Campbell Addy Chooses Himself

The British photographer discusses his debut book, Feeling Seen, and the importance of feeling the fear, then doing it anyway.

A six-part collage of photographs by Campbell Addy
Photographs by Campbell Addy. Collage by W Magazine.

Welcome to Ways of Seeing, an interview series that highlights outstanding talent in photography and film—the people behind the camera whose work you should be watching. In this week’s edition, senior content editor Michael Beckert chats with the London-based photographer Campbell Addy, whose very first photography book, Feeling Seen, is available now.

How did you decide to have Edward Enninful write the introduction for your first book, Feeling Seen?

My relationship with Edward, from a distance, has always been one of admiration. Like myself, he’s a British-Ghanian man working in fashion. As I get older I understand it a bit more and I think he must have been really excited to see young black creatives be given a bit of spotlight—I can only imagine what the idea of visibility in this industry means to someone of his generation. When the book came along, I wasn’t sure if he’d write the intro, because you never know, really—but he called me and was like, “Of course I’ll write it.” I felt so respected, especially because he was so nonchalant about it. It made me think I should respect myself more and what I’m doing.

The book is filled with the voices of fashion industry legends, including Naomi Campbell, who talks about working with you and, for the first time in her career, feeling seen while on your set.

I can’t imagine [that]. As a photographer, I get to control what I see, but I can’t imagine being a model and looking out into the set, and so rarely seeing the self reflected. Naomi’s quote was so important for me to include. She’s one of the biggest models in the world and it took her until, what, 2018, to feel seen? It’s important that people understand how much work there is to do.

In Feeling Seen, you’ve got personal work, but also fashion editorials featuring the likes of Kendall Jenner. Why include both alongside one another?

I was thinking about how I put 100 percent of myself into everything that I do. Even with editorial, it’s mostly a creative collaboration, so everything feels like personal work. With that Kendall shoot in particular, it was for Garage Magazine, and I worked bloody hard on it [laughs]. You’ll notice, in the book, that Kendall’s picture is placed next to a picture of a baby. I wanted to play into this idea of a very recognizable subject being placed next to someone completely unknown.

For a project like this, does the publisher give you a page limit?

Yes, and I’m really glad they did. Having edited my own magazine, Nii Journal, I understand the process of making a book. I hate when I open a magazine and it doesn’t feel like it has been edited. So even though there was a limit established by the editor, I went into this knowing it needed to feel succinct.

When you look at your earlier work, which is included in the book, I wonder how you feel about it—do you sort of cringe, or do you feel admiration for it?

It’s a bit of both, and changes day-to-day. When I first did the book, I was like, ‘Ugh, I hate my work,’ out of insecurity. I love everything that I’ve done and will do, but I’ve never had to sit with my work as a collection; it’s always been singular projects, and singularly, yes, I can compartmentalize and think, ‘Oh wow, this was good.” For the book, I really had to let go and not be so precious. The thing I fear most, actually, is looking at my older work and seeing that it looks the same as my current work. I’d never want to stagnate or not grow.

Photograph by Campbell Addy, from his debut book, Feeling Seen (2022). The book is available for purchase via Prestel.

I was really blown away by a recent New York Times interview you did, in which you talked about leaving home at 17 because your family wasn’t supportive of your sexuality.

It’s weird because everything I said in that interview I’ve said in fragments in all my other interviews—but I guess the whole story has never been in one article. It was an intense interview, in a good way. I spent the day with the writer, we had dinner, it was almost like going on a date [laughs]. When I read it back, I was like “Okay, not a huge deal,” but then my partner was like, “This is huge, Campbell.” I’m trying to be 100 percent honest about my story—to hold myself accountable, but also to inspire anyone else from a similar background.

This field of work tends to attract privileged people, but I liked that you were honest in the piece about your background. It sounds like you were financially disadvantaged growing up. Is that okay to say?

Yes, 100 percent. My mom was on benefits. We were poor, and I’m not afraid to say that. I’m proud of where I came from. Some people are like “I made it, I got out,” but I don’t think I ever got out—I just chose me. There’s a difference. I spoke to some of my old school friends the other day: we had a very hard childhood, but it was a childhood. I had trees, I was able to explore stuff, I was able to dream and play. Yeah, it would have been better if we had money, of course it would. A lot of things wouldn’t have happened to me, but it’s got me here, so I can’t really complain about it.

Photograph by Campbell Addy, from his debut book, Feeling Seen (2022). The book is available for purchase via Prestel.

Eventually, you went on to study art at Central Saint Martins. What was that experience like?

During my time in higher education, I came across an array of people from different backgrounds—some even had trust funds or were super wealthy. I have tunnel vision, though, so I was like, Okay a student loan, even if it’s a loan, means me becoming richer in some way. I also wasn’t afraid of being poor, I had been poor before. The fear of not making it? Girl, there was no fear! I was like, I’ve already been there! What am I fearing? I remember standing outside Forever 21 or Topshop, where I was working at the time, talking to myself: There’s no guarantee that I’m going to make any money, the odds are stacked against me, I’m five foot six, I’m gay, I’m Black. But I have been artistically inclined since I can remember, so I made a [resolution]: I have to be okay with doing two projects a year that are quintessentially me. If I could do that and still work at a Tesco, I’d be happy that I could at least create something.

Was there a specific person in your life that influenced you or made you believe more in yourself?

Two thousand nine and 2010 were really important years for me. Around that time, I realized how difficult it was to be a woman thriving in any space. I remember hearing Amy Winehouse for the first time around then, not knowing who she was and being like, Damn. I heard her song, “What Is It About Men,” where she talks about her father’s infidelity. I was really poor at the time, living in a flat. I thought nobody cared about that stuff, but she made me think my life was beautiful.

When I was a teenager and I was figuring myself out, I think Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj for sure. I was obsessed. I’m still a Nicki fan. Back in the day, Gaga represented this sheer determination, not to just shock you, but to create this space. I understood The Fame so clearly. It wasn’t just about pop, it was about a woman navigating a space in a way we hadn’t seen before. Then when it came to Nicki Minaj, seeing a Black woman in a very male-dominated game [was a game-changer]. I grew up in a household where my mom listened to Foxy Brown, Lil Kim, and Missy Elliott, so I understood the rap game. These girls made me think I could do anything

The cover of Campbell Addy’s debut book, Feeling Seen (2022). The book is available for purchase via Prestel.

Why did you choose the photograph that you did for the cover of your book?

That image was taken at a very pivotal moment for me. I was in a place where I wanted to push my image-making, and wanted to work more creatively. Photographers understand—we create this world in our heads, and we try to capture it—and this image was one of those pictures where I had done that perfectly. It was the first frame of the day, actually. The styling was on point, the set was on point, and it all spoke to a world I wish existed in more. I wish I was able to be more in my fantasy, in my head. At that time, I hadn’t seen a lot of models wearing hijab, and again, feeling is seeing. I remember that I was like, “You know what? I can create fantasies and bring them to life.” If I have an opportunity to shine the light on people who are few and far between in our industry, then I will do so.