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.

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..