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Style and substance. The two terms are commonly used to define concepts on different ends of the cultural spectrum. But creative entrepreneur Joshua Kissi is an uncommon talent who has taken these two divergent concepts and authentically combined them in everything he’s done—which is one of the reasons he was selected for Fast Company’s 2018 Most Creative People in Business list.
It all started in 2008 when Kissi (seen here wearing the Triple F.A.T. Goose Chenega II in black) started messing around with a camera and co-founded lifestyle-blog-turned-creative-agency Street Etiquette, which took urban style and presented it with a cultural and historical perspective often related to African Diaspora and Black Culture. Featured in a New York Times article titled “Serious About Cool” and working with clients like Apple, Adidas, Starbucks and the U.S Open, if Kissi had stopped right there he would have been considered a success.
But, working in the design, marketing and advertising fields, Kissi quickly noticed a “lack of ethnic representation” in stock photography. Using his entrepreneurial know-how and his skills behind the lens, Kissi swiftly moved to fill this niche with TONL. Co-created with friend and social entrepreneur Karen Okonkwo, the company creates stock imagery that captures diversity in a way that is revolutionary, accurate and artistic.
We talked to Kissi to find out more about the power of photography, what it means to be a creative entrepreneur and how he presses pause on the new ideas that are always flooding his brain.
Check out TONL’s website or Kissi’s photo work, and you’ll see images that look more like they belong on the wall of an art gallery or like stills from a Sundance documentary. All this is to say they’re not the typical whitewashed, bland imagery usually found in those drugstore picture frames.
But in regards to photography it’s more than about artistry for Kissi. In fact, when it comes to his chosen form of creative expression, he seems to channel communications and media studies expert Marshall McLuhan, who coined the phrase, "The medium is the message"—meaning that how you convey information is just as important as the information.
“Photography is a universal language, almost like music you can see a certain photo of yourself and it literally brings you back to that moment,” Kissi pronounces. “Photography is the perfect way to document the past, present and future.”
From TONL, you see images of people of all different races, colors, shapes, sizes and sexual orientations taking part in traditional but also culturally specific activities in diverse settings. That’s because though we’ve all heard that a picture is worth a thousand words, if people can’t relate to that picture then those words are wasted.
“I think that it’s important because we should all look at an image or video and feel ourselves in it. There have been a ton of images that weren’t created with a particular group of people in mind,” Kissi explains. “With TONL, our whole ethos is story over stock, meaning there’s so much more to a photograph than to the photo itself.”
This ability to create a narrative has led to customers for TONL like Google, Facebook and PopSugar and partnerships with organizations like Seattle’s Urban Indian Health Institute. When working with businesses and groups like these, Kissi said it’s important to combine TONL’s diverse perspective with each customer’s unique needs, place in the market, audience and viewpoint.
“For brands I think it’s important to understand the story and narrative the brand is trying to convey. When you do understand that part of the creation process it makes things easier to select the right stylist, models, location and creative to make the vision come to life,” he explains. “I truly try to create from a deep understanding of the story trying to be conveyed through the brand.”
Despite working for these larger companies and brands, Kissi continues to stay true to his independent, entrepreneurial roots. And there’s a more profound reason for this, he says, that goes beyond the “I want to be my own boss” ethos that drives many that start their own businesses.
“I think it’s important to not only create a legacy for yourself, but also for those who come after you,” he explains. “I knew the best position of impact I could take would be outside of large companies/brands. I think it’s still important to act as a bridge to companies connected to the community/culture. “
A Ghanaian-American raised in the Bronx, connecting to his community and culture is what first set Kissi up for success, and as a black entrepreneur he advises others who are in his position he was in when starting out to reach out to those with whom they share a kinship. “My advice for minority entrepreneurs would be to find a mentor or an experienced friend or community that you could inquire and learn from,” he says.
He also advocates that those starting a business to not get caught up in the one-upsmanship that comes with determining who raises the most money from venture capitalists or sells their startup to the highest bidder. That’s why, though he says 10 years ago, when he started out it was all about fun but now photography is a business, he hasn’t lost sight of why he began shooting in the first place: to challenge society’s perceptions and make tomorrow better than today. “An important part of entrepreneurship is knowing your “ why,” he states. “Because when challenges occur you need to make sure you’re still on course.”
Kissi has been able to press on through ups and downs because photography is not only his business, but also his passion. Though it might seem obvious, a key point often overlooked by entrepreneurs who only start a business to fill a market niche is that it’s easier to keep a level head and your business on track if you love what you are doing. Or as Kissi explains, “I feel like a lot of great things start out with your natural attraction to doing it whether you were making money off of it or not.”
Whether he is framing a shot, people watching or just getting dressed, because Kissi is so visually creative, if his eyes are open, he’s working. But, though for the past decade much of Kissi’s life has been his work, he has come to realize that sometimes he needs to experience life for himself and not just his business. “The hardest thing I had to learn was how to turn off / clock out of work and focus on the significant parts of life,” he advises.
“It’s important to take out time for yourself,” he adds. “I find time to relax with family, friends and my partner. It’s important even if it’s just a phone call to your parents, or a good friend. It’s a great way to prioritize what’s really important which is family, love and life.”
Still sometimes, it is hard for him to take his own advice. For example, he loves to visit other countries, but he has to put effort into enjoying a destination for travel’s sake.
“It’s really hard for me to travel and for it to not be work centric. It’s one of the challenges I’ve seen over the past two years within my career and life,” he says. “I’m really looking forward to traveling in the next year and not having work be the central point!”
But as you might imagine with someone as energetic and determined as Kissi, the time he takes to re-charge his batteries is not just about sitting on the couch watching Netflix. In fact, his leisure pursuits are far more dynamic and even contribute to his creativity.
“I’ve taken part in the New York City Marathon,” he says. “I feel like running is the best way to get your mind off of work centric task or process through important decisions.”
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