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.

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.