The Nii Agency founder joins Errol Anderson to talk re-picturing stereotypes.
Skepta collaborator, model and casting agency founder, publisher: Campbell Addy wears many capes. While the former saw his portraits of the grime artist – shot to announce clothing line Mains – garner almost 200,000 hearts collectively (check it on Skepta’s Instagram), it’s Niijournal, and later agency, that really claim Addy’s enthusiasm, and led to his being noticed by Getty Images.
Set up last spring to introduce an urgent and necessary dose of diversity to the wider industry (the agency followed in the summer), the British-Ghanian creative has more recently been tapped by the image agency giant to produce a series of photographs, pictured here, that reimagine classic (read: predominantly white) stock imagery.
Following Campbell’s appearance on a panel discussion entitled Seeing is believing: The power of repicturing stereotypes at Cannes Lions last month – and with the second issue of Niijournal literally about to drop – Touching Bass lead astronaut and Boiler Room host, Errol Anderson caught him on the phone to explore further.
Cannes, had you been before?
No, it was my first experience. The festival was amazing. It was overwhelming at first because there are so many things you can do and there are so many people; everyone seemed to be on a very similar wavelength.
You were there primarily to participate in a Getty Images panel about the power of re-picturing stereotypes. What was it like to be a part of that?
At first I felt very out of my depth – it’s a different world to what I’m used to. However, participating in the panel with Lena [Waithe], Piera [Gelardi] and everyone from Getty and outside of the UK made me feel welcome, really made me realise how young artists in particular can benefit from doing these things. It broke me out of my shell, working with people that I would never come across in my day to day relationships. But then seeing how people from different sections of the creative industry were all there for a similar reason was quite inspiring; London’s creative industry is very different when you’re young and working, there isn’t much leeway and expansion. Being at the talk, there were a lot of questions on my mind that hadn’t been planted till arriving.
So you’re saying that this is the first experience that you’ve had of this kind essentially?
I was so thankful to Getty for inviting me and especially to talk about diversity – it’s a subject that concerns me regularly. Sometimes you can become complacent because the people I’m around already get it because they’re a part of the same struggle. It’s important to step outside of your bubble.
Niijournal continues to look at empowerment with its second issue, and also tackles mental health — two very important topics which speak to the black community.
Well, for the first issue it was literally something that I’d been studying in my year out of university and had come back to finish. I was just educating myself, and was particularly shocked about how little our community knows about certain things. For the second issue, I felt as though I couldn’t work with or do anything around subjects that didn’t directly link to me; I feel like it’s just disingenuous if I start exploring themes that I have no real connection with.
While thinking about themes for the next issue and looking at the idea of mental health, I began to discover things that I’d never done before, I began uncovering things that shocked me. None of my friends talk about it or when they do, they shy away from it: it’s seen as an illness. If for example, I want to have a mental break, I can’t call in sick. But if I’m ill, I can. It really shocked me that I was going through those sorts of things and I didn’t find the information accessible. I did find that in places where I went deeper — documentaries, TV shows and things like that. I did the video sharing my own journey with it and that would eventually become the foundation of the second issue.
There’s been an incredible awakening among young black people around mental health in particular.
Our communities haven’t traditionally allowed us to talk about emotional trauma like this. So we’ve got family who, on top of that feeling of displacement after the Windrush and traumatisation because of racial differences in the UK, haven’t learnt to grow or to heal themselves mentally. Then they have kids and the trauma continues through them. Then on top of that you have religion which complicates things further. I wish we’d had the opportunity to speak about these things when we were younger – it would have made my life easier.
The concept of masculinity is something I certainly recall from my childhood. I remember there being a distinct lack of emotion around certain subjects, for example. But we can’t overlook how difficult it must have been for our parents.
But also females as well…
The stigma of the ‘angry black woman’, for example. “I’m not angry, I’m just scared” — it’s very different. There are so many levels to it.
Moving on, I want to talk about social media and the power it has. I read a quote recently that said “you can’t be what you can’t see.” What do you think that this says about our society?
We grew up in a society where, unknowingly, we had to assimilate to whatever we saw. Before friends and school, you had magazines and TV shows that put certain images in your heads. We ended up dressing like them. But when I look at it, the representations were limited because you would only see a black man from Africa, for instance. With this obsessiveness with social media, our minds are moulded by what we see even more. Now people are thinking a lot more about how to portray said people. Am I pushing stereotypes? I think that our generation are a lot more clued up as to how to put images out there – it educates us more. Sometimes people say, “oh that’s fine” but then their friend might go, “no, that’s not fine.” And they’re like, “Cool, I get it now.” Whereas before, you didn’t really have that accessibility.
But how does one remain authentic in a world full of carbon copies, and where everyone can access pretty much everything?
I think it really depends on why you are doing what you’re doing. Like, why did you start taking photos? If you find that core answer — and I’m sure you’ll pick up things from people here and there – but what you actually create will be unique. A camera is literally a box with a mirror that reflects you, but hand that same camera to a bunch of different people and you’ll get different results. I feel like with my work there was a long period of time where I was shooting and just not happy with the shots I was taking; but that’s because I wasn’t reflecting myself. I feel like whatever you do, if you do it properly you leave a bit of your soul in it. No matter how many Instagram followers they have, I feel like to make it authentic it has to be something that you can relate to. Everyone can take pictures but not everyone can be a photographer.
How difficult was it to make the shift from being a creative to an entrepreneur?
Very difficult because I didn’t have any one to bounce off. I come from a family with no real business experience. I’ve never had to look at taxes or anything like that before so it was definitely hard. But I chose to do this and I can always just stop. I always said that if I’m going to do this, I want to go at it 100%. But it’s been interesting how a lot of university courses have a business side where you learn the commercial side. But it’s a dog eat dog world and so you need to know what you’re dealing with. If someone sends me something, I’ll google it if I don’t understand it to look up laws. I’d rather know what’s going on than hire someone to tell me.
That leads on nicely to this concluding question — what is the most exciting thing about being a young, black creative in 2017?
One of the most exciting things is that we can increasingly do more things by ourselves [to a certain degree]. I feel like sometimes it’s also uncharted territory: we’re the generation that is learning to say no on a global scale. Not just marches and demonstrations, but at work, relationships and other areas of life. It’s also the fact that we can connect. I could literally do an Instagram post right now and say that I’m looking for someone who’s a tree surgeon of colour, which is amazing. I try and reach back to people like me as much as I can because there’s so much opportunity. I think what’s most exciting and why I say this is uncharted territory, is because we’re not trying to be the next white male or white female protagonist. You’re just trying to be you.