Campbell Addy on his mission to champion Black visibility, creativity, and the pioneers that came before him

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All images © Campbell Addy.

From international covers to celebrity portraits, Campbell Addy has become one of the most in-demand photographers of his generation. As his debut monograph is published, the 28-year-old reflects on his meteoric rise

In early summer 2010, Campbell Addy was in detention at his school in Croydon, south London. His punishment was to reorganise the library. Addy had been around cameras his whole life, but he only knew photography through the documentation of ceremony and celebration within the Jehovah’s Witness community he grew up in. On the dusty, cluttered bookshelves of the library, 16-year old Addy discovered a different kind of visual language, pulling out books by the likes of Nick Knight, Norman Parkinson, and Irving Penn.

“I had never seen images like it,” he remembers. “Photography, but in a wholly artistic manner. Not commercial, and not the kind of thing you saw in galleries at the time. [They] broke the rules, and showed me that photography could be whatever I wanted it to be.”

This encounter led him to study photography at A-level, and soon the camera became his tool to seek out new worlds. “It’s a gateway. I could go up to people in the club and ask to take a picture of their clothes, as it was easier than saying hello,” he says. And, like for many young photographers, the camera gave him freedom. “It was my way out of the house… an excuse to get out,” he says. “It was one of the only things during my childhood that wasn’t controlled or defined by religion or upbringing.”

But without the widespread visibility of other Black photographers at the time, Addy found it difficult to locate himself within the industry. It wasn’t until he studied photography at Central Saint Martins that he began to consider the practice as a career. Fellow student Ibrahim Kamara – the now world-famous stylist and editor-in-chief at Dazed – declared to Addy: “Babe, you are a photographer.” For Addy, this was a wake-up call. “It was like he had said the sky is blue. There was no question – I am a photographer.”

Today, 28-year-old Addy is one of the most in demand photographers working in the UK. He has shot covers for the likes of Harper’s Bazaar, Time, Dazed and Rolling Stone, and photographed cultural icons such as FKA Twigs, Kendall Jenner, Tyler the Creator, and Naomi Campbell. He is also the founder of Nii Journal and Nii Agency – a biannual culture magazine and a modelling agency respectively.

Addy’s debut monograph, Feeling Seen, is a compilation of both commissioned and personal projects. “From age 16 to 28, the common denominator has been the desire to be seen. When I was unknown, I just wanted visibility,” he says.

The book includes a foreword from British Vogue editor-in-chief Edward Enninful, as well as an interview with curator Ekow Eshun that delves into Addy’s philosophy as an artist. Interspersed between Addy’s striking images are quotes from friends in the industry, including fellow photographer Nadine Ijewere, and stylist and editor Gabriella Karefa-Johnson. They too reflect on the first time they “felt seen” in the industry.

Charting his visual journey so far, Feeling Seen exemplifies a career dedicated to promoting Black visibility, beauty and creativity. Addy works exclusively in analogue. “I love the printed matter… Digital is very important, but for me, I make work to be physically printed,” he says. “In school, I was known among my friends for always reaching past the gallery rope to try and touch the paintings.” This affection for texture translates into images that depict a tangible, real Black existence. Skin, hair and fabric flow, creating an atmosphere that is recognisably Black, safe and warm.

The photographer has also “dabbled” in various studio roles, from makeup to hair, all to further understand the craft of photography. “I need to be able to communicate in their industry’s language so that we can all work on the same page,” he says. Addy is committed to celebrating Black talent wherever he finds it, applying his attention to detail in all elements. “Respecting and understanding the different roles creates trust, and once you have trust, the work just flows,” he adds. “I always try to create a chilled, collaborative environment. A safe space.”

The art we make now only exists because of people living decades before us,” he muses. “The Queer art of the 1980s is so impactful because it feels as if [the artist’s] life depended on it.”

Walking in their footsteps

Despite the recognition now being afforded to Black and Queer artists, Addy understands that his work is not the first of its kind. “Humans are the most forgetful creatures on the planet. They repeat cycles. The art we make now only exists because of people living decades before us,” he muses. “The Queer art of the 1980s is so impactful because it feels as if [the artist’s] life depended on it.”

Aware of the lasting impact of HIV/Aids in both the Black and Queer communities, Addy makes work “for those who couldn’t”. Addy’s images reference the long histories of Black and Queer creativity, building on the often-overlooked legacies spearheaded by previous generations. He has a wide range of visual and contextual references, drawing on childhood experience, a century of fashion photography, and Black history.

Addy is lucky to call Queer British photographer Ajamu X and the Ghanaian icon James Barnor (whom he playfully calls “Grandad James”) his friends. In Feeling Seen, he includes two “love letters”. The first is to Ajamu X, thanking him for paving the way for Black Queer photographers. The second is for Barnor, an inspiration, teacher and friend. “[Barnor] and my father are both from the Ga tribe,” Addy explains. “I remember meeting him before the book was even an idea, and he pushed me to exhibit, exhibit, exhibit… I am blessed to be able to learn from these idols while they are still here, and give them the flowers that they deserve.”

Despite the clear vision behind Feeling Seen, when Addy was first approached by the publisher Prestel to create a book, he was unsure of what to include. “I went to Ajamu’s studio and asked him what he thought, and he told me I’d been making the book all along,” he says. “The stuff I shot five years ago, and the stuff I just did, it all reflects me. Those before us planted the trees, and we bear the fruit for those who come next,” he adds.

Feeling Seen is the book I wish I could have found in that school library when I was 16. When I was that age, I wanted to see myself. I wanted to see Blackness and Queerness, but I didn’t have the language to articulate it,” he reflects. “And now I have visibility, I just want humanity. If I had seen Black photographers at 16, maybe it wouldn’t have taken as long to realise I could do it too.”

Feeling Seen is published by Prestel in the UK in April, priced £40, and in the US in June, priced $55.

Isaac Huxtable

Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is currently the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.