Evan Dale // May 6, 2020
There are seemingly countless creative directions that Joshua Kissi explores in his day-to-day life. But, since he picked up a camera at the age of seventeen to start documenting, then hyper-documenting, now omnipotently directing the culture of New York City, the Bronx-born, Ghanaian-rooted transcendental artist and fountainhead has been a photographer first. His notorious work didn’t begin with his co-founding of Street Etiquette – the creative collective and Instagram photography playpen imaging high-end and well-curated stylistic choices – but that was the time when a lot of doors started opening. Their services? Originally more photography and portraiture, but that slowly and surely pivoted into brand-specific content creation and all-around art direction. And what was at the root of those Street Etiquette evolutions? Kissi’s unobtainable signature through a lens.
The foundation for Joshua Kissi’s aesthetic was truly laid in the depths of what is now an Adidas look-book source, and where companies like Apple, GQ, and Puma also turn to help tell photographic stories of their own. And through his continued development and success with lifestyle and fashion brands, the photographic style he’s spent two more than a decade of his life and career trademarking only continues to become more sought after by brands, professionals, and amateur photographers alike. Where his affinity for ultra clarity, high exposure, and minimal saturation portraiture was at the time groundbreaking, it is now often attempted to be replicated, but rarely ever done successfully. So much attention to detail; so much refinement can only come at the hands of someone who has developed themselves into a parallel position of expertise. At that point, most photographers with the wherewithal to mimic Kissi’s style just end up doing something for themselves. Kissi already has a stranglehold on his directionalism.
From Street Etiquette and his own private Instagram page brimming with impeccably edited photos of some of the world’s most unbenounced, yet most gorgeous subjects (including he and his wife), Kissi continued evolving and growing without ever letting go of his roots in the project. But, through Street Etiquette and his personal portraiture, Kissi’s roots led to even deeper depths.
Ghana has always been a second home. The first-generation son of immigrant parents, his Ghanaian roots are just a part of his greater forage for telling stories of identity. His entire life and career has boiled down to that obsession, and with good reason. Photos – pictures – a thousand words – you’ve heard it all before, but you’ve seen it done like Joshua Kissi. Portraiture, both in particular to the person in an image, and accessible to those who see it and can relate to the reality of a photo, are weapons used by Kissi to tell stories of his own and those of his subjects. Unfortunately, for most of modern society – at least the span during when cameras have been accessible tools – portraiture has also been a divisive weapon to undermine the confidence and self-image of underrepresented communities. Cameras haven’t always been so accessible and neither have photos.
Until Joshua Kissi and creative partner, Karen Okonkwo launched TONL in 2018, minority subjects both within the US and throughout much of the world have been largely underrepresented and oftentimes worse, misrepresented in the space of stock sourced advertisement imagery. Much of the issue wasn’t outrightly malicious, more often adhering to a space of arrogance. But the problem subsisted, nonetheless. TONL is an effort to change that. Existing as a culturally diverse stock imagery company aiming to change the narrative and current aesthetics of stock imagery, TONL is in constant creation of beautiful photos – some portraits, some situationally adept to what companies might be looking for in the realm of safe and easy stock – but all of which share the same gorgeously irrepealable hand of Joshua Kissi’s signature style. Now, with TONL being the clear-cut and original choice for diversifying stock imagery, and with other antiquated sources still around, companies in search for a photo are more likely to choose one from TONL for two reasons: the image is diverse, thus responsible and the image is simply more beautiful than other options because it’s shot by those overseen by Kissi or by Kissi himself. It is a double-edged victory for TONL, companies searching for stock imagery, and for progressive society at large.
So, for a man whose personal love for photography was grounded in his urban surroundings and his West African roots; a man who transferred that passion into a trusted source of high-fidelity street fashion photography through social media; a man who utilized the leverage of that platform to tackle one of photography’s most insensitive shortcomings, Joshua Kissi – at only 31 – couldn’t possibly have had the time to accomplish anything else, right?
The photographer is a renaissance man, worth much more to the world of creativity than only his vision through a lens. Though the majority of his artistic vision is sourced in his decade-and-a-half long love affair with a camera, that one passion and subsequent achieved expertise led him to becoming a passionate expert in fashion – particularly street wear, travel – anywhere he could convey a bold, necessary story, and the West African Cultural Renaissance – particularly in Ghana.
In fact, Kissi’s name is synonymous with the cultural explosions of West African music, fashion, and of course, photography on a global scale. A visionary for the movement and a capturer of so many of its most precious moments, Joshua Kissi has worked his way into being one of the most influential people shining a light on Ghana and sharing its unparalleled cultural beauty and individuality with the world. Alongside names like British-Ghanaian producer Juls who merges the house music of the UK with the tradition of West African percussion and vocalism; British-Ghanaian fashion icon, rapper, and vocalist Kojey Radical whose sound is also a merging lane of the two interlaced cultures; German-Ghanaian rapper Serious Klein whose hip-hop deliveries are pulling fans of so many diverse cultures together; and jazz trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah whose 2019 album, Ancestral Recall is a thesis on jazz’s deepest, oldest roots in West African percussion, Joshua Kissi is an image of the diasporic Ghanaian cultural renaissance and that of West Africa at large.
His life and career, though founded in the photography of New York City, are much larger than the passion or the place. A man, a husband, a photographer, an authority on streetwear and fashion, a civil rights activist and purveyor of diversity, and a beacon for the global cultural moment that is the West African Cultural Renaissance, Joshua Kissi is much more than one of the great artists of our time. His actions and successes may one day speak to the realm of the most timeless of creatives.