The Long and Winding Road

To me it doesn't matter much whether you're black or white, male or female, rich or poor: becoming a photographer is no easy task. Beyond the glamour and excitement of living a roaming and freelance lifestyle, the journey is all too often painful, thankless, heartbreaking..

This blog is a discussion of my journey as I develop my career within this industry. As well as discussing what I am currently up to, I'll write about some of the things that I wish I'd known when I was getting started.

Hopefully this may provide a short-cut around some of the obstacles that could have taken me months or even years to work around and understand, as well as give a realistic insight into the highs and lows of the day-to-day life of a documentary photographer.

Bunia Part 1

 A MONUSCO soldier looks out of the passenger window of a United Nations flight coming into land in Beni, Ituri, Eastern DRC.

A MONUSCO soldier looks out of the passenger window of a United Nations flight coming into land in Beni, Ituri, Eastern DRC.

I’ve made the comment a few times to people recently that I wonder whether I’m a photographer anymore or if I haven’t just turned into a logistician. Getting to the point where I am actually out in the field shooting takes up at least ninety per cent of my time. The number of emails I have to send out, organisations I try to build relationships with, days I have to wait around for, for replies is never fully represented in the work that I finally produce. For what may be a series of 10 to 20 captioned images and an intro text, there’s a huge amount of slog and preparation that makes it a reality. And sometimes an impossibility.

After returning from my assignment with Norwegian Refugee Council, the first mission I’d assigned myself was to document a growing crisis in the province of Ituri, in the east of DRC. Historic rivalry between two tribes, the Hema and the Lendu had mysteriously flared up again in the region and had caused tens of thousands to flee from their homes into other parts of the province and even across Lake Albert to Uganda on the opposite side.

Getting to the province on my budget - by which I mean, for free - took some schmoozing with the communications department at MONUSCO (the UN organisation in charge of peacekeeping within the country) who eventually granted me accreditation to fly on their flights.

Then there was refugee camps in the capital, Bunia, that I wanted to visit. My plan was to get access through any of the NGO’s that had operations in the city. I reached out to a bunch of them including MSF and WFP. These guys might also have been able to provide me with access to the lake itself where I would be able to document the refugees fleeing out of the country.

Then there was going back to MONUSCO again for access to their peacekeeping missions within the more hairy parts of province. Peacekeeping is sort of a euphemism for the military role the UN plays in the country, and so this would involve an embed with their troops on the ground to document what role they were playing in trying to maintain order.

It took a couple of weeks to get some pretty tenuous plans together for this trip, by which time the only thing that was confirmed was my flight out. Upon embarking, the best I had come up with so far was a few vaguely promising email exchanges with a couple of publications who might be interested in some pictures from the crisis - obviously with no upfront offers of financial backing - and a couple of similarly vague offers from NGO’s to let me tag along on their operations so I could see the affects of the conflict.

Then there was the hotel. An ex-MONUSCO employee who’d been introduced to me by a friend had taken it upon himself to organise a room for me in Bunia. The hotel didn’t have a name but he assured me it was good value though I was never given a price - just a phone number and the name of its proprietor. Far from ideal.

By some incredible fortune, however, this particular problem was soon solved at arrivals in Bunia. I was asking around for where I might be able to take a bike into town when one of the women working at the airport piped up in alarm saying that I couldn’t possibly get a lift with such reckless drivers. If I could wait half an hour or so she said I could get a ride back into town with the airport staff. This lead to the question of where my hotel was, to which I simply gave her the phone number I’d been told to ring. I needed to get there... More alarm and she insisted that I try one of the more reputable hotels in town. There were a few that they could drive me to. Her kindness, and I suppose, worry, grew further still by the time be got into town. I was about to check into the hotel they’d recommended to me when she turned to me from inside the car and suggested that I just take the spare room in her house. How could I have refused?

Arafa, my Ugandan host, flicked on a light; and then another; then more.

She switched on the TV too. It was showing Nigerian Big Brother. After walking out of the room she continued on as if I were a housemate who’d been living with her for years already. I’m no stranger to being a stranger in someone’s home - I’ve spent a lot of time couchsurfing and hitch hiking over the years - but her complete lack of regard for the standard getting-to-know-you questions made the otherwise mundane experience of sitting in silence in front of the TV quite bizarre.

She delved into her phone while I watched the housemates roll dice and remove their clothes out of boredom. The Facebook comment feed at the bottom of the screen mentioned one housemate, Alex, a lot. They loved her skin.

Arafa continued on her phone. Its cover had a lion poking out of the top of it, which reminded me of the camera extension you used to be able to buy for an old Gameboy colour. Its mane matched hers perfectly. I thought to myself that that must have been the reason why she bought it but I never asked.

‘My life is on my phone’ she explained without looking up.

In a sort of way Donald Trump might, she would often make a statement and then follow it with the same exact statement, sometimes interjected by a ‘because’ as if to elaborate or explain. She would do the same thing with a couple of sentences, juggling them between each other as if it were forming some kind of rich monologue. Her eyes would be distant while doing this and so it felt like her mind would come up with an initial thought and then get stuck on it, repeating it two or three times in a repetitive loop that she never seemed to notice she was stuck in.

‘My life is on my phone’ she continued before trailing off into silence again.

A couple of days later she was gone. She was on leave and had returned to see her parents in Uganda but not without leaving me a key to the house.

She left wearing tight, full-length, ink-blue dungarees which fully pronounced her model figure and perfectly round bust. Her heels click-clicked on the marble tiles as she rushed about showing me where the rice was, and the porridge, and the water. She told me again that the stove had run out of gas so I could use the mini cooker. Did I want the maid to buy me onions? She left some money to pay for them with a note ‘onions - 1000’. Her ‘o’s’ looked the same as her zero’s and the ‘i’s’ the same as her ones which made the note appear to have been written in binary.

As the week progressed her kindness became more and more a godsend. My first full day in Bunia went relatively as planned - I met with a local AFP writer who showed me around one of the nearby refugee camps. The shots were good but I was really after some of the exciting stuff - the thousands of people moving across the lake to Uganda, the MONUSCO soldiers foraging through the bush. I was hungry to keep going but I was being slowed by the muck and thorns of bureaucratic procedure. There was always another comms officer, or major, or colonel, or transport co-ordinator to get a seal of approval from. This took time and the three or four days I’d initially planned to spend in Bunia turned into more than double.

There’s only so much pushing you can do before you become a nuisance. I tried to nap off the boredom. I listened to countless podcasts. There’s a free pool table at the local UN bar which I played far too many games on - both with acquaintances and alone.

All this time would have been money spent doing nothing in a hotel and out in these parts, those rooms don’t come cheap. Some friends are paying up to $75 per night for the basics which would have drained my account in days. I had a lot to thank Arafa for.

After two more days the only movement I’d experienced was from one couch to the next as I tried to keep myself from sticking to the fake leather in the criminally under-ventilated apartment. My neighbour was filling her own apartment as well as mine with gospel and Kenny G while the loudspeakers at the bike station downstairs played Nigerian and Kenyan Afrobeat. Brief roars of silence were mere lies as the kid in the station’s booth skipped a track on his USB MP3 player.

I cast out of my mind the ridiculous comparisons I was starting to draw between my situation and Abu Ghraib but by the third morning it had become more than I could bare. Somewhere around 5:00am I was awoken by two fat mosquitos who in all my rage I hunted under the glare of the naked, white tungsten. Watching my blood pop and spatter out of them relieved nothing in me.

I was sat up in bed with my shoulders slumped over to my cheeks when my phone buzzed.

It was the same journalist that had shown me around the refugee camp a couple of days prior. I’d discussed with him a day or so earlier about the possibility of simply taking a bike out to Lake Albert where Congolese were fleeing to Uganda. I hadn’t been sure about this plan because I’d intended to head there with MSF. But now he was messaging me the names of the villages I’d want to visit and the contact details of someone who could show me around. I asked him if the road was safe but he was already off of his phone. I had a shower. I was out of the house in twenty minutes just as the light was breaking and it was only when I was leaving the front gate when the reply ‘not really, but as you want, let’s hope’ came up on my phone. I paused. I hopped on a bike.

 The bike that carried myself and my driver, Rigo, through the Ituri countryside from Bunia to Kasenyi on Lake Albert.

The bike that carried myself and my driver, Rigo, through the Ituri countryside from Bunia to Kasenyi on Lake Albert.

--

By the time I was out in the countryside I knew I’d made the right decision. After agreeing to pay him fifteen dollars for the 4-hour round trip, I’d asked my 21-year-old driver Rigo to take it easy as we moved. The bike hopped and glided amid the dust and rocks and holes in the meandering road. Soldiers at the checkpoints interfered no more than to smile and wave us through. The east faces of the hills around us were misty and orange as the sun took its time to rise and warm the morning air. Somewhere along that journey, as stupid as it sounds to say it, I took time to savour a very raw sense of freedom.

Sadly this feeling didn’t make it past midday.

As we arrived in Kasenyi on the Sunday morning, refugees had gathered with locals in the Catholic Church overlooking the shores of Lake Albert. They were clutching green branches and though there must have been several hundred of them their singing was so quiet that I could only hear the voices of those directly around me. I asked one of the church wardens for permission to shoot but it turned out we’d have to wait until the end of the service to ask the minister’s permission. That was going to take half an hour or so longer so after a quick wander we took a seat under a tree across the road from the church building.

There were a couple of guys already sat there. Since Rigo was actually a local to Kasenyi, he knew them and we chatted. It wasn’t long before I was asked what I was doing there and not long again before the guy who asked was on his phone. I could understand enough of the French he was speaking and my raising suspicions were confirmed when I asked Rigo who he thought was on the other end of the call. ‘The Chief’. The guy announced we were to head over to see him at once. This was no problem since I’d already suggested doing so to Rigo on our way into the village but he insisted the Chief was a friend and that there was no need. He insisted the same as we drove towards his home but this time there was more of a whine in his voice as if he were on the losing side of an argument over it.

The house demonstrated the wealth of a rich man in a poor village. While the lakeside villa was large and made of concrete slabs with white plaster, the roof was of corrugated iron and the building was shabby and unkempt.

Three young men sat chatting outside the front door became more alert as they saw the unfamiliar white man approaching along the driveway on the back of a bike. We were asked to await the chief in an outside portico. Myself and Rigo sat in silence as he was informed of our arrival.

Emerging from the threshold of his home I was immediately taken into the realm of classic Italian-American gangster movie. His gait was the slow, unsteady limp of an ailing, old man. Around him there followed his entourage - the bodyguards that had sized us up as we arrived, and a satellite of young children playing in a tight radius around him. Waiting behind at the doorway peering curiously across at me from an allowable distance stood one or two young woman who I took to be his wives. Another, apparently more benevolent child who seemed to take pity on her sickly father had taken his hand while he made the sombre approach.

I stood to shake his hand. His speech was slow too, though I was uncertain whether that was because his words were considered or simply because he was tired. His status seemed to have come to him at a cost. Though his life seemed comfortable now, as I spoke to him I wondered about the men he’d had to fight off, bribe, cheat, maybe kill to earn his and his family’s security and his community’s respect. Maybe that wasn’t the case at all but I feel a man doesn’t become so weathered down by life as he was for no reason.  

He was a powerful man but only within the realm of his small, lakeside village in the destitution and beauty of Ituri. Nonetheless his power was enough to see me out to Bunia again on that very same morning. Though even my removal from the village wasn’t exactly through any particular will of his own.

At one point I produced to him my papers which he took a quick glance over - but it was merely that. He explained how his eyes were bad and that he had to make frequent visits to Uganda to have them fixed up. He made several quiet phone calls and not too long after there arrived three more men. They passed around my papers, scrutinizing every stamp and document with feigned, self-satisfied importance. One of the men in particular furrowed his brow deeply over every visa in my passport - flicking meticulously through each page, pausing and contemplating. Looking at him you would have thought he were reading scripture but he had to play his part in this stupid little show and I suppose he decided that my passport was the prop he’d chosen to do that with.

A quick march up to the immigration office and a few phone calls back to the higher-ups in Bunia were all it took to send me back to where I’d started that morning. I didn’t have Ituri marked in my accreditation and so was not allowed to photograph anywhere in the province. To their credit, it was a fair enough reason to send me packing considering how strict the country is with regulating the movement of journalists but the fact that my accreditation had passed through so many hands and eyes on that trip before finally being faulted out in Kasenyi made me wonder how this hadn’t been brought up before - by that time I genuinely believed that it just didn’t matter.

The head of police was summoned to the office. He made his first appearance in his Sunday best having arrived straight from church. He was a dazzling spectacle dressed in a sparkling white suit with lapels like a Congolese Elvis. Of course he wanted to make an outfit change for his big mission to Bunia and so arrived again twenty minutes later bloating out of a pair of shiny black boots into a tight navy police uniform and a beret with a tail that flicked back and forth with significance. I was crammed in between him and the head of migration on the ride back to Bunia. The taxi didn’t move so gracefully along the dirt road as we were jolted and flung back into Ituri’s capital.

Rigo, my bike driver, in the meantime still hadn’t been paid and so had to tail the car with our armed escort (a solitary, disinterested policeman with an AK-47) as his passenger. My self-pity was worsened with shame as I watched him ask for a cloth at the office for immigration in Bunia. He was covered head-to-toe in red dust from trailing the car for the past three hours though this by no means had dampened his spirits by the time he took me to an ATM to pay him. “Alex, I am so happy!” he chimed. He was too distracted by his pay day to read my mood so well..

2018 Part 2: DRC

 A traveller traverses the upper ridge of Mount Nyiragongo, a volcano in Virunga National Park, DRC.

A traveller traverses the upper ridge of Mount Nyiragongo, a volcano in Virunga National Park, DRC.

I had a lot of decisions to make quickly. It was the last Friday of January after a long couple of weeks spent predominantly alone at a table in the back of a café when an email came through to my inbox: could I be in DRC in two weeks’ time? Not sure.

Though my research into the country had been a fairly new pursuit, the country had been on my mind for some time. I'd been planning on starting up the application process for a visa while back in the UK but I was low on funds and had limited time before I needed my passport to get me back to Kenya. In any case the process didn't seem like it would be a straightforward one.

Making an approach of any kind to the country leaves you feeling slightly unwelcome. For starters the DRC embassy in London's website is written in French without an option to translate it. Moreover it feels like it hasn’t been updated since the early 2000’s. Try the phones and they don’t ever pick up. Try to visit the embassy building itself and doors are only open between 9:30 and 13:00, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Though I’d heard better reports about the Congolese embassy in Nairobi, it wasn’t going to do me much good. According to DRC rules I could only apply for a visa in my official country of residence - in my case, the UK.

Once back in Kenya this left me with a couple of options. Either DHL my passport directly into the true heart of darkness that was DRC’s London embassy, or apply for a second passport and risk sending that into an eternal abyss instead.

So could I be in DRC in two weeks? What was written to come across as a resounding and wholehearted ‘yes!’ in my email, was in my head and in reality more of an ‘oh shit’.

The email came through on the day preceding more than a week of shooting with the two journalists I mentioned in my last post. I was ready to focus on the work I had ahead of me when all of a sudden there was this puzzle to solve in between the gaps.

Luckily there was Caleb.

Fixers are the production team behind so much journalism we see coming from all parts of the globe. They are the local knowledge that can guide reporters, photographers and film crews to their story. Beyond this they can be the translators, they can provide the transport, they can remember to bring the sandwiches. In my case, Caleb was the ranger who was to guide me fearlessly through the perils of a Congolese bureaucratic swamp.

Caleb was a fixer based in DRC who’d been recommended to me by a friend. We’d already been in touch a couple of times over Whatsapp about the logistics of shooting in the country but now I needed him on the case for me and quick.

Turned out that rather than fiddle around with organising the appropriate visa before I was in the country, I could enter on a tourist visa and sort my documents from the inside. DRC has a small but steady tourist industry that revolves around Virunga Park on its eastern border with Rwanda. Tourists who are after some adventure can hike up and spend a night at the top of Mount Nyiragongo, a volcano with one of the largest open lava lakes in the world; or wander through the forests to gawk at a bunch of gorillas for a few hours. In order to get the aforementioned tourist visa, you actually have to sign up for and book one of these trips. With some reluctance due to the price tag, I opted for the volcano trek. This entailed forking out $300 for the trip itself, $75 for food and some warm clothing, and another $105 for the actual visa. It wasn’t ideal but it was fast.

Once in, the plan was to get my passport to Caleb who, with a bit of cash to encourage some movement among the various desks it would pass along, and a couple of painfully obsequious letters to His Excellency Minister of Communication and Media in the Democratic Republic of Congo Mr. (insert name), would have it back to me within a week.

A week.

This quickly cut down the time I had to get into the country from two weeks to one. And the week I had ahead of me was pretty well booked. What’s more, the job wasn’t exactly guaranteed. There was a ‘strong likelihood’ that it was going ahead, which in this world doesn’t really mean much. Do I book the trip up the volcano now? Do I wait for more confirmation? How long would that take?

I waited a couple of days into the next week. The point at which a contract arrived in my inbox was roughly the point at which I booked the volcano, and roughly the time at which I had to leave Nairobi. I had a few days shooting near Kisumu in the west of Kenya before the end of the week and so I figured to save time I’d continue directly West after that job was done.

I made it out of the city by the skin of my teeth with camera gear, some climbing gear, a tent(?), and not enough clothes.

 Children sit beside a bus which was destroyed in continued unrest among local Congolese and their Pygmy (Twa) assailants. Burning down homes along their way as they cause terror among locals villages, Twa groups have been causing thousands to flee to a refugee camp in the nearest town, Kalemie in the Tanganika region of eastern DRC. 

Children sit beside a bus which was destroyed in continued unrest among local Congolese and their Pygmy (Twa) assailants. Burning down homes along their way as they cause terror among locals villages, Twa groups have been causing thousands to flee to a refugee camp in the nearest town, Kalemie in the Tanganika region of eastern DRC. 

By the time I reached Kigali from Kisumu on the Monday of the following week, I wasn’t sure if I’d spent the last 15 hours in a coach or a washing machine. Modern Coast offers the pinnacle of pseudo luxury with its faux leather seating, stinging plug sockets, and internet-less WIFI on the decks of an ageing fleet. All these trimmings of modern travel however add a top-heavy mass to the upper half of the coaches. This becomes apparent as they are hurled around the twists and winds of the East African countryside and you are forced seek out what you would cling onto should the coach finally cave in to the usual laws of physics.

Shaken, I took a bike to a hostel I’d visited in the city a couple of times before. The following day I was to head to Congo.

That evening I placed my full faith in Caleb by sending something around $1100USD to a Western Union account in DRC. This was so he could get started on the various coercions and bureaucratic manoeuvres necessary to organise my documents in time.

While doing this I pondered all the warnings I’d ever heard about Western Union and its popularity among fraudsters in Africa. I actually had to borrow this money from an old friend who I’d agreed to pay back once receiving payment for the job I was going to Congo for. I pondered some more about how I’d phrase my explanation to him as I recounted the story of how I so naïvely waved goodbye to his generous loan with no immediately apparent way of paying it back.

I clicked send.

--

Congo. For a country that felt so inexplicably illusive to me, it was surreal that the border crossing could be so benign. Five minutes checking out of Rwanda, five minutes checking into DRC. Not an eyebrow nor gun raised.

It was dusk and after some hassle finding an ATM and a local simcard, things fumbled into place for me pretty quickly when a person I’d been introduced to on WhatsApp by a person I’d met on Facebook turned into a warm smile, a lift, and an unexpected provider of food and shelter.

I barely had time to register my surroundings before I had to make it to the base of Mount Nyiragongo the next morning. The ride through the city was only brief before we were out in the countryside but for all of it my eyes were wide.

Goma is a city cast and weathered by the tireless hands of conflict and greed. The familiar, red earth of East Africa that had stained the neck of my shirt and the rim of my shoes for the past year was here but a miserable black from millennia of nearby volcanic activity. Innumerable organisations with operations in the city has turned the streets into a dyslexic muddle of acronyms that scramble about in their various attempts to hold the country together - MONUSCO, UNHCR, FARDC, UNICEF, OCHA. United Nations vehicles, particularly, move starkly with the thick, black letters, ‘U, N’, stamped impassively onto the roofs and doors of plain, white aircraft and armoured vehicles. The brief glimpses of beauty and potential for the city found in the idyllic lakeside chalets are quickly eclipsed by the thought of where the money came from to pay for them. Carefully laden remnants of colonial Belgium found in some of the paving in the roads or stonework in the walls will turn to rubble without warning or time for nostalgia. 

Leaving the city, the countryside offers a different kind of violence as the hills tumble in from the northeast: a continuation of the steep rises and falls of western Uganda. Just like there, the hues of green, blue and black sit deep and angry, as if it could be the very landscape itself that urges and stirs the violence that ravages it. 

Yes, my imagination was (and still is) running away with the mystery and romance and tragedy of the city, and I should add that the picture I paint of it is a melodramatic one. It’s not all gloom. On the same weekend that I arrived in the city, for instance, there was a music festival being held right in the centre. Entry was a dollar and it was a demonstration that life and happiness goes on here just as it does anywhere else. But the wonder the country seems to provoke in me, as well as the impending political drama that promises to play out across the country this year, has made me decide to give living here a shot.

My assignment went well. It offered a quick tour of a few of the key locations in the east. It made me realise how desperately I need to learn French. And after hitting the road once again for more shooting back in Kampala, it made me feel excited to return to my new home.

More to come.

2018 Part 1: Baba’s Big Day

 The view from a school in Western Kibera, Nairobi. Shot on assignment for Elle UK. 29/01/18

The view from a school in Western Kibera, Nairobi. Shot on assignment for Elle UK. 29/01/18

2018. This is my first post in a while - initially because there had been little going on, and then far too much.

Christmas and New Year came and went. It was good to be back in London. I tried to make productive use of my time while I was back by organising meetings with prospective clients but the limbo days around the two holidays make it difficult to find anyone who’s feeling particularly invested in what they should be doing at their desk. That’s not to say that I wasn’t feeling the same way too.

I was enjoying the short days, the cold, and an excuse to fall asleep in front of the TV by three or four in the afternoon. There seemed to be little ahead of me to sink my teeth into by the time I was flying back to Nairobi and so it was difficult to leave the childhood comforts of home.

I arrived back in Africa on the 8th. Politically, things had settled over the holidays. It seemed Nairobi had retreated into the same slumber as London and was happy to take its time about working off the Christmas belly. Opposition leader Raila Odinga on the other hand was already in his gym shorts.

What started out as rumours on Twitter soon became official announcements. NASA, the opposition coalition who had lost in two general elections to the Jubilee Party last year had decided to finish what they’d started in November and inaugurate the ‘true winner’ of the national elections as president of Kenya.

This act of treason had originally been slated for the same day as Uhuru Kenyatta’s own (and ever so slightly more legitimate) inauguration, however, as detailed in my previous post, this dastardly plot was rather swiftly foiled by the stubborn victor.

Ever the fighters, NASA was to ensure that they had their day and so the date was set for Tuesday 30th January.

Gossip of imprisonment, treason, the death penalty, and a new Kenyan state was clucking happily among myself and other colleagues as we tried to predict the next instalment of this badly written soap opera, however whether the sham-inauguration was to actually go ahead was anybody’s guess.

Following the official announcements from NASA of their own inauguration ceremony, the news came quickly that Uhuru Park, the venue for the egregious affair, was allegedly already booked for another event on the same day. According to the Daily Nation (one of Kenya’s national news outlets) ‘a church and a group posing as the Nairobi business community’ had submitted an application to use the park to host a free medical camp for the day. Astonishingly, creatively, (and yet by this point also unsurprisingly) the camp was supposedly set up to offer street boys from the local community a chance to receive free circumcisions.

Though this news was soon replaced by the more likely announcement that the park was simply to be closed on the 30th, neither this nor the peril of a throng of foreskin-less young street boys was enough to perturb our noble and hardy Baba.

In the week leading up to the 30th, the back and forth over whether the park would host the event or simply be closed continued fiercely between the two parties. As I said before, whether the inauguration would go ahead or not was anybody’s guess, but one thing that everyone knew for certain (or so we thought) was that the day would culminate in the same exchange of teargas and rocks as that which had become almost customary in the second half of last year. As such I came along with a flak helmet, and the guests of honour with their running shoes (quite literally).

In a very cunning and unexpected move on the part of the Jubilee Party however, rather than cordon off the park and man the city with countless police, they simply decided to ignore the whole event. I was at Uhuru Park from around 8:00 in the morning through to mid-afternoon and not one police helmet nor riot shield did I see. In truth there was a small confrontation between the police and Raila supporters in one corner of the Park, as was betrayed by a faint and solitary sting of teargas in our nostrils at around lunch time, but the overall orderliness of the proceedings was telling that the incumbent party had decided to give them as little credence as possible.

Without anyone to oppose them, the ever-ready supporters of Raila who had come out in part to face the police (I do not exaggerate when I say that there were groups chanting for teargas when I arrived in the early hours) were rendered quite benign. And so besides the familiar chaos in preparing the stage for the ceremony and the pitifully comical papier-mâché crest of Kenya adorning Raila’s podium, everything could have gone ahead without much to note.

I can only guess that it was the ego of Uhuru or some other senior within the Jubilee Party that turned a non-story into scandal by shutting down several of the country’s television networks while the build-up and swearing-in took place. This blow to freedom of speech was the true tragedy of the day far more than any meaningless display of a sore loser could have been.

 Crowds gather in Uhuru Park, Nairobi to witness the controversial presidential inauguration of Raila Odinga, leader of the opposition to the still-incumbent Jubilee Party. 30/01/18

Crowds gather in Uhuru Park, Nairobi to witness the controversial presidential inauguration of Raila Odinga, leader of the opposition to the still-incumbent Jubilee Party. 30/01/18

The sun had been painfully unforgiving and after the 15-minute scramble to get a shot of Raila holding the Bible high and proud the park quickly emptied and us photographers left with red necks, wet backs and a disbelief that there was nothing to do but to go home and file.

And file I did not. Stupidly.

In the days leading up to and following the ceremony I’d been shooting alongside a couple of British journalists who had come to Kenya to write a number of stories based around men and women working together to fight for gender inequality within their respective communities. Unfortunately I had fallen ill the night before I first started shooting with them, and the sickness hadn’t properly subsided by the day of the inauguration. I found myself ratty and only partially interested on the morning of the event, and my mind was more involved with keeping on top of the work I had been and would be shooting with these two journalists. I made it home after the ceremony and rather than taking the time to go through the images I had been shooting, I just wrote the whole day off, spent some time on the images I’d been shooting in the days prior and went to bed early.

I was kicking myself by the next morning as I looked through the shots my mates had had published on the wire and winced at the lost opportunity to make some quick cash out of a mix of sheer laziness and bad decision making. I still don’t know why I did that.

Alas, the week went on and I got some pretty good shooting done in the end.

Another reason my head had not been screwed on so tightly when deciding against filing those pictures was that I had also been in the thick of preparing for a new trip. In the couple of weeks leading to the inauguration and before the journos from London had arrived, I had time on my hands to figure out what my plan of action for the year would be. This was spent pretty much solidly in front of a computer at a café round the corner from me. By the end of this stint the waitresses were bringing me my order without even asking me what I wanted: a bottle of sparkling water. Cold. Cheap.

Since the excitement in Kenya seemed to be winding down (I wasn’t expecting much after Raila’s inauguration though he has now demanded a new general election for June of this year), my focus had turned to a few other countries in the region: CAR, Burundi, perhaps even Ethiopia. All are going through some level of political struggle with oppressive regimes, civil unrest, or presidents unwilling to pass on power at the ends of their terms.

In the end it was the fascinating history, and I suppose even the dark romanticism of DRC that won my time and attention. I became fixated on researching the country’s recent past and even now I’m still only scraping the surface of the on-going 20-year saga that has seen everything from coups to militia, minerals and murder. I was sucked into the story, figuratively at first, but now it seems rather physically.

To be continued in part 2…

Just Keep Shooting!

 A young boy stands for a photo at the base of a valley among a few of the countless hills that sprawl across Rwanda. 

A young boy stands for a photo at the base of a valley among a few of the countless hills that sprawl across Rwanda. 

It's been another busy few weeks. 

After leaving my mate in Kigali I started travelling down south through Rwanda. My project requires that I make stops on my route on the way down so I can simply shoot.

A couple of hours or so spent on the bus, I alighted at a fairly randomly chosen spot and started to walk. A track leading towards a University campus in a town called Nyanza lead me off onto a smaller track which quickly took me into the broad Rwandan countryside. Not quite as dramatic and undulating as the deep tones and jagged hills of Western Uganda, Rwanda's countryside geography, much like its people, is somewhat more conservative and quiet.

The hills rise and fall at a shallower, longer gradient, looking more like futuristic domes with their perfectly manicured rows of tea plantations. Tall, white trees line their crests one by one, reminding you of the alignment of bristles on a toothbrush. At the base of the narrow valleys, a stream ambles modestly along, while almost perfectly distributed among the landscape are gleaming one- or two-roomed huts between which you will catch the flowing and utterly silent profile of a country-dweller treading to market or back home again.

The only threat in this almost medieval scene are the stone grey clouds that loom overhead for an hour or so in the afternoon, sometimes flashing without a sound before nourishing the landscape with a short but generous burst of rainfall.

After an hour or so of walking, and as I hit the very base of the valley, I got talking to a boy a few years younger than me. He showed me his home and we waited for the rain to pass before I decided to make my way back towards the highway. I told him I was headed for Butare, at which moment he pointed out to me a shortcut which would lead me to a part of the highway further south from where I had come. Of course this route turned into a two-to-three hour uphill slog in the incessant heat of the afternoon sun. Despite passing through the odd cluster of houses, there were no shops to buy water, just the acidic locally brewed beer sipped on by the town drunks, and so I was almost destroyed when I and my luggage eventually came to the road.

The first shop I came to was a dairy. I almost ran to it, asking for them to fill the biggest mug they had with milk. Taking a desperate gulp I choked when the thick, sour fluid hit the back of my throat and the yellow chunks that lurked beneath bubbled up to meet my lips at the drink's surface..

By the time I arrived in Butare, my energy was depleted and it was all I could do to drop over the bed in my hostel and sleep. I remained there with a fever for three days. 

What eventually got me out of bed was the news coming from Zimbabwe that tanks were headed towards Harare. The country's only known president, Robert Mugabe, had fired his Vice President who was close with the country's military. Soon the country's main TV station was broadcasting images of a man in military garb giving an announcement to the people to stay calm: a coup was afoot. 

All the gear I'd need to cover the unfolding events was back in Nairobi so I reluctantly dragged myself onto a 22-hour coach journey back to Kenya. Over the course of that day however, it started to become clear that the unfolding events weren't as dramatic as you might have expected. The country was calm and the only visuals coming out were unimpressive to say the least.

Nairobi on the other hand had heated right back up upon my return. I decided to stay put.

The leader of the opposition, Raila Odinga, had made his gracious return to the country from the United States and his loyal supporters were there to greet him and kick up a fuss while doing so. Several died on that day alone in clashes between Raila loyalists and the Police. Since then there have been a dozen or so deaths more. Though things have been calm in the last few days, the country now awaits the re-inauguration of its president on Tuesday, which will likely only bring about more trouble - not least because there are rumours that Raila himself will be holding his own inauguration ceremony on the same day, swearing himself in as leader of Kenya's resistance movement (though I do stress that these are only rumours).

So as I've already stated in a previous post. My commitment to covering the elections had been wavering due to my absence from the country. Even amid the madness surrounding Raila's return, I only turned up to the party when it was half way through because of constant messages from a colleague of mine who couldn't stress enough how crazy it was getting.

Myself and a couple of other photographers who had missed the boat shared a car and tried to track down the hot spots. After making several requests from our mate to send location pins, we eventually found a pocket where two rivalling sides of a market, separated by a highway, had started battling one another. Though it didn't really seem like either side had had much involvement during the protests that had been started by Raila's arrival back in the country, the confrontation began when one side of the market had told a passing police vehicle that they had nothing to do with the protests, instead pointing to their neighbours insisting that they were the perpetrators. 

Obviously, the opposing side weren't oblivious to this and began hurling stones at, and looting the rivalling snitches. At some point a matatu got caught up in the mess and had been set alight in the middle of the road, and the aggressing side of the market had started to try to burn down the stalls of their betrayers. 

This then only got more complicated when it turned out that almost of all of those under attack were butchers. When their chance came, they began to fight back with machetes and meat cleavers in hand. Luckily these didn't become anything more than showpieces. 

Though a a dramatic day, myself and the other guys I was with came back with nothing. I've looked through the photos several times and am pretty impressed with just how unusable all of my images were.

Undeterred, and better prepared for the next few days, we got our acts together and spent the next days following violence and stand-offs around the city's slums.

While a couple of my friends have been shooting for AFP, I had been trying pretty hard to send off photos to several other agencies who might have been interested in purchasing them. The photos they are selling online are available for all to see and I knew that a lot of what I'd been shooting was either unavailable with these agencies or simply better shot. Alas, no luck. Seemingly the only benefit to what I was doing was that it was providing a bit of extra material for my Instagram feed.

But again, I persisted. And it eventually paid off.

During a quieter moment on one of the days in the field, I ran into the head photographer for AFP in Nairobi. We'd already met during my failed trip to Kisumu and he'd been aware that I'd been shooting with the other guys on his roster. Nothing happened at that point but I suppose a mixture of some of the above must have prompted him to message me a couple of days ago when it turned out that much of his team would not be around for Uhuru's inauguration this coming Tuesday. We met yesterday and he's asked me to be on the team to cover the day's proceedings. Good news. 

So yeah. Maybe this was a bit of a long story with little of the information that some of you may be visiting this blog for. However it also goes to show that the most important and unanimous piece of advice that I've been given by many, many photographers over the years proves true: just keep shooting.

Honestly of all the things you can take away from this blog, this is seriously the key mantra that you need to have running through your head over and over again, every day. It seems obvious, but when caught up in trying to get your name out, figuring out how to earn money, building a website, organising meetings etc. it often turns out that the one thing that you leave out is the most important thing. You stop shooting. 

The simplicity of this lesson is also the magic of it. It will remind you that you shouldn't always let yourself get weighed down and distracted by all the extra bullshit that comes with pursuing a career. If you just shoot and make that your absolute priority, the rest will follow. 

I'll keep you updated about how things go on Tuesday..

Assisting

 A typical buffet set-up at  Fantastic Bar , Kigali. Buffet is hugely popular around the city with a range of traditional African food being served up and piled high, from kasava, matoke (cooked or mashed banana), sweet potato, avocado, beef... it goes on. Don't be shy. 08.11.17

A typical buffet set-up at Fantastic Bar, Kigali. Buffet is hugely popular around the city with a range of traditional African food being served up and piled high, from kasava, matoke (cooked or mashed banana), sweet potato, avocado, beef... it goes on. Don't be shy. 08.11.17

So more travelling again since the last post. Following my unheroic return from Kisumu, I decided to head back out West to continue with a personal project of mine. After taking a 16-hour coach journey to Kampala, I stopped off for a day, joining the country's rock climbing club for a stint in a quarry in the middle of the city which they use as their stomping ground. For anyone interested in climbing, the granite is super smooth so it really makes you think twice before you allow yourself to commit your hands to a dodgy hold when you're 25 meters up. 

Fortunately they didn't fail me, which allowed me to continue my travels to Kigali the following day.

Of course Rwanda is best known for its brutal 1994 genocide which ravaged the country over the course of 100 days, killing somewhere between 500,000 and 1,000,000 Tutsis. As a result almost anyone you meet has a story about the bloodshed and brutality that took place here. That said, by looking at the capital city, you'd never be able to tell that anything like that could have happened a mere twenty years ago. 

Paul Kagame, the man responsible for putting a stop to the genocide, has been in power ever since. He runs an impressively tight ship with the roads and infrastructure making you feel more like you're in a city in the French Riviera rather than East Africa. The country is fastidiously clean and well-kept, with basic things like traffic and public transport running incredibly smoothly and peacefully. I may be picking out some seemingly odd details but compared to a city like Nairobi or Kampala this place is other-worldly. 

Of course, Africa being Africa, this has come at a cost. Though Kagame has genuinely brought the country into the 21st century, his people fear him. Freedom of speech is non-existent here when it comes to politics and media and so any dissent or disagreement against the regime is met quickly and harshly. Though officially the country is a democracy, the president has been 'winning' general elections with percentages in the high 90's. Soldiers and police are found on every street corner, providing a high level of safety but also seeming to serve as a reminder of the power and omnipotence of the government. This is a dictatorship with democratic veneer. 

But anyway, despite the fascinating political history, that is not what I am here for at this particular time. 

I came to see a mate. He's a photographer too. We met about 3 years ago when we were both still working as photo assistants back in London. I remember the day well because it was the first which I was acting as a first assistant to a fashion photographer. I'd not met this photographer before and was taking a bit of a punt with the job because my knowledge of assisting was still pretty limited. Nevertheless I'd landed myself the work through a Whatsapp group for assistants and didn't want to turn down the money.

The day turned into a bit of a mess with me not knowing what I was doing for half of the time, and the photographer being particularly wound-up and stressed-out. We blundered our way through the shoot but in the end I came out with a mate - the one who's brought me here to Kigali. (I also got a fair amount more work with that photographer back in London but Jesus only knows why..)

So for those who want to know more about assistant work in London, let this be a short guide to get you started. 

A photo assistant is someone who helps a photographer get through a photo shoot in one piece. There's often a ton of things to organise and remember and carry and process and light throughout a day's shooting and so leaving it all to the photographer is only going to result in a poor set of images if any at all. 

So he or she will hire one or several assistants. These are usually broken down into two categories: digital or lighting. Digital assistants (digis) handle things like computer and camera. More often than not, photographers will shoot tethered to a computer, meaning photos will go straight to the computer via a cable rather than using an SD or CF card as an intermediary. This allows the digi to go through files on the fly, keeping an eye on stuff like focus or exposure (certainly not composition), as well as filing the images and maybe giving them a quick retouch. This is almost always done through a programme called Capture One Pro. It's a lot like Lightroom but if you want to work as a digi on a fashion or advertising shoot then you need to know this programme back-to-front. Digis are generally also the go-to for troubleshooting with an overly-complicated and prone-to-break-down camera. 

Lightings guys handle everything on set. Not only do they have to manage all things lighting, but they're often needed to shift heavy stuff and perform unreasonably dangerous duties in the name of the shot. It's a physical job which, depending on the needs of the shoot, can require a lot of skill and knowledge. 

So while there will almost always only be only one digital assistant on a job, it's not uncommon for there to be two or three lighting guys to keep everything moving. In such situations, there will generally be a first, second, third etc. assistant, with the first being the person with the most knowledge and experience. Depending on the expertise of the photographer in the way of lighting, the assistants will either be working under his/her direction or under the first assistant.

Assisting, for many, can end up a life-long career with many earning a really, really good day-rate. Though I'd never have been happy with becoming a career assistant, for a couple of years it was my full-time job and allowed me to get out and shoot my own projects because of the money and flexibility it offered.

While some assistants will work full-time for a single photographer, many more act as freelancers, building up a portfolio of clients that they will get regular or irregular work with. Others are drifters who will get work with one guy for a while before moving onto the next and then the next with other odd jobs in between. 

Pay is very good. While as a complete novice, you'll have to be prepared to do a lot of work for free but as you build up your knowledge you'll start to be able to charge between £50 - £100 per day before having £150 as your most basic day-rate. Depending on the job however (usually based on whether its a commercial or editorial job - the former paying more handsomely) your day-rate can move to £200, £250, £300 per day. Though generally digis will earn more than people doing the lights, getting a week-long job on a shoot can sometimes be enough to cover your rent and expenses for a month or longer. 

So how can you get involved?

There are a couple of ways. The way I got into the assisting scene was simply by reaching out to London-based photographers whose work I liked and asking them if they needed an assistant. I'd offer them a hand for free in return for an insight into how he/she would work when on shoot and some tips when it comes to lighting. A few took me up on the offer and if I was working for free, would always cover my lunch and travel expenses (you'd be well within your right to expect the same). 

Another way is to get in through one of the several photo studios based around town. Generally advertising and fashion photographers don't own or rent their own photo studios but will just hire a studio for the duration of a shoot. Studios like Spring, RIDA, Blue Sky, Sunbeam, Holborn or Shoreditch Studios are extremely popular in London and regularly have top names coming in to use their spaces for shoots.

All of these need studio assistants to keep things moving. Each studio space will have its own studio assistant who will fetch and provide anything required by the photo assistants or photographers who are working on set. This can range from food and drinks to lighting equipment to packages... Beyond this they need to keep the studio tidy and in check. This requires a lot of cleaning, fixing, moving stuff around and cove painting.

To be honest this job feels more like you're working in a hotel than in a studio so get in and get out quick. The pay is not as good. You will be getting an hourly rate (Somewhere around £7.50 - £9.00(?) per hour) and the work is often hard, long, boring and thankless. Though studio assistants are generally expected to be seen and not heard, I'd recommend chumming up with the photographer's assistants on set and building up contacts that way. Before you know if you may be invited to assist a photographer directly through them.

With that said, be extremely cautious not be a nuisance in doing this. There were many times where I'd have a studio assistant trying to chat and be mates with me when I was under a lot of stress and pressure from a shoot and didn't have time to talk. I understood that they were only trying to make a good impression and network, which is completely reasonable, but there is definitely a right and a wrong time for that. Be very mindful. 

So yeah those are the basics with assisting. With regards to any of the above don't let yourself be put off if you don't know anything about it. I entered the game as a complete novice. I never made out like I knew more than I did but I also did often step out of my comfort zone and threw myself into jobs where I maybe didn't have every skill required for the job. At that point just act confident and admit when you don't know how to do what the photographer or anyone else wants. It's better to be straight up and fix a problem on set quickly rather than try and hide it.

Most importantly however, if you take your photography career seriously, please always remember to put your own work first. Assistant work is primarily a means to allowing you to shoot the work you want. You will not be assisting every day so make sure you spend the days in between pursuing your own projects. Don't allow it to become a full-time thing (unless of course you realise you love it, in which case go for it!)


I haven't said anything about this yet, but if you're reading the blog and have any questions or would like me to cover a specific topic then please do get in touch. I'd be very interested to hear from you. 

The Elections, Agency Work, and Taking a Punt

 Kenyan Police look on over the crowds of NASA supporters protesting in demonstration of the day's election results. The incumbent Jubilee Party won for a second time in two months amid accusations of foul play towards the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC).

Kenyan Police look on over the crowds of NASA supporters protesting in demonstration of the day's election results. The incumbent Jubilee Party won for a second time in two months amid accusations of foul play towards the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC).

A lot’s happened in the past couple of weeks.

After my minor failure with forgetting about visa applications at the DRC border, I discovered an updated map of the TAH which includes an additional route running from Mbarara (not too far from where I was) down through Rwanda and Burundi.

Though I’d set off to follow that route, getting up out of the wrong side of bed that morning led me into an altercation with the conductor of my matatu after he and the driver decided to do laps around town to pick up passengers rather than waiting in the one spot while berating the women who tried to alight because of it.

A mixture of anger with our hosts, frustration after having ripped my bag while I was trying to get out, and apprehension at the realization that I soon did actually need to be in Nairobi, made me decide to call it a day and head back East.

A week later I was on a flight to Ethiopia where I had to shoot a job for an NGO client of mine while trying to keep up with the news about re-election in Kenya.

Getting back into Nairobi on Saturday morning, I headed straight out into the city to get shooting to aftermath.

Since I’ve had some unfortunate timing with being out of the country for both days of the election, I haven’t really been sure how vested my interested was in covering it. Though my initial plan in coming to the country was to be around to shoot, the ever-demanding mistress that is money has meant that I’ve had to succumb to the will of my bank account and follow work rather than my plan.

With that said, as I arrived back in Nairobi, I found the party to be in full swing. I have a bunch of mates all shooting around the city for various agencies and organisations - AFP, VICE, Getty - and so they’ve been keeping solidly on the ball with being in the right place at the right time. Seeing what they were up to got me hungry to do the same so I’ve been speedy to get on board.

The problem was that I didn’t want to be taking photos just for the sake of it. I’ve been there in the field for the past few days, shooting the same pictures, putting myself in the same position as my colleagues but with no result beyond the odd Instagram post. I wanted to see my photos out there.

This brings me back to my mention of photo agencies. I think it’s pretty important to briefly establish what they are an a bit about how they work.

So as a 101, a photo agency is a provider of images. You can go onto a website like AFP, AP, Getty, Reuters, EPA etc. and find a huge database of pictures covering everything from politics, to conflict, to paparazzi, to events. This is useful for news organisation like, for example, The Guardian or New York Times because they can’t send out photographers covering every event and situation - logistically and financially it just wouldn’t work. Instead they go to this database and search through images taken at these events or situations and buy a photo from the agency which they want to use for their story.

But how do the agencies get the photos? Photographers. Lots of them.

So when you see photographer standing on the side of a football pitch or in the middle of a war zone. It’s often the case that they’re not there with a newspaper. They’re often there for a photo agency instead. These photographers will shoot and depending on how urgently the photos are needed, they’ll file the photos within hours or minutes of taking them so that they can be published alongside the most breaking news.

Filing is the process of getting the photos off their camera onto a computer, selecting a bunch of images which they think might be sellable, giving them a quick retouch (nothing too drastic), captioning them, and sending them off to their respective photo agencies.

On the agency side there’ll be someone who looks through a photographer’s selection of photos and chooses whether to make them available to buy on the agency website one by one. A single fee is paid to the photographer per image, for which the rights of the image is bought. There may be a cap to payments after a set number of images so the photographer will only be paid a maximum fee per day for his work. For example AFP are currently paying $50 per image for the election coverage in Kenya. They will only pay a maximum of $200 per day. So after four images, they will not pay for any more of the images that they decide to take from you and put up for sale on their website. Depending on how you look at it this may be unfair or a pretty good deal for the photographer, but I’m not going to get into that discussion today.

So there’s the basic process but how do you get involved?

I guess that’s a mixture of knowing the right people, being in the right place at the right time, and having some competency in your shooting.

So when I first decided to move to Kenya I reached out to several photographers who were based in Nairobi and shot for these various photo agencies, asking them to put me in touch with the person in charge of assigning photographers in the region. What I discovered was that the people who were deciding whether or not to take on photographers’ work were also photographers themselves who are still very much involved in shooting in the field. It was cool to know that these people aren’t office guys but very much working on the ground.

I set up a couple of meetings with these photographers/picture editors and made my introduction just by coming to say hi and showing them my portfolio.

Upon meeting these guys, what I discovered is that they’re not going to assign you work straight off the bat. These agencies have photographers who have been acting as contributors to them for years who are far, far ahead in the pecking order when it comes to who will have their work bought and sold. Basically what that means for you is that you need to take a punt, go out for yourself, and put yourself in a spot where you can take relevant shots that they will be interested in buying.

So that’s what I did yesterday.

Upon my return to Kenya from Ethiopia, I found that Nairobi was saturated with photographers. A number of my friends were shooting in various hotspots around the city for AFP, an agency which I had previously been in touch with, and so me trying to shoot in the same areas for the same agency would have just meant that I was treading on their toes and competing with them to sell the same shots.

What I discovered was that over in the west of the country in Kisumu, somewhere I’d been a few weeks earlier, there was only one guy shooting for AFP in the entire city. This place is known to be an opposition stronghold and goes pretty nuts when things aren’t going Raila’s (the opposition leader’s) way.

So I reach out to the guys in charge at AFP, ask them if they might want an extra guy up there, and sure enough they say it may well be useful if shit hits the fan. So I book a flight.

Now this is where you’re taking a punt for a few of reasons.

The first reason is that I’m forking out for my own travel costs, accommodation and fixer when on the ground. As an entry level contributor, I can’t expect these guys to pay my expenses because they don’t know what I’m going to provide for them, if anything at all. So before I’ve even started shooting, I’ve paid $10 to get to Nairobi airport, $60 for a flight to the west and another $40 for my driver/fixer in Kisumu. That’s over half a day’s pay assuming I sell the four photographs needed to make a full day rate.

Next there’s also the risk that nothing’s going to happen. As things stood yesterday, supporters of the opposition were awaiting Raila’s remarks surrounding the previous day’s re-election results. They are completely loyal to him and so should he decide he wants peace, that’s what they’ll give him, and should he decide he wants them to cause some havoc, havoc is what the country will get.

For me, I only had any prospect of selling photos if things were to kick off.

The third reason I was making a gambit here was that the agency is still under no obligation to take on my work should I be in the right place at the right time and shooting the right stuff. Though they said it may be useful if I show up in Kisumu, it could have been that I’d end up taking the same shots as the guy who’s already over there, who I knew full well to be higher up in that pecking order that I’d mentioned before. In such a case, they’d take his photos over mine.

There’s also the case in which I just take crap photos and they wouldn’t want to buy them, however judging my performance over the previous days, I was fairly confident they’d be happy with my work.

So what happened?

The country was silent. After a full day of being promised times at which our beloved Baba (an affectionate term meaning ‘father’ for Raila) would speak, he finally made a ferociously benign speech in the late afternoon which left Kisumu and the rest of the country looking like there had never been a fuss at all.

And so there I was in my driver’s vehicle, ready for battle with my cameras and my flak helmet, reeling at the realisation that I was there for nothing. It’s a twisted way to react considering that I should be happy at the keeping of the peace, but I think that’s an inevitability when you’re trying to make an income off of conflict. After waiting around for a bit I figured I’d call it a day and bit my tongue as I forked out another $80 dollars to get my sorry self back to Nairobi.

I didn’t make a bad decision; I just wasn’t lucky with my call this time round. I think most of us were caught by surprise when nothing went down in the hotspot areas, because the alternative meant peacefully accepting (though not necessarily having confidence in) the result of the election.

So as with any business you have your gains and your losses. I lost yesterday and to be honest I’m still a little annoyed when I think that my bank account could have done without the hit. However had the response to Raila’s speech been different, I would have been in a great position. I’m glad I took the punt yesterday and I’ll certainly take another when the opportunity arises.

Creating Opportunity

 A view over the channel connecting Lake Edward and Lake George in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Western Uganda.

A view over the channel connecting Lake Edward and Lake George in Queen Elizabeth National Park, Western Uganda.

The past week has been great. I’ve been shooting a ton and have been pretty much constantly on the move since leaving Nairobi. I’m currently in Western Uganda which is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to. The countryside landscape is an inexhaustible, endless cascade of hills, forests and villages painted with the deepest, lush hues of green, blue, black...

Dreamy reality came to a halt yesterday however when I reached the boarder to DRC. This trip was a pretty impromptu one and as such, I hadn't thought about every stage of the journey in great detail. It only just occurred to me the day before that I hadn't actually sent off for a visa in advance to get myself into DRC. Having crossed over from Kenya to Uganda by simply paying for one on the boarder I thought I'd just do the same when I reached the next boarder. Of course with DRC they're a little tighter with entry and you need to apply for a visa at your embassy and receive an invitation before you decide to waltz in. So when the boarder control wouldn't dance I was turned right around. But not before losing ten dollars to a guy at immigration for a reason I still haven't quite gotten my head around. I don't speak French very well. I'm an idiot.

So yeah I've fucked up and I have just under a week before I need to start turning back to Nairobi so I can catch a flight out to Ethiopia. 

However despite my slip-up yesterday, I’d say the trip has been a fairly good success so far. I’d set out to capture the communities and people surrounding the Trans-African Highway and have had some good luck in running into new people who want to show me around and take me to some of the spots that I may not otherwise have found on my own.

I want to talk about a couple of these run-ins and how I’ve used them to my advantage in providing me with a decent photo opportunity. Of course everyone works differently when it comes to shooting a photo story so this isn’t the secret formula to creating one successfully. This is just how I do things. Maybe someone out there might be able to make use of the info and adapt it to their own personality, shooting style and goals etc.

So being a white westerner can be a bit of a curse when shooting in Africa. Given the option, I’d sooner be a fly on the wall and simply have a chance to frame up a shot and shoot without being noticed. Since I’m in rural Africa however, that simply isn’t possible.

Often being the only white guy in a village or town (in the past few days at least), I’ll be spotted from a mile off and have every other set of eyes on me as I walk through the street. Moreover anyone that might not have noticed me will be alerted by the cries of ‘mzungu, mzungu!’ from any child within eyeshot of me. It can be incredibly irritating when you just want to be left alone and ignored and makes getting out a camera impossible without someone staring directly down the lens at you.

With that said, over the past days I’ve found that all the attention has really helped me out.

Kenyans and Ugandans are painfully friendly and inviting. They show genuine care, interest and affection towards people that you don’t see in many other parts of the world. As a result, when I’m passing through and going through countless greetings and handshakes and waves, I’ll often be called over. ‘I want to greet you!’ is a phrase that I often hear.

While it may be tempting to continue on my way since the attention can certainly be exhausting, I’ll always take them up on their offer.

Many exchanges will be short, sometimes awkward, sometimes clumsy, sometimes rabbling and time consuming, however there are others where I’ll simply take an immediate liking to someone and decide to stick around for a bit.

I was in Nakuru a few days ago. I’d just organized a camping spot for the night but was a little bummed out since the site was a little rough around the edges and it was already getting dark. I’d made a decision that I was going to spend the evening writing and editing on my computer at the campsite’s bar. Since the food didn’t look particularly special there, I headed out to find something quick and cheap elsewhere.

It wasn’t long before I found myself in Nakuru’s ‘Ghetto’ (apparently named Flamingo Phase II) and was called over to someone. The guy, Jeremiah, was around my age and I could smell the spirit on his breath as I was shaking his hand. He wasn’t too far gone and his English was good. It turned out he’d studied for a several years in Malaysia. We had a couple of things to say about the day’s politics in America and before I knew it he was leading me around town. We stopped off to pick up 200mls of vodka. We had a couple of shots.

Since I’d explained to him I was a photographer he’d become hell-bent on having everyone stop and pose for me as we were walking around. He kept at the vodka.

We spent the next couple of hours wandering around alleys and streets in this ghetto. Save for the mix of tungsten and halogen in the sparingly spaced street lamps, the night was black.

As he continued to drink he’d ask me with a greater frequency whether I wasn’t a member of MI5 who’d come to kidnap him. I couldn’t get to the bottom of what it was that he knew or had done that would be of such interest to her majesty, but as the arc of his swagger became more pronounced I decided to call it a night.

While the ending of our encounter may not have been particularly smooth, the fact that this guy had taken it upon himself to lead me around the slum for a couple of hours while I shot meant that I ended up with a few selects that I wouldn’t have even tried for before. While this area was clearly not particularly dangerous, having a local with me certainly gave me the confidence to take out my camera and stop to take the time to line up a shot rather than sheepishly blurting out a frame in the hope that I’d get it in one.

Another thing I’ve been heavily reliant on is bars.

Aside from the space it provides for quiet contemplation as I ask myself why it is that I’m still not even earning enough money to start paying back my student loan, the place is a great spot to strike up a conversation. Moreover they’re great because they give you an excuse just to sit and be in a space in close proximity to local people for as long a period as you need.

Just yesterday I’d found myself in this town, Ishaka in the South-West of Uganda. Despite sitting at the connecting point of three highways, the place feels a little remote. I’ve had a difficult time finding a wifi connection out here and there’s little sign that many people pass through who aren’t from the area (turns out my initial impression was wrong however and that there’s actually a university here).

It was stiflingly hot when I arrived at around three in the afternoon and I was trying to figure out what my plan was after I’d checked into my guesthouse.

I just started walking. I wanted to get off the main highroad so I started wandering into the allure of the surrounding countryside.

About an hour into my walk I was called over by bunch of guys who’d started drinking too early into the afternoon (I see a pattern emerging). I sat with them. This turned out to be one of the more pointless exchanges so I quickly parted. No less than 30 seconds down the road, however, I heard the click of a pool ball. I’m a fan of the game so I figured it might be worth stopping by at the bar from where the noise had come.

I put down some money for a game and proved my worth to the guys around the table as I won my first two.

Instead of taking my third game I offered it up to someone else, excusing myself saying that I was a photographer and wanted to take a couple of pictures in the place while the light was good. By this point everyone at the place was used to my presence so I was free to shoot without restraint.

I’ve been going through the shots this morning and honestly can’t make up my mind about selects – there are too many of them.

Had the pool table not been there and had I not been interested in taking photos in this bar, it’s still easy enough to get people comfortable with you in a place like this. Once you’ve exchanged a few smiles and mentioned Man United or Chelsea (I’m not even a football fan) then conversation with the right person will often shape the rest of your evening. In two other encounters I’ve had at bars on this trip I’ve had guys sort me out with accommodation, show me around their city, sort me out with a Ugandan SIM card – it goes on.

Of course, it’s not always the case that you’ll be in a place where the locals and people around you will take so much interest in you. If you’re a shooting a project close to home or in a place where you blend in, you’ll most likely have to work a little more to get talking to people if that’s your intention. I think the message to take from this post is to be mindful that opportunities to shoot or to integrate with people when you are an outsider have the potential arise from anywhere. However as easy as they can be to find, they can be just as easily forgone if you don’t make the decision to put yourself in a position where they can become fruitful.

Money

 Looking forward to getting out on the road. 

Looking forward to getting out on the road. 

So yeah. Maybe it sounds exciting that I'm planning on taking a photo road trip for the next couple of weeks, but right now I'm sat around on my arse waiting. I'm not waiting for anyone in particular. I can up and leave without any physical hinderance. The problem right now is money. 

For about a week I've been expecting a good sum of money to arrive into my bank account. It will be enough to see me through the next month or so while I travel. I was expecting it towards the end of last week but have only just recieved proper confirmation that it will be with me in the next day or so. To be fair it's really not too long when you're not particularly thinking about it, but it's an endless wait when I don't have much to get on with in the city in the meantime..

Cashflow in this career is unpredictable. While I might have shot a job or sold some work and know that money is on the way in, knowing exactly when that will be is a big issue and can really cause a lot of stress and slow me down when I need it for a project or anything else.

I rarely get paid for anything straight away. That sounds like a complaint but it's more just a statement of fact. Usually I'll be waiting for payments for somewhere between 30 and 90 days. Even small chunks of it. Just this afternoon I received an email telling me that I can expect payment some time this week for an invoice that I sent out in July. For £100. Quids in..

This whole issue is something I've become used to and have learnt to work around but I do still get jealous of my friends who have a steady, reliable salary. 

So anyway, where does money come from? The answer to this is that it varies. Rarely do I run into photographers who are working for a single publication enough that they can sustain themselves with that work entirely. In fact I'm not sure I know anyone that does that. More commonly you'll find that photographers are constantly looking around for new clients while trying to sustain their relationships with their old ones. It's a constant battle but something that you have to learn to get good at. 

But who are these clients?

So while living in central London from 2013 up until the beginning of 2017, a major source of my income came from assisting. London's full of photographers, and more importantly photographers who work in fields that have the budgets to pay for assistants (namely fashion and advertising). This is something I've stopped now but let it be known that I wouldn't have a portfolio without the flexibility and good pay that it can provide - my entire series, Child Celibate, was funded solely from the money I was earning through assisting. I'll dedicate an entire post to the ins and outs of this in the nearish future. 

The next thing that was bringing cash into my bank was selling stories that I'd funded myself. Basically any personal project that I shoot I'll pitch around to publications and see who might be interested in publishing them. This is a fairly complicated process when you haven't done it before and so, again, I will be shedding more light on this in its own dedicated post.

After that, once you have sold some work to a publication, they may well come back to you and ask you to start shooting for them. This is harder to maintain because you have no control over when someone might ask you to shoot for them, and publications are often either using someone they've had shooting for them for a long time, or hiring someone once or twice before moving on to someone else. 

Another way to work with a publication is through pitching your own story ideas to them and seeing if they'd be game to give you some money to shoot it. Again it helps to have worked with the publication before or at least to have a strong enough portfolio to demonstrate that you have the ability to pull your idea off well. 

If we look beyond the ideal of getting consistent work with publications, there's the work which acts as the bread and butter that will allow you to pursue the work that you're really interested in doing. I have friends who get by with corporate clients, either shooting events or portraits for them. There are others who shoot weddings (not to say that those who are specialised are not specialised for a reason but a documentary photographer is often a good alternative for a couple who don't have the budget for a full-time wedding shooter).

There's also the NGO's who can be great to shoot for because they will ask you to go to places and into scenarios where you'd want to be shooting anyway. Because of the large numbers of donors they have they can afford to pay well too. The problem you may have with these organisations is that they're only really interested in you shooting for them if you're already out in the region that they have projects going on. These guys get a lot of enquiries from photographers offering their services to shoot in Africa or South America etc. when the photographer in question might be based in Europe. They still have a budget to keep in mind and it's a lot cheaper for them to find a local to shoot.

So that's a decent start to understanding the financial side of the business. I will delve into some of these points in more detail in individual posts so keep an eye out. As for those who are just curious about what I'm up to, apologies for the fairly tedious post. This is information that I would have killed for a few years ago yet somehow it just isn't anywhere to be found in black and white.

Push On

 Sneaky preview from the story I'm covering about this mysterious (but, sadly, unreliable) dude. To be continued..

Sneaky preview from the story I'm covering about this mysterious (but, sadly, unreliable) dude. To be continued..

So I mentioned that I've had a slow moving couple of months at the beginning of my last post. I didn't really go into any detail about that but thought it might be a good place to start so that I can give some context about my plans for the next few weeks and how I plan to tackle this creative dip.

So after running out of cash in Kenya, I had to make a quick return to London to hustle some old clients and find some news ones. After a successful month I had some money in the bank and more on the way. I figured, upon returning to Nairobi, that I wanted to get back involved with a project that I had laid out the groundwork for before my brief return to London. (I'm going to go more into shooting and managing projects in another post so stay tuned). 

I can't go into too much detail about the project itself since it's still a work in progress and it's based on a particularly sensitive issue, however my lull in productivity over the last couple of months has come in very large part due to the problems I've been having with this thing. 

This particular project, for the time being at least, revolves around one particular person. We'd already spoken about and agreed on a couple of occasions that we'd spend some time together shooting a photo series about him. Because of this, that was really what I had in mind to focus my time on over the coming weeks. 

The problem is, as is often the case around here, the guy isn't particularly reliable. He might text me telling me to meet me at some place, or agree to spend a day with me, or introduce me to some of his other contacts that are relevant to his story, but all too often he's been a no-show or has had to go within twenty minutes of meeting.

This isn't an uncommon issue when shooting - it's something that I've had to deal with a lot before (take for example my series about the Westway Travellers, in which there must have been one day of shooting for every four that I showed up). But the fact that I'm so heavily reliant on just one person has made things really arduous - I can't just shrug my shoulders and go shoot another part of the story. 

Basically the constant back-and-forth had gotten me down because whenever I was expecting to have a productive few days, churning out some nice new work, it just turns into another week sitting around trying to work out what to do instead now that my plans have fallen apart again. This ends up in a bit of downward spiral since after a while you lose the motivation even to try and make rearrangements and persist. This got pretty bad and I spent a few days in bed sulking as a result. 

But we move on. After being stood up outside of a mosque in the middle of Kibera first thing on a Sunday morning when I could otherwise have been out rock climbing for the day, I decided that this project needed to be put on hold. I'll get him in the end..

A day or so later I'm sat at breakfast with my housemates and we're talking about project ideas. There's a bit of back-and-forth and because they're not journalists or photographers they're getting pretty enthusiastic about this entire process. In turn I'm fired up and reminded that what I'm doing is worthwhile and can be inspiring to people.

I remember a project idea which I was toying around with when I first arrived here and figure it might be the perfect remedy to my situation. I need to get out of Nairobi and (without going into too much detail just yet) it's a travelling series which will give me the freedom just to shoot without making any prior arrangements. I've got to admit that I'm pretty intimidated by the scale of this project, and though I'm only going to be shooting it for two or three weeks initially, I feel it could be something that continues for several years..

So that's the plan. I'm waiting for a payment to come through from an NGO within the next couple of days (again I'll be going more into how I manage to keep things together with money in another post), then I'll be making my way out West through Uganda and into DRC for the next few weeks. I'll be updating my Instagram and this blog fairly frequently so keep an eye out to find out more about the project.

To summarise, things are certainly not plain sailing when it comes to putting together stories. It takes time and persistence and will often result in nothing. While determination is key to pulling off a project, there are also times when you will realise that you need to let things cool off before you come back to one which hasn't been going your way. I'm desperate to get this first project finished off but am also glad to move over to another one for the time being just so I can reset and get some of the juices flowing again.

Introduction

 A view over Lukenya, an hour or so outside of Nairobi. I come here a lot to unwind from the chaos of the city.

A view over Lukenya, an hour or so outside of Nairobi. I come here a lot to unwind from the chaos of the city.

So I'm starting this after having had a couple of months of slow movement. I moved out to Nairobi near the beginning of the year after deciding that I needed to uproot myself from the comforts of living in Peckham in South-East London (I miss you dearly) and wanting to branch out from documentary photography into photojournalism. 

To be honest I could have ended up moving anywhere in the world but Africa seemed adventurous and new and wild: it felt like it had potential. I was initially looking at moving to Juba in South Sudan, still the youngest country in the world, but with the country's current state of turmoil and having never been further into the continent than Morocco, I thought I'd give myself a chance to get used to things here first.

I turned my attention to the rest of East Africa. I knew that there had been photographers who'd come to Nairobi and made a name for themselves here before, so I figured I might try the same.

The decision was made in January and I was on a plane by March.

Since then I should just admit that things have been tough. Friends and family ask me if I enjoy living out here and it's difficult just to give a straight 'yes'. Nairobi is a dirty, noisy, wild city. The order and relative calm of Europe only exists in isolated pockets - separated by walls and armed guards and the cold comforts of western capitalism. That isn't to say that it's a particularly dangerous place to live, but the thick stew of rich, middle class and desperately poor sharing the city seems to have given merit to the idea that those from the more privileged classes require constant protection from the perils of those who lurk within the slums. That kind of blatant division I find pretty uncomfortable at times, but far more disconcerting is how quickly you come to overlook it. Everyone does.

There's an amazingly strong community of journalists here that form the FCAEA (Foreign Correspondents Association of East Africa). I was recommended to join them before arriving in the country. Some of its members have become good friends of mine and have helped me through my first few months of being in the country. They are an impressive bunch, and as a result, can quite frankly be rather intimidating too. When I decided that I wanted to be a photographer I never saw myself going into journalism, and as such I can feel like an imposter turning up to the association's socials or commenting on the private Facebook group. These guys have done dazzlingly brilliant, important, difficult work for the world's most prestigious news publications. They always seems to be travelling. Always seem to be busy. What on earth could I possibly bring to this party? What insight about Africa could I possibly gain that these people couldn't and haven't already covered and discussed?

This self-doubt and anxiety may look a unprofessional and may well put off a couple of prospective clients that happen to stumble across this page, however I feel it important to share this very real and difficult side to pursuing a dream. Young, prospective photographers only see the glamour as they browse through the websites of documentary photographers and photojournalists that boast the far-flung and unlikely places that they have infiltrated and heroically looted with their cameras. I'm sure that to some, my website does the same. But I feel that showing the human, day-to-day side of this world might offer some reassurance (and, I suppose, warning) to those in need of guidance, to let them know that despite appearances, many of us are also struggling and fighting just as much as we were when we first started out.

I love what I do. I could never work a 9-5 in an office. I'd sooner be on the streets. But the realities of the business are challenging and the information out there on how to navigate it is simply non-existent. As such, this blog will cover the steps I have taken thus far to be in the position I'm in, and the steps I'm taking now to try and get to where I want to be. As well as the good news, expect a lot of the bad. Expect the frustration, the joy, the pain, the heartache, the adventure. This will not be a instagram-esque, filtered down, fairytale story.