The Ghanaian American photographer is increasing Black visibility in the media with Tonl, See In Black and other projects.
Joshua Kissi has photographed many of our celebrity faves: Michael B. Jordan, Cynthia Erivo, Jaden Smith and Laverne Cox, just to name a few.
But it’s the person underneath all the glitz and glam that Kissi wants to reveal to his audiences.
“I think it’s about wiping away a little bit of the fame and hardness that comes with the celebrity lifestyle. It’s to be able to humanize their story, who they are at their core,” Kissi told HuffPost. “Through my photography, I really just wish to show a multilayered view of who these people are outside of what we’ve already seen.”
The 32-year-old Ghanaian American photographer approaches all of his work with this level of care and intentionality, whether his subject is famous or just a fly Black man on the street. Over the last decade, he has built a name for himself as a photographer committed to ensuring that Black people are celebrated for their beauty and acknowledged for their impact on our past and present, and the fact that they’re not just spectators in the art world, but intrinsic to its success.
“I think the blueprint has just been about telling the stories that feel near and dear to me, and especially Black and brown stories. The diasporas have always been important,” Kissi said. “Wherever our stories haven’t been told fully — and been told with and from a point of depth — I wanted to always just have a place to be able to do that from a different perspective that felt full, that felt vast, that felt like our stories are permanent.”
One of Kissi’s latest projects took off in 2020: The See In Black initiative launched with a limited run of prints from Black photographers on Juneteenth in the wake of the police shootings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and more.
“Historically, Black people have been on the receiving end of the camera lens as the subject matter,” See In Black’s website states. “The gaze by which we were viewed was not ours. Now, it’s vital that we are narrators of how our stories are told and how we’re seen.”
Profits from the project were donated to five nonprofits that work to dismantle white supremacy. More than 80 photographers participated in the initiative.
Kissi got his start in the industry at the age of 18, when he launched men’s style blog Street Etiquette with childhood friend Travis Gumbs. Street Etiquette showcased “style through storytelling” by featuring photos of Black men with a chic and sharp aesthetic. The blog became known for its use of saturation and high contrast to show Black men pushing the boundaries of style. Eventually, the co-founders turned Street Etiquette into a creative agency and gained clients such as Apple and Adidas.
In 2016, Kissi launched Tonl, a stock photography company, with Karen Okonkwo as his business partner. Their mission? To provide an alternative to agencies like Getty Photos that too often fail to showcase a diverse range of photo options. Tonl features people of all skin complexions and lifestyles, and aims to circulate “images that feel and look like us from front to back,” Kissi said. Google and Facebook have used Tonl’s database to source photos for their content.
Now, Kissi is dancing with the role of director. He made his directorial debut with The New York Times for a video project on Sag Harbor, New York, called “A Beach Of Our Own.” For the project, he talked to Black families who had lived in the beachfront properties for decades. He also contributed to the Ghana portion of Beyoncé’s “Black Is King” film, which debuted on Disney+ on July 31.
Inspired by filmmakers Ava DuVernay and Barry Jenkins, Kissi hopes to “create a lane between the movie theater and the art gallery” with his work.
“Photography is beautiful because it makes you appreciate the stillness of life, and film is beautiful because it makes you appreciate the movement in life,” Kissi said. “The curiosity to tell stories from different vantage points, the curiosity to meet different people, that’s always just been a feeling I’ve chased throughout the years.”