Misan Harriman: 'I find myself standing in a moment of history'

Susannah Butter
·9 min read

Misan Harriman is spreading his optimistic outlook around the world one picture at a time. The photographer, who was born in Nigeria, is the first black man to shoot a cover of UK Vogue in the magazine’s history and his pictures have gone viral.

The theme of this month’s prestigious September issue is Activism Now and it features his pictures of Adwoa Aboah and Marcus Rashford on the cover, alongside 18 other global activists. Not bad for someone who only started working as a professional photographer three years ago after his wife encouraged him to turn his obsession into a job.

He cried when he saw a picture on Instagram of three young girls holding up the magazine in front of a collage they’d made out of it at their local youth club. “I hope it inspires thousands of black photographers to know there is no ceiling to what they can achieve,” says Harriman, 42. “And for people to cast the net far enough to find diverse talent because we have always been here and we deserve to be seen and heard.”

(Camilla Holmstroem)
(Camilla Holmstroem)

The only people who aren’t impressed are his two daughters, aged two and four months (his “lockdown baby”). “They are too young to understand what I’ve done,” he laughs. “I hope one day they will know daddy tried his best to remind people that racism needs to be eradicated, using the power of the image.

People needed to see this cover, showing that this isn’t just a conversation about race, change is happening. The photographs are an extraordinary time capsule of a moment.”

Vogue’s editor-in-chief Edward Enninful, who Harriman knew socially before, called him after seeing the portraits he took at the Black Lives Matter march in London in June. Shot in black and white, those photographs show engaged people taking a stand, with captions about who they are and why they were there. To think, he nearly didn’t go to the march.

“I saw it was happening and thought I’d maybe go to the next one but my friends called to say I needed to be there. I didn’t expect many people. Then I found myself standing in a moment of history, taking photographs of London as I had never seen it before.”

The people he met at the first march have given him faith in the future. “The minds of young people are the most important thing in beating racism,” he says. “They are brave enough to ask questions and want to know more than what they were taught at school.”

He is too focused on eradicating racism to engage with those who say BLM has been hijacked by far-Left political forces and he is looking forward to the protest planned for Notting Hill Carnival weekend. “Labels like BLM are great but the bigger picture is it’s an anti-racist movement and that’s what most people need to focus on — black people dying before their time needs to end.”

The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May — which led to a police officer being charged with murder — has left black people “dealing with a lot of trauma we didn’t realise we had, he says. While it needs to come out, it is a testing time for a lot of people.”

View this post on Instagram

To be the first black male photographer in British Vogue’s 104 year history to shoot a cover and the first black person to ever shoot a September issue cover for @britishvogue is an honour, but let’s be clear, this has @edward_enninful written all over it. His ability to force change whilst empowering others is a lesson to us all. He knows that there are many talented people from a diverse background who have never had a fair chance, finally the door is ajar.” ・・・ Via @edward_enninful For the September 2020 issue of @BritishVogue, I’m so honoured to introduce our special fold-out cover of 20 boundary-breaking activists – beginning with international footballer and child poverty campaigner @MarcusRashford and model and mental health activist @AdwoaAboah, along with 18 more inspirational faces. From spearhead campaigners for the Black Lives Matter movement, such as #PatrisseCullors; leading young feminists and social justice activists, such as #TamikaMallory; the supermodel and anti-racism campaigner #JoanSmalls; as well as legends such as Professor #AngelaDavis, activism now is not a lone figure nor a small pocket of society, but a wealth of faces making themselves heard. Swipe to see the full cover and see the full portfolio in the new issue, on newsstands and available for digital download Friday 7 August. #VogueHope Featuring: @MarcusRashford @AdwoaAboah @Meenals_World @TamikaDMallory @RizAhmed @JanetMock Professor Angela Davis Jane Elliott Alice Wong @Disability_Visibility @IJesseWilliams @JoanSmalls @ReniEddoLodge Yvette Williams @OfficialJ4G @IAmPatrickHutchinson @OsopePatrisse @ClaraAmfo @BerniceAKing @JanayaTheFuture @FDwyer1980 Brittany Packnett Cunningham @MsPackyetti #MarcusRashford wearing @R13, @AColdWall & @Churchs and #AdwoaAboah wearing @Fenty, @Martine_Rose, @LockHatters, @Osoi_Official & @SLJLondonand, photographed by @MisanHarriman and styled by @ItsDWallace, with hair by @EarlSimms2 and make-up by @CeliaBurtonMakeUp. @suburbia_agency #leeswillingham With additional cover photography by @PhilipDanielDucasse, @KingTexas, @ChriseanRose, @EddieH__ and @KidNoble shot on th @fujifilmx_uk GFX 100

A post shared by Misan Harriman (@misanharriman) on Aug 3, 2020 at 9:21am PDT

The example he uses most often to illustrate the racism he’s encountered is of 13 black cabs refusing to pick him up in one day. “That’s the anecdote I use at dinner parties when white people tell me London isn’t racist. Imagine the humiliation of leaving a club, or now I’m older going to the theatre with my wife, and not being able to hail a cab.

“My wife has to stand five metres in front of me and she sticks her hand out, with her blonde hair, and the cab screeches to a halt. Whereas someone looks at me and decides I am not fit to enter their vehicle. That is institutional racism. It’s why so many black people enjoy using Uber because you don’t have to deal with that humiliation.”

“You come out of a good meeting or first date with a pep in your step and an hour later you are stood in the road because there is no one to take you home. It doesn’t matter if you are a Premiership footballer like Marcus Rashford or homeless, you will still be reminded every day that you are different. Those cab drivers didn’t care about my background or education, racism doesn’t care about that.”

Misan Harriman and Edward Enninful (Instagram/@misanharriman)
Misan Harriman and Edward Enninful (Instagram/@misanharriman)

Enninful recently spoke about the doorman at Vogue House telling him to use the loading bay to get in and Harriman says “it won’t be the first time or the last that happens”.

The USA is “a different kettle of fish”, says Harriman, who has worked there. “If I was taking pictures in certain states, I may just kiss my kids goodbye and never come home. The mechanism designed to protect you could kill you quickly. That does not mean there are not serious issues in the UK with our education system, civil justice system, prison industrial complex.” He fixes his eyes on me. “You are not black — if you and I walked down the street you would have more of a chance of living because of the genetic lottery of your birth.”

Harriman was born in Nigeria with a “half white” father who “was a leading figure in real estate, oil and gas and community relations” and a mother who worked in travel. His parents sent him to board at Stubbington House in Hampshire when he was young, which was “like Harry Potter without the magic, somewhat draconian, they still had the cane and fagging”. He preferred his “lovely, arty” secondary school, Bradfield College. Despite being “one of a handful of black pupils” he was never bullied and thinks this is “because I was physically so huge”.


His obsession with film and music helped, “I became the kid everyone asked what film they should watch and was head of video club”. His mother made sure he didn’t forget his Nigerian roots. She would come visit the school with a car boot full of jollof rice and “beautiful fried chicken”. “All the English kids would come over for lovely spicy food. Things like that gave me pride in my culture, which helped me not go down certain roads that are quite easy to go down as a black person in England.”

Before his career change, Harriman was a headhunter in the City. He also has a media business What We Seee, which “aims to amplify uplifting stories”. His wife Camilla, a banker, “saw my obsessive nature with filmmakers and photographers — it is pretty much all I talked about. She said, instead of talking about it go create”. Since then he has done engagement photographs for “lovely” Princess Beatrice (she and her husband are friends) and a lockdown project, Lost in Isolation, where he shot his community in Surrey. Despite his success he still has imposter syndrome. “It comes from the programming of modern western societies that make many people aspire to quite obvious career paths. To take the road less travelled is lonely and failure is not spoken about even though no one has got to places of great success in their first rodeo.” For the Vogue shoot, he asked two black photographers to assist him, Cornelius Walker and Ron Timehin, and the stylist and hairstylist were black too, which was “special”.

It’s caused a surge in sales of Vogue. “People who have never bought it before are getting in touch to say it is opening their minds,” he says proudly. “It’s telling young black boys and girls that the world is their oyster. If my pictures usher them into the world of fashion, luxury and style, let them look at that. Why not? My images are of hope and solidarity, which is exactly what we need to beat racism.”