As a teenager growing up in Peckham, an ethnically diverse area of London, the photographer Nadine Ijewere observed the way that the women around her dressed. The neighbourhood “aunties”, as all older women were known, paired Nigerian patterns with Gucci handbags and Burberry motifs; they would style their afro hair in a way that was almost sculptural. Ijewere was interested in fashion photography, but she began to notice that the prints and hairstyles she saw everyday didn’t appear in magazines. She didn’t understand why these “pieces of art in themselves” were not more visible. At weekends, she would take photographs of her friends, many of whom were of mixed heritage like her, in the local park.
In 2018, at the age of 26, Ijewere became the first black woman to shoot a Vogue magazine cover, featuring the singer Dua Lipa draped in white feathers. Ijewere soon became known for her ethereal backdrops, her work with mixed-race models and her meticulous attention to black hair. In 2020, she did another photoshoot with Vogue, which accompanied a piece praising Nigerian “aunties”. The women in the shoot wore traditional head wraps and metallic floral and chequered prints in clashing colours. “I looked at those photographs and saw the women I grew up with,” Ijewere said. “I saw my heritage. And it was special.”
Almost 50 years before Ijewere’s “auntie” shoot, another black photographer, Armet Francis, took a photograph in Brixton, a neighbourhood not far from Peckham. In the picture, a stylish young black woman wearing a lilac suit leans back on a wooden chair in the middle of a road, an umbrella in hand. She looks aloof and carries herself with confidence, seemingly oblivious to the dreary weather and the workaday setting. Francis had been commissioned by a fashion magazine, but wanted to be subversive: instead of shooting in a studio, he went to Brixton Market, in an attempt to record the “proper reality of everyday black life”.
Since the mid-19th century, black photographers have sought to capture images that reflect the lives, preoccupations and personalities of black subjects. In the process, they have worked to rectify centuries of hackneyed representations. Francis was one of a small group of photographers to do this in Britain. In the 1960s, he moved away from the fashion industry towards a lifelong project: documenting the experiences of the African diaspora in the Americas and Britain. He had been struck by the fact that one rarely saw black people featured in magazines, beyond reports about famines in Africa. He wanted to photograph the black diaspora in all its vibrancy: “to me, they are home pictures,” he said.
In 20th-century Britain, black photographers were seldom published widely, and discrimination against them was common. James Barnor, one of Francis’s contemporaries, only attained mainstream recognition as an octogenarian. Now his work stands as a vital historical document of black societies as they changed. In the 1950s, Barnor witnessed Ghana’s independence movement; during the swinging Sixties, he photographed members of the African diaspora in London.
Both Barnor and Francis explored black identities as they fractured, shifted and evolved across continents. Many of today’s black photographers draw on their work, consciously and subconsciously – especially those working in the fashion industry. According to Antwaun Sargent, the curator of an exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery about a new generation of black fashion photographers, these young artists are attempting, like Barnor and Francis, to “make beauty from their real, if once unseen, reflections”. Sargent believes that “these image-makers are in the best position now, over any generation that came before them, to make a lasting impact.”
Before British-Ghanaian photographer Campbell Addy first encountered Barnor’s work in 2018, he had only seen photographs that looked at Africa through a white lens, focusing on poverty, slavery and war. Barnor’s photos were different. They showed contemporaries of Addy’s grandmother in Ghana and of Ghanaians moving to London. Addy hadn’t seen anything like them before: “It was classy, it was fashionable. It was beautiful. It was modern.” Barnor made Addy feel seen “in a way that only those who have been detached from their culture can understand”.
As a child, Addy moved from Ghana to south London. For a while after his arrival, his new friends would make fun of his accent. Eventually, the accent disappeared, but the feeling of difference remained. He was also frustrated when he visited Ghana: he didn’t know Twi, the main language spoken in Accra, well enough and couldn’t quite grasp the cultural nuances.
Addy’s dual identity has helped him draw on different cultural traditions in his work. “Ignatius”, an early photographic series, pays homage to Ignatius Sancho, the first known black Briton to vote. But elements of the styling and set design nod ironically to the British royal family.
In 2019, aged 26, Addy shot Naomi Campbell, one of the world’s most-photographed black women, for the Guardian. Later, reflecting on the shoot, Campbell noted that it was the first time she had been photographed for a mainstream publication by a black photographer in her 33-year career. To her, “there was something in that moment that felt sacred.”
Addy and Ijewere are just two members of a new generation of black photographers opening up opportunities for black artists working in fashion. Ijewere is establishing her own studio in south London, where she hopes to give younger photographers the space and equipment they need to start out. Addy knows that there is much work to be done. “Black photographers are doing well right now,” he said. “But I sometimes fear we will get smudged out of history. And I don’t want to be a trend.” The best way to make sure this doesn’t happen? “We need to keep on being visible,” he said. “People will look at our work and know that we exist.” ■
The exhibition “The New Black Vanguard” runs from October 28th to January 22nd 2023 at the Saatchi Gallery in London. It features the work of 15 young black fashion photographers, including Nadine Ijewere and Campbell Addy
Ann Hanna is an intern at 1843 magazine
PHOTOGRAPHS: ARIELLE BOBB-WILLIS, NADINE IJEWERE, RUTH OSSAI, CAMPBELL ADDY