At the tender age of 24, Campbell has already shot the likes of Dev Hynes, crafted campaigns for the likes of Urban Outfitters, featured on Vogue, and made it to the Dazed’s 100 list. Most importantly, he has set up the world of Nii, an agency-cum-publication that address poor representation of race, gender, cultural identity and sexuality in the modelling industry and the art world as a whole.
Despite the vast array of concurrent projects, there does not seem to be the slightest sense of division in Campbell’s work; the different mediums and messages flow into one another seamlessly, creating a full-blown paracosm that upholds diversity and DIY ethic at its core.
Without glazing over the difficulty of breaking into the fashion industry, Campbell takes us through his journey of building the two-tier platform, Nii.
Let’s begin with Nii Journal. I paged through it last night and it spoke to me the same way it did when I first picked it up last summer. It is such a timeless piece of work. It left me wondering what came first- the journal or the agency?
The publication came first. During my third year of university, I spent a year in Ghana. I was really just discovering a lot about myself and my heritage. I was shooting and learning about the different types of people, about the beauty of black skin. Iit came hand-in-hand with learning about myself and self-love. When I was thinking about the things I could do for my final year project, I had an idea for a photo book. I am a photographer and I like taking pictures; it just made sense. But I wanted to say more. As I started shooting things specifically for the magazine, I reached a limit very quickly. I had just come back from a great trip, I was in New York and Ghana. Being back in London, I wished I had the resources to go back and shoot because I was really inspired by the people there, as opposed to just having to shoot models. I ended up looking at lots of different agencies but could not find what I was looking for. There was a recurring trend of under-representation in this industry. I thought I was just going to have to do it myself.
Would you say that casting is one of the most important aspects to your shoots?
Sometimes I am just really inspired by a certain person and then I will make a story about them. The other day I met a woman with the most amazing lips. There was an aura about her. Instantly, I started writing down ideas based off that.
Is writing your go-to form of expression or does it come hand-in-hand with the visuals?
Well, I also draw. I write timelines. Sometimes, my mind is going so fast and I forget what is going on so I just sort of practice automatic writing. Or I screengrab films. When it is based off a person, it is mostly written. Or, I would draw them. That is what lead me to creating Nii Journal, I could not find these ideas elsewhere.
How do you scout your models these days? What are the main platforms that you use?
As we have been in quite a lot of press, I have started getting a lot of emails. I still stalk a lot. Or, the talent comes through friends-of-friends who recommend Nii. I do not have casting days. Like, people ask if I have go-sees. I do not want to be forced to take people on. I do not want to have to turn people away. I do not want to be the person who says that I cannot sign someone because, in theory, I could, but it would make it unmanageable.
What is the current scale of Nii Agency?
Right now, about 55 people. We are not even a year old, so I am really pleased about where we are at.
It struck me that you left London at a very early age and chose to work in so many other cities despite everything that London has to offer. How has that changed your perspective on the city?
I grew up in a Ghanaian household and we would go to Ghana every summer; traveling was not a huge thing for me. The concept of traveling to an unknown region was, as I had never been to a place where I did not know the language or the people. When studying at Central Saint Martins, I was with a group of 25 people from Taiwan, Tibet, Texas, South Korea. The first thing we had to do was write down and put all our nationalities into a box, and we would be matched with someone from a different background. At the moment, I thought that it was very boring as I could just google it, but, now that I look back at it, I learnt a lot.
Then, one of my good friends invited me to Seoul and that is where Unlocking Seoul (a supporting photography project by Campbell’s boyfriend, Edvinas Bruzas) came from. I thought that I should not go just for a holiday. In fact, I have never had like a proper holiday.
My boy and I looked into it and it came together very organically; we are two gay men, so I literary wondered what the gay scene was like. I had some gay Korean friends and they said it was hard. Of course it is hard, everywhere! But it was unbelievably hard compared to London! Here, we have a space and some rights. There, we met this couple from San Francisco. The American husband had lived there for over ten years but the government did not view their American marriage as legal, and neither of them would receive any benefits.
The gay scene there starts really late, around 2 am, because you first need to go out with your straight friends and pretend to be really drunk and cab home, then drive up to the gay district. Some of our friends would still bring their female friends for fear that someone would walk past. There is this prevailing sense of fear! Coming back, I was thinking that I am blessed to be here. Creatively as well; there are so many things you can dip your toes into. It has reinspired me, and also made me realise how small London is.
Is your interest in creating timeless content one of the main reasons why Nii has become a bi-annual publication?
I could have done it more frequently. I did not create Nii to create a magazine. I wanted to make something that happened to turn into a magazine. If I started turning it into a proper magazine, it would lose its essence. I say I do it sporadically as I want to bridge the gap between a book and the magazine.
How do you choose your collaborators?
I would never just approach someone saying that I want to work with them, because I think that is redundant. I believe you have to have a specific project or an idea in mind. I would stalk them first, build a case study and only then pitch.
These days, the term collaboration seems so overused. You seem to have a very admirable balance between working on your personal brand and collective projects. How do you maintain that?
From the get-go, I approached my friend Ibrahim Kamara in regards to the agency and he said it would be hard. It was the first time he really said anything like that. And he had more experience in the corporate world than I had. When I got home, I sat down and thought that if I were to do this, I would need to be able to have fun; we are not saving lives, we are just taking pictures. I had to separate each entity- Campbell, Nii Journal, and Nii Agency- in order not to blend them.
So how do you delegate the talent that works for you?
With the journal, it is literally just me. I have always wanted it to be just me for the first three issues so that I could stamp out what it is supposed to be. Especially with this second issue, I have got a lot more people wanting to be part of it and it is really interesting how they view Nii. In terms of my personal aesthetic, [the first issue] seems very dated. In my head, I am already in Nii Journal II, but people are still responding to the first one. I want to make these series- 1,2, and 3- so that people can see the formula, then build a team that shares the ethos.
When can we expect to see the follow up version?
In the month of May. I had a writer’s block for the longest time, thinking what would people want to see but then I was like, f* it, I’m just going to make what I want and there is plenty of worse magazines out there.
How did you overcome the writer's block? And what are the ways in which you empower one another within your inner circle?
In the moments when I have literally just been like a ball of nothing, my closest friends have always been with me. My boyfriend and my little dog are the best things ever! When I graduated university, it was the first time I was not in education and I could not handle it. When September came, I wanted to start working but there were no briefs, no emails and it came as a shock. Working alongside my friends who were all doing great things really inspired me; seeing my friend Ib Kamara do a show at the Somerset House, other friends working with Gucci, Charles Jeffrey... We are killing it and we need to pat ourselves on the back for that. We did not come for money or had friends in the industry. We have done it all ourselves.