Campbell Addy Up Close
LONDON — On a cold, wet day in South London, Campbell Addy, the Ghanaian-British photographer, filmmaker and artist, opened the door to his studio, grinning. He was wearing denim overalls, an exuberant corduroy baker boy cap from Nicholas Daley, an oversize rust-colored scarf and Doc Martens.
“This is my first studio on my own,” Mr. Addy said. It was filled with long tubes of backdrop paper, piled boxes of camera gear and random space heaters, which had yet to warm the room. “It seems bad, but I’m so happy,” he said.
Mr. Addy, 28, is so busy taking on fashion shoots that he can barely keep up. His fantastical Afrocentric vision has shown up in British Vogue and on the covers of i-D, WSJ and Dazed (among others), while his portraits of Black artists like Tyler the Creator and FKA Twigs, which seek to reveal their subjects’ inner character, have made him one of the top photographers of the moment. In 2021, he was included in Forbes 30 under 30, and he was the recipient of “New Wave” British Fashion Awards in 2018 and 2019.
His first book, “Feeling Seen,” will be published in April. It blends high fashion with photojournalism and immerses readers in his world: vibrant, moody and deeply Black.
In one image, a naked man and woman — the musical artist Cktrl and the director Sanchia Gaston — lie intertwined and partly submerged in a milky white liquid. In another photo, taken on a recent trip to Ghana, four shirtless boys confidently pose against a crumbling wall, their shorts sagging. In many of Mr. Addy’s photographs, the subjects gaze directly into the camera. Mr. Addy’s lens reaches through the distance and makes a connection with those subjects — a model, a friend, a stranger — and imbues them with a sensuous dignity.
“Campbell brings so much joy, and every moment is so beautiful because of his attention to detail,” said Ibrahim Kamara, the editor of Dazed magazine, who started his career in fashion styling shoots alongside Mr. Addy. Both men are part of an influential generation of young Black fashion tastemakers, along with American photographers like Myles Loftin, Quill Lemons and Tyler Mitchell (who is a close friend of Mr. Addy’s).
In fashion, a field that has long celebrated Eurocentric beauty standards and represented Black bodies through racist, often exoticizing imagery, Mr. Addy and his peers are helping to redefine what, and who, is considered beautiful.
Not that Mr. Addy always thinks of his work in those terms.
“Yes, it’s a very racist world, but to me, it’s the world I live in,” he said, adding, “As a Black person, I have no choice but to see myself every day in the mirror.”
“I see myself in all of them,” Mr. Addy said of his portraits, “so it’s just me, multiplied.”
‘There’s No Fear’
When Mr. Addy takes pictures, he likes to get very close to his subjects, his camera and tripod within kissing distance.
“Depending on the person, they crack,” Mr. Addy said. “The cracks are always different. Some people crack where they just go super-serious. Some people almost melt and just get really embarrassed. Their eyes move everywhere. And some people just laugh. They just burst out laughing. Some people intimidate me through the lens.”
“There’s no fear,” he said of this type of subject. “And I’m, like, ‘I need to go get a water and come back.’” He mimed fanning himself.
Mr. Addy’s studio is in Peckham, a neighborhood just north of where he grew up. As a child, he spent a lot of time watching TV. “America’s Next Top Model” was a favorite, and at night, when his mother had gone to bed, he would stay up to watch “Skins” (a British ancestor of “Euphoria”).
Mr. Addy was brought up by his mother, who had split her childhood between Britain and Ghana. When he was growing up, his parents were separated, living an ocean apart and practicing different faiths; Mr. Addy’s father remained in Ghana with a new family and practiced Islam, while his mother lived in South London, caring for Mr. Addy and his three siblings. Various grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins also lived with them at times, and the family struggled financially, with Mr. Addy’s mother bouncing between low-paying jobs and welfare. But they found comfort in a tight-knit community of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
From a young age, Mr. Addy knew he was gay, but felt he couldn’t be open with his family or church. At 17, he met a young man from Lithuania on a website called Gaydar and began a relationship that he is still in today. “The summer of 2010 was fab,” he said. “We’d get on the bus all the way from Croydon” and ride two hours into the city. “I don’t know where my mom thought I was.”
One day, Mr. Addy said, his brother found a photograph of him and his boyfriend hidden in a suitcase in his bedroom, and told their mother. There was talk of sending him to live with his father in Ghana, Mr. Addy said, where it is illegal to be gay, so, at 17, he decided to leave home. A charity for L.G.B.T.Q. homeless youth called the Albert Kennedy Trust placed him in foster care with Richard Field, a gay man living in South London. About six years ago, Mr. Addy began reconciling with his family, and they are thanked in the acknowledgments of “Feeling Seen.”
The first time Mr. Addy visited his new home in the early spring of 2011, Mr. Field was in the middle of building a garden on the roof. “It was proper, hard-core, D.I.Y.,” Mr. Field said. “And he was, like, ‘Oh, my God, gay people do this?’ It was just this total misconception over what sexuality meant. He wasn’t expecting what he found at all.”
A sculptor and director of an arts nonprofit called the Arts Portfolio, Mr. Field encouraged Mr. Addy to believe in his creative talents. Before leaving home, he had never considered a career in the arts. It didn’t seem manly, he thought, or accessible for a person from his economic background.
But Mr. Field saw Mr. Addy’s potential, asking him about his plans for the future, “without any judgment,” Mr. Addy remembered. Growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness, Mr. Addy had never celebrated a birthday, so when he turned 18, Mr. Field baked him a cake in the shape of a Polaroid camera, with an edible picture of Mr. Addy’s face emerging from it.
In 2013, Mr. Addy enrolled in Central Saint Martins, majoring in fashion communications. He quickly realized how little he had been exposed to and how much his upbringing differed from his classmates’.
“Campbell absorbed so much,” said Judith Watt, a fashion journalist who was one of Mr. Addy’s professors during his first year at Saint Martins and has since become a friend and mentor. “He was constantly alert, he was hungry. He wasn’t scared to ask questions.”
“I was very embarrassed about a lot of things,” Mr. Addy said of his first year at Saint Martins. “Like, I thought Margiela was cheese!”
“This girl was, like, ‘Are you kidding?’ She was very quick-witted, but I was quicker. “‘Just because I don’t know what Margiela is, doesn’t mean I can’t learn,’” he remembered saying. “‘I still got here. So let that sink in.’”
‘What About My Anxiety?’
As a young queer Black man entering the fashion industry, Mr. Addy was determined not to water down his ideas to make them palatable to mainstream audiences. He created his own magazine and agency, Nii Journal and Nii Agency, using friends and classmates as models, hairstylists and makeup artists.
One of his collaborators was Fadhi Mohamed, who is on the cover of “Feeling Seen.” Surrounded by lurid red foliage, she wears a head scarf and is dressed in a rubbery-looking blood red gown, like a modern Queen of Hearts.
“Campbell is a visionary who knows exactly how to create beautiful works of art that make you feel majestic in the process,” she wrote in an email.
Usually, Mr. Addy arrives on set with a picture in his mind and spends the first roll of film trying to capture it, he said. Then he invites the lighting and set designers, stylists, makeup artists and models to make suggestions and play around. When Mr. Addy left university, he initially tried his hand at almost all of these roles; he needed the money, he said, and he hoped the experience would let him communicate better if he understood exactly what everyone else on set was doing.
The idea for Nii was inspired by one of Mr. Addy’s mentors, Jamie Morgan, whose photography studio and agency, the Buffalo Collective, had defined the look of British avant-garde fashion in the 1980s. Mr. Morgan, 63, recalled a conversation he had when Mr. Addy was his apprentice in 2014 about the power of shared vision.
“Gather the people around you that are like-minded and support their and your visions, produce the new work that you want to do,” he remembered telling Mr. Addy. “And he did that with a vengeance.”
Still, running his photography business, modeling agency and magazine began to affect Mr. Addy’s health. “It took 19 months to realize I wasn’t OK,” Mr. Addy wrote in a poem called “19,” first published in Nii Journal Volume 2 and reproduced in “Feeling Seen.”
“She counts to 19 whilst clutching her purse as I force a smile to reduce her anxiety,” he continued. “What about my anxiety?”
In 2016, Mr. Addy checked himself into a psychiatric ward for three weeks. He was suffering from depression, he said, though he was “high functioning.”
“I downplayed it a lot because I was still working and doing things. So it was like, ‘Oh, I must just be tired’ or ‘I must be a big baby,’” he recalled. Now, Mr. Addy sees a therapist and has become outspoken about the importance of mental health, especially in Black communities. “It’s so important to talk.”
But, Mr. Addy said, there is still so much more he wants to do. More photojournalism in Ghana, new cameras and techniques to try out. Recently he has made a few short films, including a music video for the R&B artist Anaiis and short documentaries for Nowness and Harrods. Now, he is working on a screenplay based on his childhood and adolescence. He has also been revisiting the work of the director Steve McQueen.
Down the street from Mr. Addy’s studio is his favorite local movie theater, the Peckhamplex. It is a bit scruffy inside, he said, but there weren’t many places left in London where you could see a movie for 5 quid (about $6.50). Could he imagine his own story showing inside?
The idea seemed to disturb and excite him in equal measure. “I don’t want to be seen,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll ever do well in the limelight. I’m not that kind of person.”
Isn’t it strange, then, that he is publishing a book called “Feeling Seen”?
“I think the work should be seen,” he said.