“A symphony of activism”: Misan Harriman on his historic Vogue cover

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British Vogue’s September issue is photographed by Misan Harriman, the first Black male cover photographer in the magazine’s 104-year history

Marcus Rashford, Adwoa Aboah, Reni Eddo-Lodge, and Prof Angela Davis are among the 40 international activists featured in British Vogue’s September issue — an ode to the extraordinary voices who have devoted their energies to fighting for a fairer society. On a special fold-out cover, we see campaigners for the Black Lives Matter movement, leading feminists, and environmental activists, as well as models, actors, and athletes who have used their platforms to effect social change. In line with the spirit of the activists featured is Misan Harriman, the first Black male photographer, and the first Black photographer for the September issue, to shoot a cover in the magazine’s 104-year history.

“I know how important the September issue is in the fashion world, and I knew that I would have to put in my best work,” says Harriman, who became one of the most widely-shared photographers of the Black Lives Matter movement in London this year. Harriman only picked up a camera three years ago, but has always been a fan of photography, and to say that he was delighted to be listed in the company of heroes such as Irving Penn and Norman Parkinson, is an understatement. “I had a feeling that this would be a big story, but the thing about photography is the imposter syndrome,” he says. “I thought Edward Enninful [editor of British Vogue] was brave, and I felt that he was instilling a huge amount of trust in me.”

Enninful chose Harriman to shoot the cover after seeing his protest photographs. “[His] pictures were so striking and powerful and really resonated with myself and our readers,” says Enninful, in an interview with Vogue, who featured Harriman’s work throughout the demonstrations. “I soon realised that his work was era-defining — and that he was the voice that was missing in the magazine.”

Among all of the people he photographed for the issue, Harriman highlights meeting Doreen Lawrence OBE as a particularly memorable experience. The British Jamaican campaigner is the mother of Stephen Lawrence, a Black British teenager who was murdered in a racist attack in South East London in 1993. Lawrence has campaigned tirelessly to reform the UK’s legal system and police force. “In many ways, she is every young British Black man’s mother”, says Harriman. “It was an extraordinary honour to be able to photograph her and listen to her knowledge, and be around her incredible energy.”

As the first Black male photographer to shoot the cover of British Vogue, one must ask why it has taken the magazine so long — a question spurred when Tyler Mitchell became the first Black photographer to shoot the cover of American Vogue in 2018. Harriman shares these sentiments, but he raises the importance of recognising how much Enninful has achieved in just three years since he became editor. In 2018, Nadine Ijewere became the first Black photographer to shoot the cover, and since then, Enninful has had nurses, postmen, and train drivers on his front pages. “He’s always pushing the boundaries, and I would say he’s done a lot in a very short period of time,” says Harriman, who feels honoured to be associated with the people involved with this issue, on stage and behind-the-scenes. “I call it a symphony of activism,” he says.

Marigold Warner

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.