'You're never too old to start': Misan Harriman on photographing BLM and Vogue

Misan Harriman drew attention with his shots of the BLM protests and then made history as the first black man to shoot a British Vogue cover. Now he is keen to share his newfound spotlight with the next generation of talent

Harry and Meghan's photographer on BLM and Vogue

Misan Harriman realised immediately that there was something different about the moment when the Black Lives Matter protests broke out in the UK at the end of May.

After George Floyd, an unarmed African-American man, died at the hands of the Minneapolis police on 25 May, anti-racism demonstrations quickly gained momentum around the world.

But with two small children at home, and the coronavirus pandemic still raging, Harriman wasn't sure if he would be able to travel to the marches in London from his house in the Surrey countryside. Yet his urge to join in continued to tug at him, until his wife and friend told him "Your feeling is right – you've just got to go", Harriman recalls.

So Harriman did what had become his custom when he wanted to capture a feeling: he picked up his camera.

His black-and-white photographs from those days of protest – which appeared in outlets including Vogue, The Guardian and the BBC – show the empathy, hope and humanity at the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement as it drew thousands of participants in the UK alone and millions more globally.

"I went out there not knowing whether three people would turn out or 5,000. In my life I have never seen anything like the wave of solidarity, love, hope and fortitude that I saw in the last few months during the anti-racism protests in London," Harriman tells Campaign. "I've been moved to tears even at the moment of pressing the shutter and that tells us how important and powerful this moment is to recognise and never forget."

The photographer's stirring images also caught the attention of Edward Enninful, editor-in-chief of British Vogue, and inspired him to enlist Harriman to shoot the cover of the magazine's prestigious September issue.

"I soon realised that [Harriman's] work was era-defining," Enninful said in Vogue.

Centred around themes of hope and activism, the issue's fold-out cover features model Adwoa Aboah and Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford, alongside 18 other activists.

With those photos, Harriman made history. He became the first black man to shoot a British Vogue cover in the magazine's 104-year run.

It seems astonishing now that it has taken so long for such a milestone to be reached in fashion and media. As Harriman pointed out in Vogue, many other talents before him never got the chance: "It's also time for me to pay my respects to the giants whose shoulders I am standing on: black photographers such as Simon Frederick, a British photographer who never got a cover, and Gordon Parks. To me, it is extraordinary that he never shot a cover."

Harriman is coming into the spotlight at a time when the pandemic and Black Lives Matter have thrown widespread inequalities into sharper focus. But even before the momentous events of 2020, Harriman has been building a career – with photography and his own digital media business – around changing the lens through which people see culture. He is even more intent on that now.

From a very young age, "I was that boy whose eyes were awonder at film and music", Harriman says.

He was born in Nigeria and grew up in England, where he went to boarding school. Once, for a class presentation during which most boys "talked about comics and footballers", nine-year-old Harriman discussed the use of lighting in Stanley Kubrick's film Barry Lyndon.

"Whether it's the notes of a song or a scene in a film, I've always looked for something that switches my emotional engine on. The moment I do that, I want to share that with as many people as possible," he says.

After dropping out of university, Harriman worked as a club promoter and then as a headhunter in the financial industry. As the years went by, however, "I woke up one day and thought, 'I'm not happy.' I realised that the boy who loved film, music and the arts is still that man who is not happy in a City job. Maybe I should look back to the times when I was happy as a young person and find a way to build a business around that."

The seed of that idea grew into What We Seee, a digital media platform founded by Harriman in 2016. It started as a personal Facebook page, where Harriman would post the film, music and art recommendations that he used to email to his friends.

Then he decided to turn his flair for cultural curation into a full-blown media business. Through its own website, an email newsletter and social-media channels including Facebook and Instagram, What We Seee publishes a combination of content curated from around the internet and original editorial pieces.

"We're not interested in current affairs. We're here to tell great stories that reflect the best of the human condition," Harriman says.

Recent stories have covered a talk by film composer James Horner, a Norwegian architectural marvel, an app-development company for hip-hop fans and emerging singer-songwriter Anna Leone.

What We Seee is "designed to help people who are drowning in the noise of the internet", Harriman explains. "The negative side of the internet is that it has weaponised mediocrity. There are generations of people who don't know how good we can be in specific parts of the arts because they've only been consuming a very binary experience online. I wondered whether people genuinely just wanted cat videos or would be interested in what I talk about."

He aims to "democratise high-quality content", all of which is free for readers, Harriman explains: "I want someone in a refugee camp to read extraordinary stories. I want to democratise an availability to arts and culture for as many people as possible, not just the people who have so much available to them anyway."

"Cultural nutrition"

When Trevor Hardy, who previously worked at agencies such as The Future Laboratory, came on board as chief executive of What We Seee in 2018, "I didn't quite understand what [Harriman] was doing", he says. "He asked what my daughter's favourite music was and I said Taylor Swift. He said that's amazing, but it's my job that she knows who Nina Simone or Joni Mitchell is."

"[Harriman's] ability and our editorial philosophy is that whatever we publish has to make people feel, learn or think something. Culture is not just there to distract or entertain," Hardy continues. "We're playing around with this idea of 'cultural nutrition', trying to change the world's digital diet. The world is driven by filter bubbles: 'People like you will like things like this.' We want it to be more like: 'People unlike you like things like this.'"

What We Seee's philosophy is noteworthy at a time when critics are sounding the alarm over the dangers of "social-media bubbles", which are created when algorithms feed users content based on their personalised searches and therefore filter out alternative points of view. This phenomenon has been partly blamed for influencing elections, such as the Brexit referendum and the US presidential election in 2016, and continues to be a concern during the US presidential race this year.

Social-media giants, particularly Facebook, have also been under scrutiny for allowing hate speech to proliferate on their platforms. Although What We Seee relies on Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram, through which many readers access the publisher's content, "we're doing our best to stay there and fight the good fight on those platforms, maybe forcing people to look at things they wouldn't normally see", Hardy says.

Since its launch, What We Seee has grown to reach an average of 170 million users globally per month, across its owned and social-media channels. A third of its audience comes from the US, a large portion from Europe, and the rest from the Middle East, Africa and Asia, Hardy says. It employs about a dozen full-time staff and scales up with freelancers depending on projects.

Last year, Creative Artists Agency, the Los Angeles-based talent agency, took a minority stake in What We Seee. Hardy says CAA invested because "we are helping to find the kinds of talent that they are not always able to spot".

What We Seee has no other corporate stakeholders. Part of its business also comes from brands. The platform does not host any advertising but instead creates and distributes branded content.

It does this through publishing content already made by brands, such as films from an arts and music festival sponsored by Bacardi; seeking corporate partners for original What We Seee content; and answering briefs from marketers.

What We Seee has also previously developed a project with Vodafone telling stories about how being connected changed lives and supported the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and documented the voices of creative youth in Saudi Arabia for the festival MDL Beast.

"When we work with brands, I tell them they have to be storytellers, otherwise it's not going to work," Harriman says.

"If you look at the success of a company like John Lewis and [its ad agency] Adam & Eve/DDB, they weren't just selling furniture, they were telling stories. Brands have to do that in every aspect of their communication. To stop people's scrolling thumbs, it must not feel contrived, it must be storytelling. There can be a disconnect with a brand trying to force products in your face rather than win your heart."

What We Seee is looking to expand its team with editorial and creative staff, as well as people with backgrounds in business development, marketing and advertising.

However, Hardy notes: "We never want to be an agency in the traditional mould. We approach everything as cultural content rather than purely advertising or editorial."

With the media industry in flux, and many established publishers having to cut costs and make redundancies due to the impact of Covid-19, both Harriman and Hardy believe that there is room in the marketplace for a different approach.

As Hardy puts it: "We're in a transition period – this post-normal era where the old things will at least not work for the next few years and the new ones are not yet here. There are a number of differently shaped businesses emerging, which are not necessarily going to be the next unicorn but they're what the world needs right now."

Harriman adds: "I'm just getting going. I want What We Seee to be one of the most important media businesses in showcasing the best in arts and culture globally, and to be a bright light in the media business, not just because of what we stand for but because of how we can partner with brands to be a force for change while helping them be commercial."

While What We Seee has been expanding, Harriman has also been cultivating another talent. He was always obsessed with photography, until one day his wife encouraged him to start taking his own photos and bought him his first equipment.

Three years ago, at the age of 39, Harriman began teaching himself photography through YouTube videos. He started by taking photos of his friends, and gradually grew a following through his Instagram account.

"I went out there and kept shooting until I found my eye. To this day I'm refining it," he says. "I want that message to go out to people: just pick it up. You're never too old to start."

From those early self-taught attempts, Harriman caught the eye of a few agents. A big break arrived with the chance to photograph one of his idols, the legendary British photographer Terry O'Neill – when O'Neill died eight months later, in November 2019, his family used Harriman's portrait in the announcement of his death. Harriman went on to photograph celebrities including Olivia Colman, Princess Beatrice, Rihanna and Stormzy.

Then came the Black Lives Matter protests and the historic Vogue cover.

The openness of the internet

For all its flaws and potential dangers, Harriman still credits the openness of the internet for bringing him such opportunities: "If there were no internet, no-one would have seen my photography. You can just put your work out there and people respond."

Even bigger than the personal impact, however, he argues that the internet and digital media can be powerful weapons when used correctly, bringing people together and propelling movements.

"The internet is still the greatest gift of modern man," he says. "If you look at what has just happened with the collective activism off the back of George Floyd, it would have never been possible in my parents' generation. So many people of my parents' generation have felt alone in all the humiliations of racism they have been through."

Through his work in photography and media, Harriman has come to recognise that he is not alone – he is connected to the resurgence of activism happening now, as well as a long tradition of black artists and creatives. He is also keen to share his newfound spotlight with the next generation of talent.

"I want this attention to shine a light on other talented artists who have never really been given a fair opportunity. If I'm able to replicate what Edward [Enninful] has done with me and with other people as my story moves forward, whether showcasing them with my media business or having them work with me on shoots, then that would make me very happy," Harriman says.

He points to examples such as the two black photographers who assisted him on the Vogue shoot, Cornelius Walker and Ron Timehin. But there are many others like them, and Harriman says the creative industries are not doing enough to "cast the net far and wide" and bring in diverse talent. Now that businesses are grappling with an economic recession, he worries that diversity will fall even further down their agendas.

"A lot of people will use that as an excuse to not do anything, but I've seen companies that just get out there and do it – it's all down to leadership," he says. "No-one's asking for handouts here, it's just looking for talent in places that haven't traditionally been looked at."

Harriman himself is an example of a person whose potential might have easily been missed: a university dropout, dyslexic, black man who got a late start to creative work.

He says: "I didn't think I would be hired by anyone. My CV probably wouldn't have been suitable for a lot of businesses, but if they just looked a bit deeper and had a conversation with me, they might have seen something that would be a great asset."

His story raises the question: how many other talents like Misan Harriman are out there, being overlooked – and what new views are we blind to as a result?