Campbell Addy’s Niijournal II highlights mental health issues in ethnic communities

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Hailing from South London’s New Addington, Campbell Addy is a British-Ghanaian creative diversifying the art and fashion worlds with the representation of British black identities and ethnic minority groups.

Inspired by renowned photographers and visionaries – such as Irving Penn, Nick Knight, Richard Avedon, Norman Parkinson and Bill Cunningham – Addy found his way into photography when he discovered the camera could be used as a means of expression rather than a tool for commercial work. Having interned at SHOWstudio and worked with Buffalo collective photographer Jamie Morgan, Addy has firmly made his imprint on the fashion industry not through fashion itself, but through the way he weaves his personal explorations of race, sexuality and identity through a diverse cast of models.

Last year, he released the first issue of Niijournal with the tag line: ‘Here to educate, not irritate’. Featuring black male models from his own modelling company, Niiagency, Addy’s powerful images combined with stylist Ib Kamara’s historical aesthetic played on the subversion of black masculinity. Jewellery doubled up as belts in the editorials, and black male models were dressed in pearls, brooches and ribbons, composed against roughly painted backdrops of dark and broad brush strokes.

Extending beyond fashion, the issue interviewed a collective of youths from a range of ethnic backgrounds questioning the notion of identity. It’s not a magazine you see often as Niijournal uniquely places itself within the gap of fashion and art’s lack of authentic, ethnic representation.

Recently, Addy teamed up with Getty to widen the spectrum of beauty standards seen in stock images, with 42 photographs titled ‘Portrait of young person holding ambiguous gaze’, and he’s launched Niijournal II at Protein. A clear expansion from the first issue, Niijournal II encompasses two separate covers featuring Kelela photographed by Addy himself, and Kelsey Lu lensed by Crack contributor Tyler Mitchell. Continuing on from the first issue, the second embodies discussions on sexuality, race and empowerment, but also focuses on the issue of mental health in ethnic communities. As Addy highlights in the magazine’s description, people from ethnic backgrounds are more likely to be diagnosed with mental health problems, yet more likely to disengage from mainstream mental health services.

Below, we catch up with the photographer and publisher to talk music, K-Pop and trace the trajectory of his work, from its beginnings to the new issue of Niijournal II.

How have your environments shaped your sense of identity?

Growing up [as a] Jehovah’s Witness really does shape you in many different ways than your peers because you instantly view the world in a very different way, like what is real, what is not. So a lot of my early work was based around being confined, being caged. Like any other kid you rebel, you go to the extremes. But there’s a thread to all my work and it’s always discovering my identity, so it’s shaped in a sense that I didn’t feel like I had one. Upon leaving, you’re still so attached to the doctrines that you can’t even attach yourself to the worldview of things so you’re sort of in this limbo space of not knowing who you are. I use my work to discover that. I still am, in some ways. And in other ways I’m not, but [photography] is a tool that I use to explore anything within my identity that I don’t quite understand.

How is the second issue of Nii Journal different from the first?

I don’t think topics about sexuality, race or religion will ever cease to be a contributing factor in my work because that’s who I am. Something that came up last year was mental health; I went through a lot of mental health issues and I was shocked at how little information I knew about it or how little information my peers knew about it, and how it was portrayed to the public. When you talk about mental health, people think ‘crazy person’ or ‘unstable person’, or they think you’re weak minded.

Nothing about me is ever screaming in your face ‘listen to me, you have to know these facts’. You can interpret them how you want but it comes from a place of kindness and education. It comes from a pure sense of life experience. It’s not technical, it’s not political, it’s not factual. It’s how I experienced it. And I think for me, when I’ve gone through a lot of my struggle, I like to feel like I can relate to someone. I like to look online, look somewhere, and hope someone’s gone through what I’ve gone through. But I kept missing it. I could never see my reflection in someone’s anecdotes or diary entry or YouTube videos. There weren’t many black people talking about it. So I thought I’d put pen to paper, do something that will reflect me so maybe there’s another me out there who’d understand what I’m creating and be like, okay, I’m not the only one either.

It’s become a huge talking point in the media, but the spectrum of mental illnesses are still not widely discussed.

Especially in our industry. People like us to be the poor, suffering artist. [Mark] Rothko shows all his mental anguish but he committed suicide and people are like, “I love his work”. Recently, Ren Hang had a tab on his page called My Depression. We enjoy the drama of a struggling artist, the anguish, the martyr of someone. It happens to the best of artists and it’s a bit sad that it’s glorified because they’ve got great work but then it’s never, you could’ve saved them or you could’ve done something to help them. People shy away from mental illnesses. People are like, it’s too deep a subject to help someone. When I’ve got a cold hundreds of people on my Facebook give me a remedy on how to treat it. Yet one post on depression, people just leave you to it.

What are some of the highlights of Niijournal II and where did you draw your references from?

One of the highlights are the two cover stories because they’re shot by myself and Tyler Mitchell. Our take on things are different on two different people but I feel they complement each other really well because it’s quite light and airy, his shoot with Kelsey Lu. And my shoot with Kelela’s deeper and richer in terms of the tones. There’s great stuff from Ihab documenting the aboriginal and black community in an area in Australia where they think it’s quite dangerous. I speak to Izaak Adu – who’s a trans man – and I talk to him about his transition, but also his position within the trans world. I’m not a writer but I want everything personal. We tap into Cosima’s music but we talk more on the emotional side of things and we link it back to mental health and trauma passed down through generations. Then there’s a shoot I shot called ‘Brothers’.

A lot of the references are from films. Focusing on the shoot we did, I was looking at a lot of Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, that sort of era. Even though I don’t shoot in black and white, I was looking at how you can dramatise something, make something feel like it’s on a larger scale just by the use of lighting.

For the video we shot for Niijournal, I was just looking at the body; the black body. How can I document the black body? He was my first point of reference. But then a lot of it came from music as well. Even though it wasn’t visual, I’d be listening to music.

What was shooting Kelela like?

She’s just the girl-next-door type vibe. And her attention to detail is impeccable with what she wants. It was nice to see brown people working together to create something that was just pure work and fun. There was no initial outcome, it was just to create, something to push you from one level to the max – that’s what Kelela asked of me. And I was like, cool let’s see what happens; and we’re all very, very pleased with the images. Music-wise we listened to a bit of K-Pop. I’m a major K-Pop fan.

Who are your favourite K-Pop groups and what are your go-to albums?

Big Bang! I like 2NE1 even though 2NE1 aren’t here anymore. Blackpink are my number one right now, they’ve just released this new album As If It’s Your Last and it’s incredible. I love Azealia Banks’ Broke with Expensive Taste album. In the last five years it’s my go-to album. I always play that to get me through the day and just have some energy. I play a lot of [Amy] Winehouse, stuff that has some rhythm, something like when I’m trying to take a photo and I’m trying to find out the emotions behind it. Lana Del Rey, I put that on and I’ll cry for years. With Kelela it was a lot of my music mixed with her music mixed with other people’s just to keep us going.

How did the Kelsey Lu cover come about?

I thought, how do I get to LA and New York? I have no money. I thought of Tyler [Mitchell] and Tyler’s amazing. So I was like, okay, I definitely need to shoot with Tyler somehow. I linked Lu and Tyler in an email and I was like, this is what I’m thinking about for the next shoot and I want it to be about womanhood and sisterhood in terms of how you shoot it. Because the strong people in my life are women. I don’t really have many male strong figures. Despite the last issue having a female on the cover, there’s quite predominantly a lot of males in the issue so I wanted to pay homage to my mum and my aunties out there. There’s a lot of women that have touched me through music, so it makes sense to.

Tyler was amazing as usual, like, “Let’s show a generational love.” And then he was like, “Let’s sit down with a girl, I want someone’s kid.” He got these three amazing girls and he worked with such a tight turnaround. I feel it was about a week we planned this and shot it. Lu was touching down just at the right time so there was a one day window to shoot it all.

I was so depressed when they were shooting and when I got the images through, I had been sitting in my house for four days. I called Tyler and I was like, “This is giving me a little fire to keep going. Thank you.”

What other musicians would you like to shoot?

Of course Solange because I saw her play at Cannes Lions and I was right at the front of the stage. I remember she was performing F.U.B.U., but then she said something poignant that flipped a switch in my mind. We were there with our fists in the air saluting. It was an out of body experience; this is the feeling of the people I want to surround myself with. I’d love to shoot her not for who she is but how she made me feel. Even if this was a little girl in the street, if she made me feel the same way I’d be like, I’d love to shoot you because it wasn’t gimmick, it was pure artistry and it would transcend human communication when you’re all in that crowd of space and you’ve got these lovely brown people.

I’d love to shoot Sade. Her songs got me through a lot as a kid. I’d love to shoot Blackpink. Dev Hynes. Leon Bridges. And Lana Del Rey but that’s probably not going to happen. Azealia Banks. I’ve had dreams.

Why did you decide to take a non-confrontational approach with the magazine’s tagline (‘Here to educate, not to irritate’) and what are your thoughts on clapback culture?

The reason why I took this non-confrontational approach, I was just tired. I felt like I was screaming and that no one could hear me, and it became very emotionally draining to the point where you just don’t want to do anything. I was, and I still am, very confrontational. In the words of Nicki Minaj: “I’m quick to check a bitch if she is out of line”. Because you have to but I think in the manner in which you have to do so, you have to change and do it in a way where you leave them with facts only.

I realised from a very young age that if someone doesn’t like me for a superficial reason such as my skin colour, my sexuality, no matter how emotional I am towards them they’re not going to give a damn. But when they’re sitting at home alone one day and they’re watching the news months later, the facts that I’ve given to them – whether they like it or not – they cannot dispute them.

In terms of clapback culture, I am not here for it if it’s coming from a place of bigotry. I’m here for it if people need to be told, if they need to be put in place. People will come for me on Twitter for certain things when I stand up for Black Lives Matter or things that have happened to me, and I reply back. I never ever try to get too emotional about it. I’m always quick to say I’m wrong because at the end of the day, especially being a black boy, people want to trip you up on the smallest misstep even if everything else you said was right. Despite the rest of the sentence of a post being 100% tight, they’ll still focus on the incorrect piece of information.

Clapback should be done in a way that’s helping the cause, not helping uproot the ego. If someone is racist and they don’t like black people, no matter what I say to them about my experience they’re not going to care. But if I tell them facts, like we’re less likely to get these jobs, we have to work this times harder, it’ll prove or show them things.

Where do you hope to take Niijournal?

I want to keep it small. I still want it to be an outlet that we can say whatever we want and shoot however we want. How that will manifest I’m not too sure. I’m very open to it to transform and change; I’m not very stuck in my ways. Depending on the climate and the social position and what’s happening in modern times, it may change to fit another need or another purpose but I do want to grow the team so we can do more.

For Niiagency, I want to do a news story page for it a bit more. I’m going to need a team for that which will need an editor involved. My life goal would be to make me a creative agency. I’d love to have a Niijournal store. You can come in and out the back where you have the agency office; at the front you have the mags. It’s all under one umbrella and it’s just there like a hub.

And also have an exhibition space to then bring up my friends and other artists that I’m into, because one thing we find so hard, being young artists, is exhibition spaces. You want to debut or you want to showcase a work in the best place so more people can hear about it. To rent a space in East [London] could be a minimum of a grand up and you don’t have that money. So I’d love to have a space for it but known for that. I don’t know how long that will take. That’s my goal.

At the Brooklyn Museum of Arts, I was there seeing my friends’ work up there with fellow artists, and I was like, this is so powerful not because you’re all brown, black people; it’s because there’s a sense of community. The work didn’t have to be regurgitated or changed to fit contemporary culture so they can understand. People there get it. That’s the vibe I want. A place where it’s the go to; you come to me to get it done. Have an office here, one in New York – it’d be great! One day.

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