, it’s always been about Hygge [a feeling of cosy contentment] and celebrating the birth of the most important human ever to walk the earth. I cherish every moment of our cosy family Christmases when we can all spend time together, despite our differences. That’s why I chose to do this series of portraits with the paper party hats; they represent the new-born king. Rather than taking traditional group shots, I wanted to celebrate each person’s character by photographing them individually or in couples, with the common theme of the ‘paper crown’ running through the series.
In my eyes, the Christmas gathering is a reminder that we’re all beautifully individual and unique; and that, despite our differences, we’re able to find common ground and shared values. All we have to do is let go of ‘the self’ and give everyone another chance.

What camera did you use and why?
I used a Leica M10 with a 50mm 0.95 Noct and 50mm f2 ASPH, and the Leica Q with a flash. I love using Leica cameras. I switch between the M, the Q and the SL, depending on circumstances. My Leica lenses are from 28mm, 35mm to 50mm.

In your photography you seem to lean towards portraiture. Why is that?
I’ve always loved photographing everyday, normal people, and have always been interested and captivated by faces. Often, when I first meet someone and get introduced, I quickly forget their name within the first few minutes of a conversation. I get fascinated by their face and expressions, and it’s all I can think about at that first point of contact. I guess it triggers my ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder). I just find faces and people very interesting.

What do you think makes a good portrait?
A good portrait captures authenticity. A portrait should always strive to capture something deeper and distinctive about the individual. I don’t like portraits that have been technically tampered with, and I don’t believe in changing facial structures and blemishes in Photoshop. It’s unethical to change someone’s appearance in order to make them look younger or more flawless. It’s not a healthy or realistic way for us to live and see ourselves. We should always strive for authenticity and self-acceptance by embracing our natural beauty, with all its quirks and imperfections. We need to love who we are and age naturally and gracefully.

As your photography is always socially engaged or underpinned by social issues, do you have a COVID/lockdown project or study?
Yes. I did two studies during lockdown. The first one was Lock Down Hero, where I went out to photograph and celebrate the generosity of spirit and the enterprising initiatives shown by ordinary people in my local community, Cheltenham.
From hairdressing, baking and sewing, to home-schooling, counselling and delivering, there was an army of unsung heroes in my community, volunteering and helping others get through the difficulties presented by lockdown. With their new-found roles, responsibilities and positivity, often funding these pursuits and paying for necessary materials out of their own pockets, they went out of their way to help others by learning a new skill or providing a much-needed service. The other study I did was just after the first lockdown ended. I’d had enough and couldn’t wait to get away to embrace my newly reinstated freedom. I packed up my Land Rover with a tent, and headed for the South East coast. This study was about exploring the boundaries between us, our collective responsibility towards each other and the limits of personal freedom. I called the study The Breach.

Tell us about your Christmas plans this year!
I’ll have my adult kids back home for Christmas this year, so I’m especially grateful for that. Nothing makes me more happy than having as much of the family together as possible.

Anything else you would like to share?
I’m working on a new study/project about Alzheimer’s disease. My father in-law, Terry, sadly won’t be with us this Christmas due to Covid-19. He’s stuck in a care home and has lost all his memory – he no longer knows who we are or who he is himself. I want to make sure that this story is told so that, hopefully, it will help to create more awareness and funding for research into this terrible disease. I feel hopeful that something good and positive will come out of this very sad situation. Our thoughts and prayers are with Terry.

Marksteen Adamson has gained an international reputation for being an inspiring creative strategist and problem solver, advising global companies, governments, countries and charities on brand strategy and brand behaviour. Marksteen was Global Creative Director of Interbrand and joint Director of its worldwide steering committee, building and overseeing the creative teams in London, Amsterdam and New York, before making the move to set up ASHA & Co in 2002. In 2019, Marksteen won the Drum Social Purpose – Changemaker of the Year Award. Find out more about his photography on his website and Instagram.