Aperture Magazine

The magazine of photography and ideas

How Digital Platforms Celebrate Black Photographers and the African Diaspora

Campbell Addy and Jamal Nxedlana speak about building international audiences for Black art, culture, and fashion.

 - September 3, 2020

Antwaun Sargent: I want to talk about the way that Black photographers of your generation are building their own platforms to disseminate their images as well as to provide platforms for other photographers and creatives. How did you go from creating and constructing fashion images to creating your own publishing platforms?

Campbell Addy: It was born out of a fear, I would say. I was already working in the industry in some respect; however, I didn’t feel that my ideas were being heard. I spoke to more people about this, and they felt the same way. I thought, Let me create a space not only for myself, but for others to create work that isn’t predetermined by any guidelines—and that doesn’t have an aesthetic attached to it. I wanted a place where people can just create freely.

Jamal Nxedlana: I would say it’s pretty similar. I was creating images, and there was a platform for these images, but I always felt as if that platform was fleeting in some way: maybe you’re the flavor of the month, but then next month there’s no space for you. When you have your own platform, you have complete freedom to experiment and say different things. I wanted a nonjudgmental space where I could do things that are not expected of me as a Black photographer.

Jamel Nxedlana, Johannesburg, 2017
Courtesy the artist

Sargent: One of the things that’s kind of interesting with this emerging new class of photographers is the way that images can speak to universal themes. There’s this idea that the Black body must only speak to Blackness. But both of you often use the Black body to represent universal themes. I think people have a fundamental issue with this because most of what we’ve seen is whiteness equated to universality. What do you see as the mission of your publications and of your platforms?

Nxedlana: For Bubblegum Club, it’s to create a network and to create a space for Black creatives. A lot of the people we put onto our platform aren’t recognized by the mainstream, and as a result they’re quite marginalized. We found that with a lot of young Black creatives in South Africa. They’ll come out of university very energetic, with amazing sorts of ideas, but their practice doesn’t fit into what’s happening in the mainstream or doesn’t fit into the current publications or a certain framework that’s salable. So, they stop practicing, although their work is actually ahead of the curve. So, for us, creating a platform and creating context around our work gives it more value. Firstly, it’s an archival sort of practice, but it’s also a way to bring marginalized and disparate voices together as a network—a strength in numbers.

Sargent: Campbell, what would you define as the mission of Niijournal?

Addy: It all boils down to education. I’m an avid believer that the more educated a person is, the less stress and strife they’ll cause in the world. When I was researching for my final major project at university that ended up being Niijournal and the agency, I was just on a journey of discovery and educating myself. During that time, I traveled from London back to Ghana to visit my home, my people, my family, and then I went to New York, experiencing those three different areas to see where different Black people live. Black people and Black photographers aren’t monoliths. Journalists are just looking for tropes and signifiers that John Q. Public will understand. My eyes were opened up to things that, in reality, are so obvious. So, with every project and everything I try to do, there’s a sense of educating the viewer—not necessarily educating for the Black viewer or for the white viewer, but just for people in general. The slogan for Niijournal is “Here to educate, not irritate.” I still remember what it was like two years ago, how hard it was just to get—to meet an editor, to meet a stylist. I just didn’t know where to go or where it was going to be or who to talk to.

Campbell Addy, Untitled, London, 2016
Courtesy the artist

Sargent: For Black creatives and Black photographers, a constant issue is this idea of erasure. We’ve seen people who made tremendous bodies of work who are now just being “rediscovered”—from Kwame Brathwaite to Liz Johnson Artur—the list goes on. How much do you think about creating a record of your time, so that those kinds of traditional erasure of Black artistic practice stop?

Nxedlana: What’s even more important is that we own these narratives and these archives. That hasn’t always been the case—not in South Africa, anyway. You go back to the 1950s to Drum magazine, which was created during the Soweto Renaissance. It was a really exciting cultural moment, with lots of interesting jazz and fashion happening. But this archive isn’t created by or owned by us. That’s one of the things with the Bubblegum Club: we wanted to own our archive.

Addy: For me, it’s also about inhabiting spaces that previously we weren’t allowed to. When I am inhabiting those spaces, I bring my people with me. So, if I’m asked by an institution to create a shoot, it then becomes part of a platform that is larger than myself and larger than the people involved. But we still stay true to who we are and what we’re about. Ultimately, we own the images; we are the source.

Sargent: You’ve also each made a concerted effort to be thoughtful about casting, about the Black model, and about what even constitutes a model. I was wondering if you can speak to the way that you think about casting and about representation.

Nxedlana: I would say it’s about celebrating Blackness, celebrating Black people. You know, with South Africa’s history, Black people are the majority, but they are still the ones who are marginalized. It’s quite weird and quite jarring. So, in terms of casting, for me it’s about putting Black people at the center of the work, a way to change the status quo. Obviously, this is changing, but up until fairly recently (and especially when I was growing up), if you looked at South African advertising, you wouldn’t find many Black people, which is super weird when 90 or 85 percent of the population is Black. That was always something that I wanted to redress.

Jamel Nxedlana, Johannesburg, 2019
Courtesy the artist

Addy: I remember very vividly sitting in a class first year at university and my tutor asking me about our influences in our work. It hit me hard at the time that I didn’t see myself in the things I really want to be part of or in the work I want to create. I realized that there were problems in my life, and I wanted to solve them through my work. It made sense to cast Black people because I was obviously talking about myself. I was naive going into the fashion industry and thinking, Oh, everyone must be okay with how I’m shooting. But then, you hear things like, “Oh, we have one of you already,” or “Your skin’s too dark,” or “We don’t know how to do your hair.” So, I thought, just as with Niijournal, I’m going to build a platform and show these people that other kinds of humans can still work at the same level as them. It’s about changing mindsets from outside the circle, infiltrating it slowly.

Sargent: Jamal, how is Bubblegum Club a reflection of your concerns and your identity?

Nxedlana: Obviously, Bubblegum Club has a commercial aspect to it, so a lot of the stuff that I shoot is a way to position the platform within a brand space. So, creating work that’s going to lead to more brand work. Now that the platform has grown, we have clients; it’s operating as a business. For the first time, I feel like there is a little bit more freedom to start introducing more of my personal narrative. But, initially, that wasn’t the objective. It was more about that we wanted to create this platform, but how can this platform survive? Being able to sustain myself and sustain the other cofounders so that we could do the work that we wanted to do, which is to support the scene and to help grow this community, to add value to the community, was important.

Campbell Addy, Untitled, London, 2016
Courtesy the artist

Sargent: What about the idea of building audiences? How are you thinking about audiences in relationship to your platforms and publishing? How do you want to grow?

Nxedlana: In terms of audiences, I guess one of the things that we’re always thinking about is creating content for the community that we’re part of, which is mainly in Johannesburg and South Africa. But we’re also really interested in reaching audiences in cities such as London and New York; we’re trying to position ourselves globally as well. How can we position ourselves and how can we also be part of the global conversations—what’s happening in New York, in London, and in Lagos?

Addy: In terms of Niijournal, I want it to grow and to inhabit a space that allows it to harbor more people, more creatives, but also more talent, more scouting and casting. We want to infiltrate larger, conglomerate forms of fashion and to show the fashion insiders that our version is relevant! I’ve also realized that I am an audience. Even though I’m a creator, I’m also a consumer. I create things that I wish to consume, that I’m yearning for. I want an audience to be shocked in a good way: “Oh, I’ve not seen this before! Let me take a look.” Humans are inquisitive. If I’m able to get someone to stop and think and look, for more than five seconds, then I’ve done my job.

Interview originally published in  The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion (Aperture, 2019).