Monday, September 9, 2013

The Peculiar Kenyan Photographer

My first experiences with cameras was... Special! So special.

I can still hear the bicycle bell ring from half a mile. Then the visual of Dominic on his pimped Black Mamba bike with his camera hanging around his neck. Dominic was probably the most powerful fella in my hood in the eighties. While our parents needed blackmail and spanking for us to sit down at the homework table, and the house help (auntie) cajoled and pleaded with us to ditch playing for lunch, Dominic would get it done in record time. It took 10 minutes to switch from dusty-football-playing brats to smiling well fed, showered and glossy from Vaseline petroleum jelly ready-for-the-shoot boys. No birthday or Christmas party was complete without Dominic. He was the only person who would make fighting brothers/friends embrace and smile as they posed for a photo. He was Superman!

That is how I grew up respecting the power of that black box with the name Yashica on it. Cameras were rare on my side of town and adolescence and peer pressure took my mind off photography till I met one Ashikoye Okoko in my professional life. This was before the digital photography era. The darkroom experience and the pretty young intern rekindled my interest in photography... long story!

Fast forward 15ish years later and digital photography has taken over. Everyone has a camera! The average urban Kenyan youth has three, maybe four cameras (or hand held devices with cameras). Add to this the fact that new technology has recently been embraced into the mainstream contemporary art practice and you get a whole movement of young gunz with titles like media/digital artist, photographer, blogger (a term I consider derogatory) etc. This is nice. Not good. Nice, because you have young idle Kenyans roving all over the place with high end Nikon & Canon DSLRs they know not how to use and when they do, is to take photos of disasters for social media... and recently getting naïve damsels to pose naked for all and sundry to access on similar platforms.
The problem is, my photographer's bar is pegged very high. Thanks to Dominic. And recently, interacting with young African photographers who are using photography to tell their stories and change/positively influence their societies. 

In Nigeria for instance, Depth of Field and Black Box collectives have churned out some of Africa's most prolific photographers. It's difficult to talk about Contemporary African photography without mentioning Emeka Okereke, Uche Okpa-Iroha, George Osodi, Uche James-Iroha & Andrew Esiebo. Others like Sabelo Mlangeni (South Africa) and  Baudouin Mouanda (Congo) are young artists who against the odds have taken photography to new levels with mundane stories. A handful of award winning African photographers have visited Nairobi through CCAEA's Amnesia Platform; Ananias Leki Dago, Aida Muluneh, Andrew Tshabangu and Billy Bidjocka went on to host very insightful conversations on their technical approach to photography with emphasis on their artist statements. This has been in the hope that the whole peer to peer sharing would benefit Kenyan photographers by exposing them to possibilities that exist for them as camera handlers while helping them develop their narrative.
Irony is, it's always the (same) small group of artists who make the audience. The new breed of Kenyan photographer seems content with attending social events where their discourse revolves around their toys - make, model, capabilities & cost. Not what they actually do with their gadgets!

I had given up all hope until a couple of weeks ago! James Mweu (aka Sir James) put up a photography exhibition at the One-Off Contemporary Art Gallery in Nairobi. It was a good show. It was simple. Not in technical ability or content, but subject. His artist statement resonated with the work and everyone who attended the show had that flashback moment and just smiled. Everyone had a favorite piece. Except me. The whole show was my favorite work. It reminded me of Dominic. Of how the living room would be laid out to look good in the photos. Of how it was a living room during the day, and a sleeping room at night. A genuine story. Unlike the peculiar Kenyan photographer, Sir James neither mentioned the make/model of his camera nor the editing suite he used. His photographs were genuine and had no absurd rhetoric to support them. They were photographs I can see again. And again.

When I got home and settled for the football match on TV, I remembered, Sir James was a contemporary dancer! How does a dancer (temporarily) trade the dance studio to create such a coherent body of work? Then I recalled. Interest. When Tshabangu, Ananias and any photographers with something to offer are in town, one of the permanent faces in the talks/presentations is Jamo. The informal whiskey sessions are also not complete without Jamo. It may just be the typical case of going to (an informal) school and putting to practice what you got from it. I hoped other photographers would go see his exhibition, and even tried to circulate the info to anyone I thought would have benefitted from seeing it. Or meeting him in the hope this would spur them to follow suit.

I know it's an individual choice on what pictures to take and what to do with them but some of the guys with cameras don't know where to start. Their reference may be wedding or celebrity photography. Blankets & Wine or the occasional sevens rugby. And the debauchery that accompanies these cool events.  If only they came to the table and shared, they'd be shocked by how easy it is! Photo blogs are okay but it's not the same as a well exhibited photo in a good space. Maybe it's time Kenyan photographers changed their narratives. Temporarily forget the digits embedded/embossed on your camera and just take photos. Some of the photographers I really admire; those whose photographs raise the hairs behind your neck - Rosangella Renno, Ananias, Akinbode Akinbiyi, Jide Adeniyi-Jones use cameras you'd consider are from the Flintstones' era.

My love for photographs continued long after my crush for the intern's faded and...

Every once in a while, I meet friends with cameras and talk photography. Go through the motions but deep down I wish their photos made sense (to me). That they'd accept adjectives other than amazing to describe their work. That they'd occasionally move their works from blogs to art spaces.

The last photo exhibition I mentioned was Kenya Burning (which ironically showed for 5 years) and am glad it's no longer burning and I hope it stays that way! What happened to simple stories about our spaces. Our culture. Our architecture. Our transport. Our food. Our lifestyles.

As I type away, a collective of (not so) young Kenyan photographers, One Touch, are on a road trip around Africa on a mission that has parallels to Invisible Borders. Through the internet, I may know what they are up to because I make it my business to. It’s a step in the right direction methinks. And I hope that upon their return, they shall offer us something to see. Enjoy. Consume. Talk about.

I also hope… (am not gonna use the word “hope” again) alongside them and folks like Joe Lukhovi, Sir James and a few young photographers (I think may be promising with some direction) we may be able to raise the profile of Kenyan photography from generic, cool & elite to serious, able to stand alongside serious contemporary African photography. Otherwise, our memories of influential Kenyan photographers will remain Dominic. And Karis.

1 comment:

  1. While this is a good read by all means, I do not see why the writer finds the need to bash and undermine the young photographer/blogger et al Who is bold enough to chase their dream and find themselves. Not everyone starts out as "Dominic". We can't all have one form of "art". Even the best of them all started out blank and confused. My point is , let people dream, let them find themselves. Atleast they had the courage to do so. Along the way they will refine their art or drop it entirely depending on how it churns. Moral of my long comment ; we don't need such posts. Such posts are just the same as those close minded teachers who killed so many dreams back in the day because of their shallow reasoning