Joshua Kissi Is Using Photography To Build a Safe Haven for People of Color
An in-depth look into how creative entrepreneur Joshua Kissi came to be an influential culture curator to launching his newest venture, TONL.
Joshua Kissi wears unusual hoop earrings that hang low from his lobes, nearly caressing his jaw like branches dipping low from a tree, eager to kiss the earth. He tells me they are a gift from a friend who designs jewelry. Kissi wears the hoops so often that the designer now calls them “The Josh.”
Buildings, songs and even entrees are named after people, but jewelry is named after Kissi. This is representational of his character: he influences, or is influenced by, a specific part of art or lifestyle that is often overlooked. He highlights the details of the unexpected; he finds new dwellings in familiar territories.
Kissi poses in front of a salmon pink backdrop in a series of multi-hued menswear looks. The deep color of his skin against the brightness of the backdrop, and the sun bursting through the room like a spotlight, grants him a glowing melanous tone. His poses are fluid and natural: subtle stretches and casual bends of the neck, arms and torso, gradually evolving into more elaborate stances. Kissi’s model intuition is informed by his photographer’s eye, as if he’s watching himself through the camera lense as he poses.
Kissi mumbles along to the Wizkid track buzzing in the background, moving his arms and shoulders rhythmically between the camera snaps. When Pam, the makeup artist, applies shimmery blue highlighter to Kissi’s cheek, he calmly complies—something most men would refute.
The styling team tries guessing Kissi’s sign. I suggest that he’s a Taurus, and Kissi nods, surprised by my accuracy. Knowing his birthday is in April, I figured he’s either an Aries or Taurus. But within 20 minutes of sharing a room with him, I felt his energy clearly: calm, cool and contemplative, like a resting bull.
Photo by Leon Williams.
“I have a crazy obsession with rice and stew,” Kissi admits, reciting the mantra of every West African. We laugh in agreement, and I am suddenly thankful for the power rice and stew has to not only nourish and elate us, but bring us together.
We’re talking about home: NYC, West Africa and the homes we create. For most of us, home isn’t one exact place we can pinpoint: it’s a fading memory, a gentrified neighborhood, a chamber in the mansion of our minds, or a collection of continents and communities. Kissi tells me he was born and raised in the Bronx, but is Ghanaian American, just like me. Recently, his ideas on home have evolved, as he’s moved back in with his family in the Bronx after living in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn for several years.
“Going back home has represented everything I’ve thought of identity,” he says. “If I questioned myself or who I was, it was solidified as soon as I came back home.” I tell him that people usually say they find themselves when they move away from home, not when they come back. Yet, he hasn’t been back home—as in Ghana—in over a decade. I wonder how that homecoming would feel for him, and what my long overdue homegoing would be like.
“I found a version of myself when I left home at 22, but there was still a question mark at the end of all the ideas and identities around who I am,” he clarifies. “But that question mark turned into an exclamation point when I moved back home. It was like...I get it now.”
Photo by Leon Williams.
I too, live with my family. I tell Kissi it feels like I live with two roommates—an old married couple—rather than parents. As I’ve matured, I’m finally starting to see them as regular people, with hopes, heartaches and back pain, and not the strict African caregivers I grew up with. Kissi believes it’s crucial that we have friendships with our parents, but understands how difficult it is to do that, especially if your parents are immigrants. His renewed relationship with his parents and siblings has provided him an evolved outlook on family, moral values and marriage.
Family is the first place we feel at home, and the first place we practice building our own spaces and identities. I asked Kissi about his earliest memories of standing out. As a middle child (another thing we have in common), he noticed a “comma between me and my siblings.” Middle children differ from their brothers and sisters—while first borns can be leaders or rebels, and later borns are typically neglected or coddled, us middle kids are overlooked. We mediate between our bickering siblings, and grow to be oddly pensive and self sufficient, which fools our parents into thinking they don’t have to worry about us too much. Middle children stand out by sitting back.
Kissi also recalls feeling different from his classmates in high school. That’s where he fell in love with fashion, backpack rap-esque music, and photography. He spent hours on the internet researching travel, and after school, went straight to Soho to chill with his teenage tribe: kids who also left their boroughs to seek refuge in the designer-store studded streets of lower Manhattan.
“When I was 17, I started taking photos of me and my friends with this little camera I bought. But I didn't consider myself a photographer...didn't even know I could be one,” Kissi says. Unsurprisingly, black people expressing themselves online is what turned the internet all the way up. Through the awakening of social media, we started exhibiting our beauty and culture over the web, through snapshots of our personal style, journal entries as blogs, and homemade songs and music videos. Kissi would soon birth one of the most significant monuments of black web culture: Street Etiquette.
Funny story about how that happened: Street Etiquette started while Kissi was in college, as most great ideas do. But one day as he sat in class, it clicked for him: he didn’t want to be there. “I just got up and left. Told the professor I was going to the bathroom and never came back,” he says, breezily, as if it was as simple as walking out of a clothing store that doesn’t have the pair of jeans you want.
Photo by Leon Williams.
Kissi told his parents about leaving school and launching Street Etiquette, and they gave him an ultimatum: he had a year to prove the brand could flourish, but if he failed, he’d have to go back to school and pursue a degree of their choosing. Thankfully, he and cofounder Travis Gumbs had already launched Street Etiquette, and it was steadily taking flight. It was only a matter of fully committing time and energy into it to watch it reach it’s full potential. It worked.
“We were just going with what we felt was right at the time. Editorials like Black Ivy made us a cultural benchmark for black creativity and expression in style and fashion. But today, the fashion industry is not as interesting to me as it was in the past. It’s where I got started and met amazing people, but I am not as grounded in it anymore,” he says.
“We used that background of understanding “cool culture” to leverage for clients. We realized companies were emailing us, asking us to do certain things, so we decided we might as well provide these services. We were thrown into a place where we weren't familiar with art, photography or business, but we had to learn on the go. When you don't know (what you're doing) it makes it that much easier to risk everything.”
Kissi can muse over creative entrepreneurship for hours, if you let him. He is filled with wisdom and opinions about business and creativity and strongly encourages people of color to find ways to develop their passions and ideas into long term, sustainable projects. The 9 to 5 grind isn’t enough, he says, if you aren’t doing something that is truly making you happy and evolving into a form of financial comfort that you can scale back for yourself, and hopefully future generations. It is no secret that, in America, most black families do not have generational wealth. Not only were our ancestors’ bodies used for monetary profit, but centuries of unbinding systemic racism still holds us back in our careers and in our bank accounts.
“I had to figure out how to leverage this (SE) to build something I actually want for my life,” Kissi says. “For creatives, especially black creatives, that is a very important step that most people don't have the opportunity to take. There's so much focus on ‘making it’, but how do you maintain ‘it’?”
Photo by Leon Williams.
That is, essentially, why Kissi and I find ourselves sitting across from each other—because he is embarking on a new creative journey. Kissi’s artistic resume is connected by a specific pursuit: expanding on black life by using photography to construct homes for us to comfortably live in, particularly in landscapes where whiteness dominates. Street Etiquette celebrated black men’s fashion, highlighting the suave, sophisticated nature of brothas—an idea that directly combats harsh stereotypes around black men. TONL, his latest brainchild with friend and social entrepreneur Karen Okonkwo, will challenge the whiteness of stock photography, by showcasing the many colors of everyday people.
“A photo is like a page in a history book,” Kissi says, when I ask what inspired TONL. “It is a visual representation of how we live right now. You can take a selfie by the Highline, and 30 years from now, someone will know how we were living in 2017. It's literally a historical reference. It can be very powerful and it isn't going out of style. I was looking at community, commerce and culture, and figuring out what that means to me.” TONL is the cumulation of these c’s, with a burst of colors, shapes and sizes.
Kissi speaks fondly of Okonkwo, as more than a business partner, but a friend he looks up to: “She’s a badass...she just gets stuff done.” Okonkwo first approached Kissi with the idea, but he was hesitant to join her in the venture. It wasn’t until the devastating murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling that Kissi started to reconsider TONL. Our voices and visibility matters, he realized, and photography and storytelling can help humanize and hopefully diminish the stereotypes and prejudice against us.
Images have the power to instruct our realities and our perception of people. Seeing is believing, and the media knows this. That’s why, in some news outlets, white criminals who commit murders are pictured in suits or caps and gowns, while black people who get killed by the police are rarely shown in a positive light. It’s a way of preserving a racist reality that keeps America functioning. TONL aspires to use stock photography to disrupt these notions. “An idea like TONL is scary enough to change the world, and impactful enough to change the narrative we’ve been seeing in images about ourselves,” says Kissi.
Photo by Leon Williams.
At first, TONL mainly focused on racial and ethnic representation in the U.S., particularly black people. But as the idea started to spread, Kissi and Okonkwo realized that there's a global need for diverse visibility. Kissi tells me he received emails from people as far as the Middle East expressing interest in and gratitude for the project. This was one of many factors that inspired them to globalize their project, and collect images and narratives from an array of people, including Muslim people, Asian people and more. And there will be white people too—but they won't be the focal point, as we usually see.
“We hear a lot about how stock photography is so white,” Kissi says, “but another issue is that, traditionally, stock photography just looks...bad.” I chuckle. “We want to come through with strong imagery that tells a story before you even look at it.”
He swiftly pulls out his phone and shows me snippets of some photos for TONL. One unforgettable image is a of an elderly black woman with an afro of silver-black spirals, gazing intently at something I can't see. There's a moodiness, an ethereality to his images that will translate beautifully into stock photography, a medium that is often cliche or unexciting.
Kissi wants to make stock photography story driven. Usually, you have an idea or article and look for an image that best supports it, but with TONL, the picture will tell the story on its own. Some of the subjects of the photos will share their tales as well, in a section called TONL narratives. It’s text based for now, but Kissi hopes to build it into a podcast of conversations and personal stories.
TONL’s first client is the Seattle Indian Health Board, a nonprofit organization. They want photos of everyday Native Americans from Washington D.C. and Seattle, which is necessary. We rarely see Native American doctors, lawyers, and more, just living their regular lives. “Native Americans were the first people in this nation to be taken advantage of and exploited. For us to tell their narratives first is so powerful,” says Kissi.
But diversity exceeds skin color, religion and geography. I ask if TONL will represent people with different abilities, genders, sexualities and bodies. “It’s def something we’re doing! We’re planning on shooting people in wheelchairs, people with different sexual and gender orientations, and more. All their stories matter and they all need to be seen.” Inclusivity is more than a celebration, it’s a responsibility.
TONL will launch on August 21. The stunning site will house six categories: Tone, for fitness and athletics; Taste, for all things food and drink; Trust, for relationships, family and intimacy; Travel; Tradition, where images of weddings, fabrics and occasions will live, and Today, for flicks of everyday activities, work and home.
To build content for the site, Kissi posted a tweet announcing free photo shoots for all, as long as you didn’t mind it being used on TONL. “I received 300 emails that day,” he smiles. The tweet resulted in him shooting such intimate familial moments like baby showers and graduations. I tell him this was a way for him to use his talents to give back to the community. People feel good when their picture is taken, I say. “Good! Then I’ll take your picture too.” He does.
Before we part ways, I ask how he came up with the name TONL. He admitted that it was his girlfriend’s idea (Another thing I noticed about Kissi—his adoration for his partner. He sprinkles her into ordinary questions.). Kissi says he was searching for inspiration on the title, and found himself in museums and pondering color gradients. One day, while lounging on the couch with his girlfriend, the word started to escape his lips. “Tone...skin tones,” he mumbled. “Tonal,” she finished. Kissi always finds truth at home. Perhaps the answers to our burning questions are in the comfort of four walls, the clarity of family, the beauty of unwinding in a place made just for us.
Photographer: Leon Williams
Stylist: Tyson Perez-Harris
Market Editor: Janelle Grimmond
Makeup: Pam Somuah