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My Folklore: Photographer Joshua Kissi on Connecting Africa and the Diaspora

Photographer Joshua Kissi first began his artistic journey by documenting himself and the people closest to him. His first creative venture, Street Etiquette, a personal style blog that he co-produced alongside his high school friend Travis Gumbs, was the first platform that allowed Kissi to present himself and others in a way that felt authentic to him. Street Etiquette was a digital space that gave Kissi and Gumbs the freedom to create without limitations; it was also the venture that introduced the Bronx-born, Ghanian-American teenager to the power of photography and storytelling.

In 2008 when Street Etiquette launched, the blog was the first of its kind. Situated in a new era of digital expression and blogging, it was rare to scroll down a Tumblr feed for more than 60 seconds without Kissi or Gumbs appearing. The blog had a significant following, with over 50,000 daily visitors and a host of partnerships with major brands like Nike and Cannon. The blog's quick rise in popularity revealed a lack of content in the industry that spoke to Black creatives. Street Etiquette filled a space in the digital realm that sparked an increase in Black male bloggers playing by their own rules.

Despite the success of Street Etiquette and his growing status as a photographer, there was a period of time where Kissi stepped away from the fashion world to reflect on his role in the industry. It was at this time that he launched TONL, a culturally diverse photo stock company that he co-founded with Nigerian-American entrepreneur, Karen Okonkwo. TONL served as a way for Kissi to offer his skills and network to increase cultural representation across the photo stock industry.

Kissi's consciousness of Black representation in media is not limited to the photo stock industry. The photographer recognizes flaws in the way Africa as a whole has been portrayed as a strictly poverty-driven and monolithic place. In the midst of his travels to Ghana, which became more frequent as a young adult, he became a bridge between the community in Ghana and the one in the U.S. This connector role became an important part of his creative journey. 

While exploring Ghana as an adult, he is intentional about his journey. His purpose is to cultivate a substantial experience where he can fully immerse himself in the culture, environment, food, and people. While photographing Ghana and other African countries, Kissi makes it a point not to repeat the same stereotypical images in his work. He does so by showing the antithesis of that: families and people enjoying life in the same way they would without the presence of a camera. 

Recently, Kissi turned his lens on members of the diaspora. Last month, he photographed and directed the “Until We All Win” campaign in partnership with Nike for Black History Month 2020. Working alongside Nike's Design Director, Anthony Coleman, he made it a point to have representation both in front and behind the camera. People of color were involved in every component of this campaign. From the production team, crew, and cast, it was a rare orchestra of creativity for a major brand. 

Stylist Shibon Kennedy, celebrity makeup artist Alana Wright, hairstylists Anwar Isaacs and Andrita Renee; and designer and friend to The Folklore, Nana Ya Asare Boadu, were some of the dozens of people involved in the project. Together, they painted a strong portrayal of the advancement and diverse talent of Black and Brown people who are making strides in their respective fields. This project formed the paradigm of the kind of work Joshua Kissi hopes to accomplish in his career.

The devotion Kissi has to displaying the humanity of the diaspora will be felt and seen in future projects, as it has many times before, irrespective of the medium he uses to tell unfrequented stories. 

Listen to episode two of 'Our Folklore' featuring an interview with Joshua Kissi. Available now on Apple Podcast, SpotifySoundCloud, Google Play, and Stitcher. Find excerpts from the interview and our debut 'My Folklore' video below.

Producer: Raven Irabor // Director: Amandla Baraka // Cam A: Love Legerme // Cam B: Mylo Butler // Editor: Raven Irabor/Love Legerme

Photographer Joshua Kissi wearing luxury African fashion brand Orange CultureJoshua wears a top from the upcoming Nicholas Coutts Archive collection and pants from Orange Culture.

Photographer Joshua Kissi wearing luxury African fashion brand Orange Culture

I knew that I was well-deserving of the space I was in because a lot of the community never had a conventional way into it. So it goes to show the problematic culture of what this industry could be and is for a lot of people of color, especially Black people. No matter if you fall in through the back door, or you climb in through the window, or if you come in through the actual door, there is going to be challenges regardless of what the circumstances may be. Even if you come in through the conventional route of a degree, or an internship, or an apprenticeship, or a combination of all of those different elements, there will be challenges. So I figured that however how you 'come into the house', there will always be challenges and a journey into yourself.

Photographer Joshua Kissi wearing luxury African fashion brand Orange Culture

I took a break for three to four years because I realized that this industry is not saying much, there are other industries that are saying a lot more and making a greater impact on the Black community. I needed to take a step away, and thats when I thought of TONL, and different ways that we can combat some of the things that we are feeling as a community and provide actual resources and solutions. I love fashion, as an expression. But I saw how people were tinkering around these issues rather than going directly to them and for me, I found that very problematic and did not want to be a part of that industry at that moment. 

Photographer Joshua Kissi wearing luxury African fashion brand Orange Culture

People are addressing social issues today by being vocal on social platforms and using these issues as inspiration to design or create art or speak publically. Everyone's experience is there own experience, but at the same time, we all are speaking to similar issues. There are many prominent brands who are having a voice on these issues like Pyer Moss. Five or six years ago, people were still timid about approaching these issues because they did not want to comprimise their business deals. But today, as a community and globally, we are very much about the principle, 'if its about us, it can't be without us', so we have to play a part in it. Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss is inspiring. I admire everything they do because its familial and there is a connection to the greater diaspora and the continent but also to just being Black in America. I think that it is super powerful to do that through clothing. 

Photographer Joshua Kissi wearing luxury African fashion brand Orange Culture

My personal style is a combination of thing I like. Sometimes I want to do prints, something like today. And sometimes I just want to do a collared, navy crewneck. The perfect thing about Street Etiquette is we had the time to play with whatever. All of the articles and content was around clothing. It was like a style bible meets a journal, in a sense. I got the chance to explore different aesthetics and find what felt like me at the time. Being African has also influenced my style with the different textures and prints. I explored how to tone it down and how to dress minimal Africana or the preppy style like the Black Ivy series we did on Street Etiquette, that people still mention to me today. Street Etiquette gave people an image of aspiration, an image to think of outside of what the media may show that we look like. It was an accurate depiction of different types of Black men, different experiences, and showing that visually. 

Photographer Joshua Kissi wearing luxury African fashion brand Orange Culture

For me, I did not think to start photographing immediately when I reached the continent. I think the best cameras and the best shutters are your eyes. You need to experience it, it needs to register within you. That is what I focused on the first few times I was going back. I did not want to come and say what things should be happening because I have been successful or what you should be doing with your career or what the industry needs to like. I was not trying to come in and dictate any of that. I would just come in, listen, and observe.

Photographer Joshua Kissi wearing luxury African fashion brand Orange Culture

I saw tons of people moving back and having a connection to the continent. I thought that was important. What do I want the next ten years of my life to look like or the next ten years of my career to look like? I want Africa and the diaspora in general to be involved in that. 

Photographer Joshua Kissi wearing luxury African fashion brand Orange Culture

The Black experience is not a monolithic experience. I want to be able to photograph that, and show that, and express that from the best point possible. I think the ‘Until We All Win’ campaign did a great job at showing Black people’s connectivity, culture, and identity when it comes to the diversity of blackness. I feel like Nike did a good job of opening up the door for what diasporic stories look like. It opened up the door, in many different ways, to the nuanced in-depth blackness.

Photographer Joshua Kissi wearing luxury African fashion brand Orange Culture

Follow Joshua Kissi on Instagram to view his current and past projects. 

Words: Gelina Dames
Photo: Amandla Baraka
Styling: Joshua Kissi