Joshua Kissi on representation and the danger of a single story
The photographer, director and co-founder of the See in Black collective discusses his thoughts on portraiture and the fundamental importance of nuance and variety.
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As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie laid bare in “The Danger of a Single Story”, the issue with only learning one isolated story about a group is that it creates stereotypes, “and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
As a cisgendered male, a director, photographer and a first-generation Ghanaian who grew up in the Bronx, I often feel the same danger is present in photography. I’ve always known the story people would tell about Africa, the story people would tell about Blackness or the story people would tell about the Bronx or New York City. This really inspired me to think differently, and a camera was a way for me to explore the different solutions of what that might look like creatively.
It takes me all the way back to starting to realise that photography is, by its nature, harmful to a lot of communities, especially communities of colour and especially Black and African communities. The way photography started was primarily to photograph white and lighter skin tones – film stocks simply weren’t invented for Black people at all. So recently a number of artists have had to figure out how to find the right tones within their subject matter. It’s inspired me from the beginning to think about how I best depict Black skin, to consider tone, depth of tone, skin colouration, all to ensure that exactly what I see is what I get in camera. I have found that there is more diversity in the Black skin tone than in any other, it’s just not as well researched.
There was a colonial and harmful nature that went into how photography was started, and it continues to influence how we look at it today. Even when you think about the terminology of photography, we talk about “shooting” and “capturing”, terms very much associated with violence. The very build of a camera is not dissimilar to a gun. Western society has always looked to other places and otherised societies based on what they saw. For them, to see that they had to have a camera.
However, the danger of a single story isn’t necessarily just a black and white issue. For instance, when I travel to Ghana to photograph I’m also thinking about what my work will say to the wider world about my subject, and considering how not to also be colonialistic in my own manner. I think for a lot of artists, it starts with “This is my story, this is something I saw and I want to photograph it”; yet a lot of the time we don’t realise the tools and power that comes with having creativity and what that can look like to the rest of the world. We have to make sure these stories are intrinsically these people as well.
But how do I play my part in undoing that? To show variation within culture? This is the danger of a single story. When you have a certain type of society telling a certain story over and over and over, it becomes history. There’s no way to really debunk that, other than creating work that operates on the alternative side of it.
For me it’s really important to realise this within my work, which celebrates the diaspora. It celebrates a story I grew up with and others could identify with, when you’re from one place but born in another, and still connected to another. I find that people only have this polarising view of Blackness because they don’t get to see the examples of nuance. A film like Moonlight comes out and people are just floored, which is amazing, but there is always emotional intelligence and nuance in our stories, it’s just that it doesn’t always make it to the big screen.
There’s so much nuance and detail to Blackness, but a lot of times we’re only highlighted in polarising moments – protests or sport moments, perhaps – and not necessarily the everyday nuance. That’s what I truly hope to do in my work, whether that’s a story about figure skaters in Harlem, showing that Black men are not locked into a norm of what a man is supposed to be, or a series about Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Black Indian culture that shows how African Americans do have diverse and nuanced culture.
This is also a very sensitive topic currently because of everything that’s going on right now, and especially within the United States. A lot of clients, brands and people are reaching out with a desire to make work that resonates to show they care, but it’s often short-sighted or doesn’t hold the depth it needs to in order to carry the right message. Black artists right now are busy, but also trying to make sure they’re not taking on work that will be problematic years from now. It’s one thing to know that you’re in this niche perspective or circle, but to then be appreciated by all these bigger brands, you have to ask: Is this performative? Is it actually because they care about the culture and demographic they want to represent?
It’s a constant battle of balance. For a lot of Black people within Western culture it’s a balance between impostor syndrome and making sure you represent the community because any time you walk through the door it’s not just about you. It’s about weighing up whether to take on a project because of what it says about your community. For other people, white or European people, they do not necessarily have to think about the implications of taking on a project. Everything they do is individual, and they’ve had the liberty of doing so. We have to show that it is equally possible with Black and Brown stories. It’s the work we have to do as well.
For me it always revolves around showing nuance, showing what is possible when you are not centring the struggle or plight, but instead centring life. It’s a hard role to play when you’re a Black artist because you represent so many people. I think a lot of art might start with ourselves, but if it ends with yourself, you’re probably not thinking beyond yourself. Anytime I come up with an idea, I think if it will extend to the person that I don’t even know needs to see it or be inspired by it.
It was seeing family albums of my parents in Ghana and the contrast when they came to America that first made me want to be a photographer. There were warm sepia tones, afros and bell bottoms when they were in West Africa. In America, it’s a little bit different. The image became colder, they experienced their first snow days. It inspired me to think not only of the lost art of family albums but how it looks to represent the now, especially for Black families living in America. I believe we’re living in good times when we’re able to come to a place of completion when it comes to our story. And while it is always important to talk about art and creativity, sometimes I just feel that this is the stuff of real life. There’s also not necessarily a lineage of artists either as within a lot of Black families, immigrant or minority communities,. you’re the first to take a risk and do something different from being a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer. You have to prove that it is valuable personally, but also prove that it’s valuable for the overall community.
The layers of this work is why I do what I do. But it’s important to start with the danger of a single story in photography, to look up at the make-up of a camera and the fact that film wasn’t made for Black people. For me, I want to work against the single story and to show as much nuance as possible. The more nuance the more beautiful, and the more detail the more beautiful. But whoever you are, how you show is up is really important. Before you pick up photography, graphic design, anything, being the best artist is also being present and working on yourself. It’s pretty much how I stick to my ideology and the mindset behind what I do, why I do it, and why I continue to do it.
This essay has been adapted from a talk by Joshua at a Nicer Tuesdays event earlier this year, under the title The Dangers of a Single Photo.