New York Portraits: Joshua Kissi #WhyWeWork
Jason Nicco-Annan 20 April 2018
Throughout his creative journey, the importance of the narrative has been a consistent and important element throughout Joshua Kissi's work. Whether telling stories through the lifestyle editorials of Street Etiquette, or capturing other people's stories through his ongoing Shortraiture film project, Joshua has maintained profound awareness of people and the places they come from.
Born and raised in the Bronx, New York, the 28 year old Ghanaian-American photographer and creative director has always been actively engaged with the city's various cultural scenes. It's that curious and open-minded nature that fuels his passion for giving diverse and marginalized communities visibility and a voice through his art.
Joshua's current creative output sees him taking the impact of imagery even further: in 2017, he and Nigerian-American entrepreneur Karen Okonkwo co-founded TONL, a stock photography company which focuses on showcasing people of color. It's a disruptive company that aims to confront the stock photoograpy industry's lack of inclusion by providing customers with more diverse and representative photos. The two co-founders were recently named one of Inc. Magazine's "30 Most Inspiring Young Entrepreneurs of 2018".
We caught up with Joshua to talk further about his Bronx roots, how his mixed cultural identity is reflected in his projects - and sending money to Ghana.
What was it like growing up in the Bronx?
The Bronx is one of the most diverse communities around New York City. That’s just because it’s always had an open-door policy for immigrants; for decades, the Bronx always had a wave of immigrants come in. From the Mexican population now or the Puerto Rican population back in the 80s and the 90s. One neighbourhood could be Irish and then it turns into a Puerto Rican neighbourhood and then into an African-American neighbourhood.
No neighborhood in the Bronx has ever really stayed the same.
There’s always a new wave of immigrants coming to the Bronx to this day and that change of the borough has always been a beautiful thing for me watch. All throughout the Bronx there are areas which are a Caribbean, South-East Asian, West African, or Latino, Irish.
It also keeps you on your toes; you start to understand that your culture and your experience isn’t the only one that’s important.
Did you notice any particular things that each community brought? Was it a change in the business, cuisine, aesthetic of the borough?
I think it’s a combination of things. For me growing up, most of the bodega (a corner store/deli/grocery) owners were Puerto Rican. Then at a certain point, most Puerto Rican owners sold their bodegas and now the owners are mostly Bangladeshi or Pakistani. And with more business owners of Middle Eastern descent comes a community, which means a mosque will pop up. It’s not like communities come into the borough and take advantage of economic opportunities; they also take advantage of communal and spiritual opportunities.
They build communities just like they had back in their countries, but it’s a reinterpreted vision of home.
The affordability of the area is always known to be malleable; other parts of the city are hard to move into as an immigrant but the Bronx has always had this open door in an economical sense for people to come in a live out their first-generation aspirations.
What experiences have your parents told you about when they first moved to New York?
I think my mum got mugged the very first day that they arrived in the Bronx. Whatever dreams my parents had about America definitely flew out of the window. They got hit with a reality check really early. It was different than Ghana, but because of the amount of working class people living in the Bronx, they were able to get a very realistic view of America, not the fluffy one that people dream about.
What do you think attracts you to the city?
I think about it this way: I have friends from Cambodia, Italy, Korea, Jamaica and so on., and every time I went to their house I had the opportunity it of tasting cuisine straight from their parents. People don’t really realize how enriching that experience is.
Having friends from diverse backgrounds opened me up more to the experiences that their parents have taken from their home countries to the Bronx.
Tell us about your typical day-to-day in New York?
My days are very flexible and very lean; one day I could be working in a photo studio, another day I could be taking meetings, and the next day I could be spending time with family and friends. It’s so flexible and fluid. People are always coming to the city, so sometimes I’m meeting people from out of town or out of the country. New York is really the perfect meeting place. I have the liberty of being born and raised here so I have the support of family and friends, but I’ve also been able to build a business here. If you make a business that is solidified in New York, you’ve made it in the world.
If you build a business in Montana, it’s just successful in Montana, but if it’s successful in New York you’re immediately operating at a world standard and that gives you an advantage.
What do you think you bring to the city?
I think I offer my individuality. Just being a creative and an entrepreneur and all of these different things means that I bring the perspective of a Ghanaian-American male who hasn’t been afraid to really representing his African-ness, his blackness and his New York roots. This city has literally 20 million stories (probably more if you count undocumented immigrants) and that’s the beauty of telling your story. You have to realize who you are and your identity on why you’re here on this earth.
What values have you learned about identity from the people that you’ve captured in your projects?
It’s a way for you to connect with another person. When I’m behind the camera I just represent the person’s best self and let them be who they are in that moment. I really want to capture how they’re feeling at the moment because it acts as a reference point. I know that one person’s story is not bigger than the other. From their perspective in the best way possible. It’s taught me to think differently about not worrying much about wat you’re going through. That alone shifts the narrative.
Why does sending money matter?
Do you or your family send money to Ghana and if so why is this important?
I actually started using WorldRemit. I have the app and everything. I send money to family abroad when I can. It’s mostly for my grandmother on my mother’s side; she is my only living grandparent and I cherish her so much.
I think platforms like these are so important to reach and help out people financially, even if it isn’t family. Sometimes it can help people that you just meet and build a connection with and that’s super important.