Rankin: Cancel culture stops people apologising and learning from their mistakes

Rankin - Dave J Hogan/Dave J Hogan/Getty Images
Rankin - Dave J Hogan/Dave J Hogan/Getty Images

Cancel culture stops people learning from their mistakes, Rankin has said in his first in-depth interview addressing his use of antisemitic tropes.

The renowned British fashion and portrait photographer, 57, referenced the 2014 controversy in which he suggested that the Jewish Hollywood actress, Scarlett Johansson, had succumbed to “powerful Jewish zealots” by resigning from a charity role against the backdrop of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Rankin apologised at the time. However, speaking to The Telegraph ahead of unveiling his portraits of survivors of genocide for Holocaust Memorial Day last week he said that he has been grateful for the opportunity “to actually learn from my mistakes”.

“I didn’t think about what I was saying,” he said. “And from what I’ve learned about this type of stuff, a lot of it is because you don’t think and you just repeat things and you don’t analyse them,” he said.

“You don’t put any time or effort into questioning what people might say to you as a kind of throwaway comment… And it was just a trope, a kind of an antisemitic trope, that then became a news story.”

He added: “I made a mistake. And I’m sure that that mistake can and should be forgiven because it was a mistake. You should be able to give people the ability to apologise and move on. You know, I feel like I’m a total d---, like an idiot for what I said because I didn’t know my s---. And what I learned from that was: know your s---, and if you don’t know your s---, don’t talk about it.”

The photographer – whose real name is John Rankin Waddell and who has photographed Kate Moss, Tony Blair, the Rolling Stones, Madonna, David Bowie and the late Queen – said that the 2014 comments were the result of “stupid bias that I was repeating”, but added that he was “very, very keen to make amends for it”.

Scarlett Johansson - VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images
Scarlett Johansson - VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images

He found himself at the centre of an antisemitism storm after an interview in which he criticised “powerful Jewish zealots” in the United States and criticised Scarlett Johansson, whom he has photographed, for leaving her ambassadorial role with Oxfam over a row regarding settlements in the West Bank.

He also said he believed that adherents to “extreme Judaism” could blacklist a performer in America who took a stance against Israel.

The comments sparked condemnation and the Community Security Trust (CST) charity, which monitors antisemitic incidents said that Rankin had revived long-standing slurs alluding to the power of Jews over the media.

Following the interview, Rankin was approached by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (HMDT) charity offering him the opportunity to learn about the Nazi Holocaust, as well as other genocides from history.

Since then, he has worked in partnership with the charity and has given interviews, judged competitions and taken photographs for Holocaust Memorial Day.

For this year’s annual event, which was held on Friday, Rankin made five black-and-white images; four of men and women who survived the Holocaust or genocide in Darfur, Rwanda and Cambodia, and one of the teddy bear who accompanied Holocaust survivor, John Hajdu MBE, through the Budapest ghetto and beyond.

John Hajdu MBE - Rankin
John Hajdu MBE - Rankin

They will remain on display at Portcullis House, London, until the end of January.

Rankin said that until HMDT approached him he did not know that there had been multiple genocides throughout history. It was then, he said, that it dawned on him “that we do very easily forget them, as well as a lot of people that deny them”.

“But actually those stories, those individual stories, the personal stories are really important for us to celebrate and remember. It became something that I just said look, I really want to be committed to this.

“I have to say, that’s been very fulfilling for me,” he added, “but also, it makes me feel like I’m not just trying to make amends but like trying to actually learn from my mistakes as opposed to it being just something that I kind of try and hide or, you know, forget that I’ve done.”

Rankin said that his photography helps him to remind people that “this s--- happened”.

“If you can’t learn from that, what are we going to learn from? Especially today where the world is incredibly toxic with so much division.”

“Again, I’m no expert in this,” he added. “I’m just a guy with a camera and trying to question myself and be able to look himself in the mirror in the morning.”