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.

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…