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.

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.


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.