In 2020, photographer Campbell Addy asked the universe for guidance. Its response was to send him Ghanaian photographer James Barnor and Grenadian-British artist, photographer, filmmaker, and broadcaster Simon Frederick.
Barnor, now 92-years-old, only received the long-overdue recognition for his indelible contribution to documenting Ghanaian and Black-British history across music, fashion, and portraiture in the last decade, and on meeting Addy, implored him to show his work in books and exhibitions as much as possible.
Barnor didn’t know, but Addy had been wrestling with internal reservations about making his debut monograph, and his could-be publisher was waiting on an answer. One of his concerns was that he wouldn’t have enough work, and Barnor’s words gave Addy the clarity he needed.
“Now in his 90s, James is really pushing because he knows how powerful representation of Black people in different spaces is,” says Addy. “So I was like yeah, I’m gonna do this book. I had the title straight away – Feeling Seen.”
“I really wanted to give an insight into who I really am in a deeper sense, through my work” – Campbell Addy
I met Addy in the summer of 2016 when I commissioned Kareem Reid to write about the inaugural issue of his magazine Niijournal. Addy was then a student at Central Saint Martins, and Niijournal – alongside its sibling, model agency Nii Agency – was his space for exploration and empowerment: somewhere to make stories he wasn’t seeing anywhere else. On the cusp of graduation, Addy reflected on his time at the London institution in an interview with Dazed: “It took a while, but I learned that only I can see the world the way I see it.”
In the six years that followed, I’ve watched in awe as Addy took on the world with that vision – making us all see what he sees. His perspective is honed from his life experiences as a Black, gay man raised as a Jehovah’s Witness in a strict Ghanaian family. Addy was outed in his teens, abruptly left home, and was placed in foster care with a fellow gay man named Richard Field.
In recent years, he’s been vulnerable and open about his struggles with mental health and often uses photography to construct characters and worlds that reaffirm his existence – “what a young Addy would need to see to get through,” he tells me. Now, just short of 29-years-old, Addy is comfortably one of the most in-demand British photographers working today.
His work is expansive, bringing people from all walks of life into his frames. Often it feels like he’s building a new world entirely. We see his friends and collaborators like King Owusu, Rhea Dillon, CKTRL, alongside household names Daniel Kaluuya and Tyler, the Creator. There’s an overwhelming sense that no matter who steps in front of his camera, they’re right where they’re meant to be.
Feeling Seen is as much of a celebration of these contemporaries, collaborators, and his predecessors as it is about him. Inside, we revisit the photographs that catapulted his career in fashion, explore his unseen work, and see his personal projects – like his trip to Seoul to document the city’s hidden queer scene (published in his 2017 book, Unlocking Seoul) and more recently to Ghana (where he experienced a spiritual awakening). There’s a generous glimpse into Campbell Addy, the person, as he republishes a poem he wrote at 18, alongside a frank conversation with his mum, as well a new discussion with the writer and curator Ekow Eshun. Threaded throughout are texts and quotes from fellow pioneers such as Naomi Campbell, Nadine Ijewere, and Edward Enninful (who pens the book’s foreword), and heartfelt letters written from Addy to James Barnor and Ajamu X.
On the phone from his studio in south London, Addy’s infectious energy is palpable. The in-depth process of revisiting his archive for the first time in many years was healing for him, and aside from a twisted ankle, he’s in good spirits. “I still pinch myself. I can’t believe I’m doing a book – that’s fab!” he says with a laugh, as humble as ever. We spiral into an hour and a half of catch-ups and conversations. The following is an excerpt from that call, where we spoke about the importance of legacy, the power of escapism, and why this is just the beginning for him.
How did this book come about?
Campbell Addy: Prestel approached me in 2020, but I didn’t reply straight away. My agent was like, ‘Are you not going to do it?’ She just thought it was an automatic yes, but I just had these reservations. Around that time I did a plea to the universe. I just needed some guidance, I didn’t want to be too specific. Then I met Simon Frederick and James Barnor, and without them knowing, they confirmed that I should do the book. I never asked him (but) James implored me to exhibit, exhibit, exhibit. To show my work in books as much as I can. He only got notoriety in his 80s, and he says, even if it was ten years ago, he’d have more energy to enjoy it and to really have his work seen. He’s still doing talks and really pushing now because he knows how powerful the representation of Black people in different spaces is.
So, I boiled all of my work down to see what remained, and that was visibility. Everything I try to do is about that in some way. There’s something I’m trying to see, whether it’s within myself or within the subject matter.
Tell me about the choice to have other voices in here alongside you.
Campbell Addy: I’m a child raised by a village, and it felt weird doing my first book and making it all about me. It didn’t sit right. So I wanted to have Naomi Campbell and Gabriella Karefa-Johnson – especially Black women – talk about their visibility in their fields. I’m a product of a Black woman, all of my agents are women, and it felt important to have female voices in the book. Then there’s a section for Ajamu and James Barnor, so people can understand that we aren’t the first Black photographers. That I couldn’t exist without photographers like James and Ajamu.
“I boiled all of my work down to see what remained, and that was visibility. Everything I try to do is about that in some way” – Campbell Addy
You’ve always been like that; reluctant to take the spotlight alone.
Campbell Addy: It will never hinder me or reduce my greatness by saying thank you. Or to say it was a collaborative effort.
I’d love to talk more about the meaning of the title, Feeling Seen.
Campbell Addy: If you asked me this question throughout my life, the answer will probably change. I thought I needed to be visible to feel seen, but I’ve found with visibility, less of me is exposed. I really wanted to give an insight into who I really am in a deeper sense, through my work. But then I also wanted it to be a double entendre – Feeling Seen, but almost Feeling Seen? With the question mark. Like, do we feel seen? Why is there only a handful of young Black photographers with books of this scale? All the captions in the book are just peoples’ names because the models are still people.
I don’t want the images to be attached to publications either. So you won’t see any of the covers with the mockups, it’s just the image itself. When creating work, I have to ask the question, is it a good image because of the image or because it’s a cover or because of the person in it? There is hair, make-up, set [design] – so many things that can manipulate the image. But if I can feel seen in my creations, then the manipulations of [the image] are a reflection of my psyche. Am I making sense?
Yes. You’re always generous in your answers – quite deep.
Campbell Addy: Honestly, I wish I could be shallow.
Campbell Addy: It’s stressful. I often get told that I think too deep – ‘It’s not that deep’. But then it is. I’m a Black man, I’m a queer man. But when I’m alone, I’m none of those things, I’m just me. Often I don’t feel seen in my most honest work because people interpret it into other things. ‘It’s about Blackness’, but when I put Black people in my work, it isn’t political, but it’s then politicised because the industry is so white. Can I not make work that’s just about fashion? Because my contemporaries can. But then my brain knows we are vessels to push humankind to the next level. When we go to the next level, the next generation will be better because of us. So then I think I can’t just do shallow work, but I wish I could dip in and out.
“I’m a Black man, I’m a queer man. But when I’m alone, I’m none of those things, I’m just me. Often I don’t feel seen in my most honest work because people interpret it into other things. ‘It’s about Blackness’, but when I put Black people in my work, it isn’t political, but it’s then politicised because the industry is so white” – Campbell Addy
Yeah. Andy Warhol was never called a white, male artist. He was just an artist.
Campbell Addy: I don’t think it will change in our lifetime. Minorities still exist, there’s still a huge deficit of female photographers... You and I can sit here and create a project and not have labels, but on a global scale, labels are needed for capitalistic structures to push forward. But all I want is to make authentic work. It’s always so obvious when you can see someone ticking boxes. I’ll do a shoot and they’ll ask me to do a video and talk about it. I’m not that invested, no offence.
You just want to make the work.
Campbell Addy: Like, call me if you want to make something that I’m really into because this ain’t it. You shouldn’t hire a woman to shoot your brand and then get her to exacerbate her femininity for your capital gain. Just hire her like you hired that man from across the street, and then let her go home. Because you wouldn’t ask the cisgender, white man to talk about being a man.
I wanted to ask if you could remind me how you got into photography?
Campbell Addy: I always drew. I like painting and I still paint now. I always wanted to be an artist in a traditional sense. Discovering Chris Ofili at 16 was like, ‘oh my god’. It was the first time I saw myself reflected anywhere. I started to use mediums other than paint and oils and I also discovered Norman Parkinson’s book when I was in detention. We had to clear up the library because it was turning into a photo department. I thought, this is boring. It’s safe to say I didn’t help them move the books because I found three books and I sat there for three hours. Those were Norman’s, Irving Penn, and Nick Knight. I was like, ‘oh my god, you can tell stories with photography?’
The only photography I had seen was very commercialised, I didn’t know there was artistic photography. I was just obsessed. But I was too nervous (to do it) because I didn’t see any Black photographers in that world. So unknowingly, I was like, I guess I can’t do this as a job, and I put it to the backburner. But then I saw Black stylists and I thought, I can do that. So I thought I was a stylist in uni, and Ibrahim (Kamara) actually, was like, ‘babes, you’re not a stylist’ (laughs). Not in a shady way, but he was like, ‘you come alive taking pictures’. I remember some of my coursemates laughing at me because we did a shoot and they were like, ‘why is he rolling around on the floor?’ Like, this isn’t America’s Next Top Model. Maybe I’m a bit obtuse, but I was like, ‘that’s fab!’ (Laughs) I liked that comment. So I decided I was gonna take it seriously. I had good friends around me that were also doing the same, we just had different mediums. Ib, Gareth [Wrighton]. We couldn’t see [what we want to do] anywhere so we thought why not have fun with it.
Some spectacular people came out of that time. I often think about it, it feels really special to have been a part of it; coming up together.
Campbell Addy: There’s a higher consciousness bigger than all of us. Because we’re all connected – it’s weird. It was timing. We were together and we still all are. I can’t imagine what it looks like from the outside in. One of my assistants said he saw my picture at the exhibition you curated in 2016 at Mother, and he knew he wanted to work with me.
“It’s the end of an era. I call it issue zero. It was my exploring phase, my coming-of-age era. I was searching for questions and answers. The book seals that and I’m proud” – Campbell Addy
I love that so much. OK, so your imagination is brilliant, and escapism is a theme throughout the book. Why do you draw for that?
Campbell Addy: Getting a bit deep again now, but my start to life wasn’t the best, so I found my coping mechanism. Often [my imagination] was a way for me to just breathe. My safe space. A place to go to work things out. As I got older, struggling with mental health, it was almost the only thing I knew how to do. Without my imagination... the world is a very dark place. I’ve been blessed to have an imagination. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still rooted in reality, but I know I can escape.
People have different vices in order for them to survive, mine is working problems out through my work. There are certain projects that I know exactly why I created a character. In the moment I would just think I was creating something for something. But really, it was something I needed. All I was told was Kunta Kinte, slavery, poverty, this and that. But there were people who existed in all of that – poets, musicians, cultured people, that lived in a time when slavery was rife in America. If those stories were told to me at 12, I’d be a different human. So, with a lot of my work, it’s like I’m working in the future, backwards. ‘What would Campbell need to see?’ Then create that now so he can get through it.
What’s a significant series you’ve created, for yourself?
Campbell Addy: The images in the middle section, when I went to Ghana. When I look at those images, I’m just filled with joy because it’s a community of friends I made, it’s spiritual for me because it’s my ancestors’ home ground, and the energy that it evokes for me is healing.
For the last four years, I’ve had budgets, producers, and this I had to do on my own. It was like going back to basics. Getting my film back, I didn’t clock some of the compositions I was doing, some of the colour theory I was working on, it’s all instinctive. So when I look at those pictures, I think I was really in my bag (laughs). I was with a group of people I felt safe with, in a country where I wasn’t othered.
When I’m in a mindset where I’m comfortable, I create images that I don’t remember, and that’s what I like. [My] entry [to photography] was so fast. There were times when I didn’t know what city I was in. I sat with those images for a couple of months and I was there for a month to do it – I had time. Those images represent the time I wish I always had. It goes back to the very first images that I saw, Norman Parkinson and Grace Coddington going to Bird Island for three weeks. I thought photographers were given the length of time to do what they want, but by the time I was old enough to do it, we were given three days, and I’m like, what? The dream that was sold me was a lie (laughs).
You spoke about making work for young Campbell, do you have any advice for a young boy who might find your book in the library, like you did with Norman Parkinson?
Campbell Addy: That all of your ideas and weird thoughts are valid. Representation in all shapes and sizes is important. If I picked up my book, instead of Norman Parkinson’s book, I think I’d have five years more of certainty. I used to dwell on this a lot, and it made me sad. Like, if only there were more Black people allowed to do these images… I wouldn’t have suffered as much. But I understand everything great is hard. I did it and I literally came from nothing, so if you see this book and you want to do it too, do it because you love it. I hope a mini-me in 2023 picks up this book and just fucks it up and has fun. I hope a little kid sees it and goes, I can do whatever I want, and not just in photography.
Is Feeling Seen a bookend to an era?
Campbell Addy: I mean, I wasn’t going to talk about this... To me, it’s the end of an era. I call it issue zero. It was my exploring phase, my coming-of-age era. I was searching for questions and answers. The book seals that and I’m proud. Now, for issue one, there’s confidence in me. I’ve got ideas for the next thing and also mediums – I started painting again. I don’t think I will just be a photographer in the next five years. I almost want to rinse myself off the internet. When I was doing this I looked at work from everything, from A level up to 2021, and I’m at peace with it – do you know what I mean?
You sound at peace.
Campbell Addy: The issue zero thing… in 2021, something clicked. I had a spiritual awakening in Ghana. It was very deep. I thought, life does come in stages and that’s fine. I think I was always scared of taking myself seriously. So it’s like issue zero, cool. I don’t know myself a lot, but I know myself better.
Feeling Seen by Campbell Addy is published by Prestel, and is out on April 14, 2022