Joshua Kissi’s storytelling lens

A group of men lined up facing sideways in band uniforms

The photographer and New York member, who shot our August cover story, discusses finding his visual style and using photography to show the breadth of the Black experience

By Jess Kelham-Hohler .   Images courtesy of Joshua Kissi    Tuesday 22 September, 2020    Long read

What originally drew you to photography as your way of storytelling?
‘From a young age, there was something that interested me about family albums. My parents are from Ghana and I loved looking through their albums and seeing their life before they had kids. I’d see them living in Ghana through these warm, sepia tones. Then I see the photos of them in New York and it’s just a different tone. And that difference tells the story of how they’ve been able to assimilate to American culture. These photos are how they told their story. It made me think, what do I want my own family album to look like?  What do I want the future generation, my lineage, as well as the community I represent, to look at when it comes to stories and photos?’

How did you approach crafting your aesthetic and visual style? 
‘To be transparent, there weren’t a lot of Black photographers to look to, outside of Gordon Parks or Roy DeCarava. And, unfortunately, these are not people that are taught in school, so this is an education I had to do by myself. Not having that much of a reference point means you kind of have to create your own. When it comes to the editing of Black and brown skin, these are all things I had to research. There were no references for how you best show the depth, tone and richness of our skin colour, because of the obvious anti-Blackness within visual languages.’
A group of men lined up facing sideways in band uniforms
A man under a blue sky wearing a band uniform
You’ve launched numerous businesses and initiatives around photography, the first being your men’s street-style site, Street Etiquette. How did that take off?
Street Etiquette was the first entity that myself and Travis Gumbs started in 2008, and that was my first splash into the industry that was based around Black visibility. This was before Instagram, and we garnered a large following of people who literally didn’t see themselves in media, and who found Street Etiquette to be something palatable, but also relatable. It was very much before its time.’
Two people facing away from the camera in the dark
A woman with braided hair and closed eyes
Then you moved into disrupting the stock imagery world with TONL.
‘So, where Street Etiquette was about fashion and style, TONL is a commercialised technology company that answers some of the issues when it comes to visibility and diversity from an institutional, collective perspective. But the common thread throughout all of this is just visibility – how do you see, take in and understand these stories, without Blackness being otherised? Stock photography plays a big role in how we see ourselves and other people. I started TONL with Karen Okonkwo in light of Philando Castile and the murders that were happening at the time. I was wondering how I could help us move forward as a society, but also provide an asset that helps. Now, companies from Facebook to Amazon use TONL for their own internal assets. This isn’t the end of diversity, this is a very small step, but at least you should have diverse imagery that represents the different demographics you’re speaking to as a company.'
Men in pastel coloured suits holding goats

'The common thread throughout all of this is just visibility – how do you see, take in and understand these stories, without Blackness being otherised?'

What inspired you to launch See In Black and create an art sale as your mode of activism?
See In Black was started by myself and Micaiah Carter, along with four other members. Micaiah is a fellow photographer, a good friend of mine, and we both said to ourselves, what can we do in this moment? For us, it was around visibility and Black permanence. A lot of our stories happen in these polarising environments when people are paying attention. And then after that, people lose that traction and attention. We wanted to say, hey, our work happens in permanence, not just in our trauma. We show a diverse group of Black photographers, from different areas and sexual orientations, just really breaking down everything to show that we don’t exist in a monolith, we exist in a multitude of different ways. See In Black was all about actually seeing from our perspective, not from one that the media has told you, or that you think you understand.

‘The fact that we galvanised 80 photographers in one moment to do one thing was powerful, because it’s never happened before. The sale is just a way to support five different non-profits that advocate for the Black community in various ways. The real goal here is to have an institutional, collective voice. It meant that when situations like the Whitney Museum incident happen, instead of it being one or two artists trying to fight this big entity, we could come in and say, here’s our statement as an artist-first community and this is how we advocate for ourselves.’ 
A man in a colourful suit jacket lays his head on some silk cushions
Most recently, you directed the ‘Already’ video as part of Beyoncé’s visual album, Black Is King, which gave you the opportunity to turn your lens on Ghana. What was the story you wanted to tell? 
‘Coming from that country, growing up here in the States, and being an artist of diaspora, I wanted to tell a story that was important to the people in Ghana, as well as those that are abroad. I was really honoured to be able to share these everyday narratives – to translate that story of African history and lineage to a modern lens of what it means to be on a continent, and specifically Ghana today. A lot of the referential imagery that people have of the country, or of Africa, is the same stereotypical, problematic imagery that they’ve seen. I wanted to show a present-day interpretation of what is happening on the ground right now, that feels true to the people who live there. So, from my director of photography to my stylist, everyone on set was raised there and had that vision right. I think it was essential to show that to reach success, to be able to say something of importance, you don’t necessarily need to migrate or leave your home country.’
A man wearing a red hat under a blue sky
Three boys holding a flag around them in a gym hall
How did you approach designing your own website using Squarespace to represent you as an artist and a creator?
‘When it comes to the website, I chose Squarespace specifically because of the clean design – I feel like it lets the work speak for itself. What I wanted to convey was that I’m not someone who just does one thing and one thing only, but instead I needed to represent this ecosystem of what I’ve done. I’m telling this consistent story of what it looks like to be a Black person in the world, specifically within Western culture, and all of these things are just different mosaic pieces that I’m trying to fit together. I wanted the website to show the full capability of what I can do and what I’m hoping to do in the future.’ 

So what does the future look like for you? 
‘It holds just more progression and more clarity, whether that’s from See In Black or, personally, I want to do more films. And being able to reach more people, obviously – something like Black Is King is very influential with the amount of people it’s able to reach, so I just feel like film in motion is kind of the future of it all.’ 

This interview was done in partnership with Squarespace, the all-in-one website building platform. Squarespace empowers millions of creators, thinkers, and doers with the tools they need to bring their unique ideas to life. The company’s dynamic all-in-one platform allows you to easily build a website, claim a domain, sell online, and market a brand. Find out more and launch your ideas here.
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