For Campbell Addy, being seen is about more than just visuals
The fashion photographer, director and magazine editor divulges on his Jehovah’s Witness upbringing, kicking his on-set Haribo habit, dealing with racism in the fashion industry, and his new monograph, Feeling Seen.
Speaking to Campbell Addy, I get the feeling that I’m chatting to more than one person, often referring to himself as, “the Campbell who… ”. And that’s the point the photographer is trying to make, that there isn’t just one version of Campbell Addy. He is as multifaceted, nuanced and complicated as anyone else, despite the one-dimensional perception we receive of artists – especially photographers, who often retain a level of anonymity behind their camera. This seems rooted in Campbell’s desire to be known; not in the egotistical way, but in the human way. And this desire directly echoes a sense of being seen by both fans and peers alike, hence his aptly named new monograph, Feeling Seen, published by Prestel.
Only six years into his career, the self-labelled “tadpole” has managed to rocket towards fashion and pop-culture’s upper echelons, focusing his lens on Black artists and photographing the likes of FKA twigs, Tyler, the Creator, and Megan Thee Stallion. Campbell has built a career on showing people’s beauty in places they hadn’t looked before – Niijournal is an embodiment of this. Launched in 2016, the magazine aims to platform diverse faces and bodies, to “educate, not irritate”, as stated in its manifesto. And now, within his new book, Campbell presents a collection of personal work, commissions and everything in-between, revealing his life and journey as a queer Black photographer navigating the industry. Alongside tributes to photographers including James Barnor, leading names such as model Naomi Campbell and photographer Nadine Ijewere have given their thoughts on the first time they felt seen as Black creatives in their industry, which sit powerfully alongside Campbell’s images. Having also worked on a music video for singer-songwriter Anaïs, and created videos for Harrods with Nowness and Levi’s with Dazed, it’s clear Campbell has both the skill and curiosity to expand his lens-based, image-making craft beyond still photographs.
As Campbell and I connect over Zoom one afternoon, it strikes me how unseriously he takes himself. In an industry which can be said to benefit from hierarchies and encourage self-importance, Campbell’s playfulness and a willingness to share himself with me are refreshing.
“I’m not a definitive person, I’m always changing. I would say I’m a Pokemon with unlimited evolution stages.”Campbell Addy
It’s Nice That: I’m sure you’re doing a lot of interviews right now, so I can imagine that you feel like you’re repeating yourself, but we have to get the basics out of the way. How do you define yourself and your creative practice?
Campbell Addy: As a human being. I’m not a definitive person, I’m always changing. I would say I’m a Pokemon with unlimited evolution stages. My working compass is multifaceted and hyper focused – it explores the things I’m into at that time. I’m into a lot of random things. I’m always trying to seek and uplift. My work is a playing field for me to explore ideas and some of them are just for the fun of it. Some of them are really deep, some of them not, but that’s life.
INT: You said you’re constantly evolving and that reflects in your work – does that make it difficult when you’re interested in one thing at a certain time and then later, when you’ve moved on from that, you look back at it?
CA: I think if you’d asked me this question a week ago I’d have a very different answer. Having to do the exhibition (Feeling Seen at Protein Studios, London) and having to do the book, I’ve had to look through all my old work and seeing it hung up made me realise that, although things like technique, lighting style and subject matter changes, I still have an underlying thread through my images. At least I know I’m always trying to surprise myself.
“Being vulnerable in certain spaces means people will take advantage of you and your kindness.”Campbell Addy
INT: As long as you’re being honest with yourself in the moment, you can never really look back and not associate it with a piece of work. When an artist, especially photographers, have a set and identifiable aesthetic, it can be restrictive.
CA: Especially at this young age. I’ve been working for six years this summer and I don’t think that’s enough time to carve out a visual language for myself yet. When I think of the greats like the [James] Barnors and the [Richard] Avedons and the [Irving] Penns, six years into their career, their style was very different to what it ended up being defined as. That's what brings me solace. I think if I had a visual language six years into my career, that’s kinda naff, innit. What life experience do I have to claim, “this is my aesthetic.”
INT: You are super young.
CA: I’m a tadpole! I haven’t even left the pond yet to start walking on land.
INT: Despite the ebbs and flows in your work, there is an obvious thread, that being how your work seeks to amplify and elevate Black experiences, Black artists and Black aesthetics. What does it mean to be Black to you?
CA: It depends what Campbell you’re talking to. If you’re talking to Campbell the photographer, then being Black is just being me. When I look in the mirror, I just see myself. When I first came out into the industry, people were like, “wow, there’s Black people on the page!” and I just ran with it. I didn’t understand the nuance of what they were saying. Yes, I knew there was a deficit of Blackness but I didn’t think my work was the definition of Blackness. I just wanted to put myself and what I see everyday out there. Looking through history, there are Black fashion photographers few and far between, so I assumed it would be a little hobby. What I didn’t realise is that my work, in execution, speaks to a community that all feel similar things. I didn’t feel as isolated in my lack of representation.
“I want to make relationships where people aren’t afraid to make mistakes or be called out on them.”Campbell Addy
INT: The industry will always define you as a Black British photographer. Are you happy with that label, or does it annoy you?
CA: It depends on the context. I’ve found that phrasing to be a double edged sword depending on the person it’s coming from. Some people applaud it or say it with pride. It helps others like me seek solace in areas they might feel otherwise isolated in. However, others have used it as a categorising sorting hat.
Early on in my career, I was optioned to shoot a magazine cover. Someone accidentally forwarded me the chain of emails from the artist’s management and in it they stated, “I'm not sure if Campbell’s the right person for the cover because I’m not sure he can photograph white people as well as Black people.” They couldn’t understand why a Black photographer who shoots Black bodies would want to shoot white talent.
INT: What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learnt so far?
CA: Being kind doesn’t hurt anyone and having respect is very important. In the beginning, I was very kind, but I didn’t have respect for myself. Being vulnerable in certain spaces means people will take advantage of you and your kindness.
INT: How has that changed now? How do you respect yourself?
CA: I remember assisting a photographer for a magazine and I was racially profiled and racially abused on set. On set I was 14 minutes late and the stylist started shouting in my face, “this is why I don’t like working with people like you!” The producer was late and nothing was said to him. I didn’t get paid because the production team complained about me. That stays with me because, even if he wasn’t being racist, no one has the right to shout at someone and be so aggressive. I didn’t say anything, I didn’t fight it. Now, I have a backbone. I’ve done jobs with certain clients and there’s a hint of prejudice and now I speak up on it. I want to make relationships where people aren’t afraid to make mistakes or be called out on them.
“I think religious spaces could be a lot more fun if people could pick and choose which teachings they felt align with them.”Campbell Addy
INT: In the description of your new monograph, Feeling Seen, it explains that you left your Jehovah's Witness family home at 16 with broader questions of identity, intimacy and art. Can you tell me how your identity and approach to art have changed since that time in your life?
CA: As I’ve gotten older, I sometimes battle with my moral standing. I grew up in a religion and household that I can’t shrug off, but the teachings I was taught aren’t me. Now I’m trying to apply them to myself with my own discernment as opposed to just blindly following.
A lot of my early work did play with religion. It looked at the hypocrisy in it. One of my first works in Niijournal issue one, I purposely cast gay men from Grindr for a shoot on Adam and Eve, and I styled them in an abstract manner to touch on the falsities. It was all the things I was conflicted with, in terms of where I stood with my sexuality, my beliefs and my own body. As I’ve gotten older, I try to inject it into my work, because I stand by the teachings I was taught, like “Love thy neighbour as thyself”. My first solo exhibition was a bible verse (‘Matthew 7:7&8’). I hate the construct of religion but I do believe in spirituality.
INT: I can really resonate with that. I grew up in a Muslim household and though my parents weren’t super religious, I went through a similar journey to you as an adolescent. I was very embarrassed to be Muslim. Even though, a lot of the teachings I love and unknowingly implement into my daily life. But some aspects of Islam I’ve chosen to reject because they don’t serve me.
CA: All religions have the same skeleton. Humans are the ones who are twisting this for their own gain. If someone wants to kill me for loving a man, then I shall die. I think religious spaces could be a lot more fun if people could pick and choose which teachings they felt align with them.
“It’s about feeling seen outside of just my subject matter and people trusting my ideas.”Campbell Addy
INT: I’m assuming the title of your book is a nod to the visibility of Black artistry in fashion, but what else does it mean to you?
CA: As a Pisces, I’m a huge lover of love –
INT: – Like me!
CA: Are you a Pisces too?! Aw, you get it! You just get it. I love love – tragically or not. Feeling Seen is about my collaborators, my models, my talents, the runners; they all hear this crazy little man say, “I’ve got this idea!”, and they trust me and they help me do it. Everyone I’ve come in contact with helps me do what I do. It’s also about feeling seen outside of just my subject matter and people trusting my ideas.
INT: The book is deeply personal, you’re being quite vulnerable. How do you feel about people seeing your intimate or unseen works?
CA: Work Campbell thinks it’s fab. Campbell who sits at home thinks it's daunting. But then I have to go back to the first time I was affected by artwork. I remember Tracy Emin’s Strangeland and how transparent and vulnerable she is about her existence. I kept thinking, “I want to create work that touches my heart”, and when I think of Chris Ofili’s No Woman No Cry or Steve McQueen’s Bear or Amy Winehouse’s music, especially her demos for Frank, they were all brutally honest. I’m so emotionally charged that, to be vulnerable, is probably the only state I can be in. I’m scared about people reading it and judging it, but then the best works to me are the ones where people have been vulnerable. To love me is to know me. If I’ve created all these beautiful images by the time I’m 80 but no one knows who I am, it’s a bit of a waste of time.
“Work Campbell thinks it’s fab. Campbell who sits at home thinks it’s daunting.”Campbell Addy
INT: Can you tell me about a few images or projects in the book that are particularly special to you, or that are really complicated for you?
CA: Towards the end of the book when the paperweight changes, I go into conversation with Ekow Eshun. This is where my photography changes; it’s not just fashion. There are also some for Niijournal I took during very dark times – the loss of a sibling and mental health issues. I put it in as a reminder for myself that I still went through it all. Some of my favourite work may not be people’s favourite work of mine, like the photojournalistic stuff I did in Ghana – the image of the boys against Cape Coast Castle – there's an energy to that which I want to carry on with.
It’s always hard to look through that section because there’s a Polaroid of me at five years old, wearing a Michigan top. It’s cute. I also remember that time as I had just come out of foster care. I remember having Maryland hazelnut cookies and hot Ribena before the picture was taken, and I remember this woman, Rose, who would pick us up in a Peugeot car to come and take care of us. So, yeah, that section is beautiful and complicated because it’s not attached to brands, fashion or career – it’s things I’ve done for myself.
“If I’ve created all these beautiful images by the time I’m 80 but no one knows who I am, it’s a bit of a waste of time.”Campbell Addy
INT: Talk me through your process. When you get started on a project, how do you carry it out? Is there a specific rulebook that you always follow, or do you just follow your intuition? Are there any rituals or habits that you have on set?
CA: I used to have a ritual of having a Haribo on set.
INT: What kind of Haribo?
CA: The gold bear. That’s such a horrible habit. In terms of creating ideas, I’m always researching; I have a lot of notes. I’ve started drawing more, too – mostly scenarios. I was watching David Attenborough and I loved the formation of the birds flying across the Savannah, so I got my pen out and started drawing something. I also write out scenarios – usually they’re story or character-based. The other day, I was watching Lady Gaga’s Alejandro video by Steven Klime and I saw the image of the cross, it inspired me to write out this whole character.
INT: How do you see your practice evolving over the coming years? And what do you feel like you want to achieve as you build on your career?
CA: I want to master different mediums to tell my stories on a longer timeline. I’ll always take pictures. There’s something beautiful about having a millisecond to capture something, but I often wonder about these characters I make; I think some of them want to come to life, not just be frozen in time in a certain way. What does Campbell Addy the photographer look like in moving image? I think it just makes sense to me now for the ideas to have more time to live.
About the Author
Dalia is a freelance writer, producer and editor based in London. She’s currently the digital editor of Azeema, and the editor-in-chief of The Road to Nowhere Magazine. Previously, she was news writer at It’s Nice That, after graduating in English Literature from The University of Edinburgh.