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Documentaries & Non-Fiction Series

NatGeo Photographer: Campbell Addy “Feeling Seen” 

NatGeo Photographer: Campbell Addy “Feeling Seen”
Campbell Addy poses in front of a poster for his upcoming show, I Love Campbell. (credit: National Geographic)

You know the quote: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Campbell Addy wants to be that change. As an artist, he wants to be vulnerable and take himself seriously as a creative. He’s got the talent. But does he have the balls to do it?

Campbell’s first solo show in London is entitled “I Love Campbell.” He feels like everything in the space is him. Because most people know Campbell from his fashion photography or fashion covers, they have preconceived notions of what he can do as an artist. This show is Campbell exploring his upbringing and the things that have happened to him. Pulling from the iconography that he inhabits — his queerness, his blackness, his religion — he wants to bring his artwork outside the frame of a photo.

Campbell Addy behind the camera taking photos. (Photo Credit: National Geographic)

Campbell’s childhood was traumatic. He felt that growing up in a building where everyone knew each other was stifling and as a Jehovah’s Witness, he was scared to be openly gay. Very close to his older brother Leslie, Campbell felt betrayed after Leslie reported Campbell to the church’s elders. While Leslie thought he was helping Campbell from the bible’s viewpoint, Campbell was branded an abomination. Fearing his mother might send him to Ghana, Campbell talked to a school counselor about getting himself to safe space. He never returned.

After a few months of couch surfing and a formal break with his family, Campbell became a ward of the courts. His foster father, Richard Field, broke down Campbell’s stereotypes about what a gay man was. And he also encouraged Campbell to continue with his art.

At St. Martins, an art college, Campbell really came into himself. His drive was unmatched and he was free to be himself. He created Niijournal because he was mad at the world about how black bodies were supposed to be documented and shared. He wanted to show how black people really are, but the publication was never only for black people.

After college, Campbell’s started making a name for himself. After he shot Naomi Campbell, his access and career really took off. Naomi says when Campbell started, no one was talking about black voices, black art and black creative voices in the industry. Campbell was and is pivotal in changing the beauty standard.

As his show opening continues to approach, Campbell makes a push to finish the pieces he wants to exhibit. Campbell’s “book of bible stories” photography is his interpretation of those simplified bible stories. Campbell has no interest in running away from the teachings of the bible. They mean something to him.

Campbell Addy walks through an art exhibit in Accra, Ghana. (Photo Credit: National Geographic)

Since Ghana has always been central in his work, Campbell travels there to create two pieces for his show: a video encompassing his love of language and a photo series. When he’s working, Campbell only plans 10% so he can be surprised at the end. He starts with a feeling and lets the outcome happen.

James Barnor, who is also from his father’s tribe, is the grandfather of photography in Campbell’s view. Seeing the photos Barnor took of Ghana in the ’50s and ’60s made him realize he had to be more critical of the images he was digesting. Prior to that, Campbell felt the only iconic photos people knew from his home country were of young children and babies with bloated bellies dying of starvation.

Campbell Addy works on a painting that will be part of his solo show I Love Campbell. (Photo Credit: National Geographic)

For his final piece, Campbell creates a painting. Campbell doesn’t understand why he can’t give himself the same love he gives his work and he often feels uncomfortable in his skin. This painting embodies the time Campbell was in psychosis and it’s the first time he’s done a piece directly about it. The show and this painting are Campbell’s coming to terms with his mental health issues.

By being himself unapologetically and loving himself, Campbell feels he’s healing years of generational trauma. He no longer fears failure. He does have the audacity to get out there and do new things. He has everything he needs inside him to create. He just has to trust himself.

I had a chance to speak exclusively to Campbell about creativity, authenticity, honesty, being vulnerable, where the future will take him and so much more.

All episodes of NatGeo’s Photographer are streaming now on Disney+ and Hulu.

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