Kevin admits that he hasn’t done Malcolm Gladwell’s proverbial 10,000 hours to rise to the mastery of photography. He hasn’t washed his hands by the big table to accord him a seat to break bread with the big boys of the lenses. But at the same time he isn’t an underdog either, he’s aware of the pecking order. He has been living off it for two years now, which means he is barely scratching the surface and from where he stands in the pecking order, he knows he has to keep his head down and do his time like everybody else. He knows he has to hone his skills, master his art, then maybe, just maybe, he will be fit and ready to be invited to wash his hands at the big table.
But something happened to him recently; something important to this path; Safaricom picked him to be among the five photographers who would go around the country, documenting unexpected Kenyan shots. They picked him (and four others) out of 50 photographers who were invited by Safaricom and ScanAd agency this year for the Unexpected Kenya assignment. What this did was to put him on the path he had been praying for, a path that came with a big baggage of responsibility.
It’s with this baggage that I first met him some two weeks ago at the briefing for this project in Spring Valley with suits from Eyequeue (photography production company), Safaricom Ltd and ScanAd. I didn’t know anyone there except Magunga (blogger) and Osborne Macharia (surely you know Osborne, right?). We – the teams – hadn’t even all been paired up, so we didn’t know which blogger would go with which photographer.
All I know is that I prayed I would be sent up north to a place with no roads and bandits lurking in the thickets. Alas, that wasn’t to be. [Remember in primo how every composition used to have “alas” or “no sooner had he…than…?”].
Let me digress a bit.
The face of modern photography has morphed to mean that it now has more beards. Of course there are the dons, the old veterans like Duncan Willets, Simon Cox and Scott Davidson, who were there during the darkrooms days and also during the new-era transition of digital photography where people Instagram accounts and camera phones introduce themselves as photographers.
Then there are the new crops of photographers who you might confuse for fashionistas. They are trendy, creative, social-media savvy and experimental. The ones who bring cool to photography. They don’t even have to ride loud dirt bikes, or torn jeans, or wear the same t-shirt for two weeks. They have thousands of followers on Instagram. Those who Instagram a simple Java croissant and get over 400 likes! (I’m not mentioning names, Mutua). I shudder to think how many likes they would get if they put a small petal next to that croissant. (OK, I’m talking about you, Mutua.)
So you have the Emmanuel Jambos, Mutua Mathekas, Sebastian Wanzallas, Joe Weres, Mwangi Kirubis (with his signature Bonk tees), Kevin Oumas (rocking trendy RayBan prescription spectacles) to name but a few. These chaps look more like high-end fashion magazine stylists than photographers. You should have seen the shorts Kevin would wear during the trips. He would step out of the hotel in Voi at dawn looking like he’s going for Bring Your Own Wine Mondays at Brew Bistro lounge. Photography has become trendy and hip and fashionable. In fact, most of these guys have this beard revolution thing going on. I think Joe, Mutua and Wanzalla should come together and start a photography outfit and name it The Bearded Sisters Inc. So you will forgive me when I learnt I had been paired with Kevin, I was anxious, I thought to myself, “What am I going to be talking about with this guy for 10-days, why boot-cut distressed jeans are so 1985?”
Photography came to Kevin in 2012 after trying his hand at film. “It’s the one thing I had ever been told I was good at,” he says, “I acted in high school, sang in the choir, and although film only made me feel criticized, when I started taking pictures with my Nokia N70, I started getting compliments for my images and the compliments made me feel nice about myself for the first time in my life. I felt appreciated.”
I was with Kevin on the road for 11-days, covering a very large swathe of the coast region. He prayed every morning; he took shots that were useless and shots that stirred us. He sulked. He sang (badly). He cracked jokes. (He’s hilarious). He talked about music. (More secular than I imagined possible). And spoke about his family background (I can’t write about that here) and talked about his wife (newly married, honeymoon, he gets cooked for and served with a small bow like a king etc.) Then he spoke about his faith, the pivot of his life and from which everything hinges from. He spoke about the struggles of photography and of his dreams. And once he had a glass of wine, maybe to prove that he wasn’t that old breed of born-agains.
As this trip came to a close Kevin had become more than a trendy photographer with fancy spectacles, he had become a guy I respect greatly for his values, humour, passion and his unwavering value system.
I asked him about this trip.
They could have chosen anybody for this gig but they picked a largely unknown photographer who did weddings and NGO assignments. Did you, at some point feel the pressure of this decision?
Starting this project my greatest question remained: why have I been allowed this far by God? And today I ask myself: has this project affected my character, have the people I worked with been influenced by me in anyway? Look, my faith ends up being my major anchor and I believe there must be a greater purpose why God would allow me to do this and at this time.
What was your defining moment of this project?
It has to be jana. When we took a boat out and went to Manda beach, through those murky waters, through the meandering mangroves, and frequently having to get off the boat to push it through that slimy, muddy murk, not knowing what would bite or prick our feet in the water and finally getting to Takwa Ruins, where the universe conspired to make everything work for me; the light, the old men, the framing…it was a special assignment and I think I got some excellent shots from there.
Has this trip changed you as a photographer?
I have learnt to wait for the perfect shot, thanks to my producer, Lilian. She taught me to be patient enough to take only the shot I was looking for. And to keeping trying until I got it.
Your most challenging moment?
When I had to shoot in no light and my kit was just killing me –
They say a bad workman quarrels with his tools…
You know, talking of which, at the beginning you kept referring to Osborne Macharia’s camera (Hasselbard) as having an edge over the rest of you photographers (Lilian at some point scolded him to snap out of that talk). Where was that persistent insecurity stemming from?
I think it was classical case of the male obsession with another man’s penis, him thinking that maybe his penis isn’t big enough. The truth is when photographers meet they always talk about their latest equipment, and if you don’t have the latest you are bound to develop an inferiority complex. And when the client is heavily commercial in terms of uptake of photography and your work isn’t commercial you develop self-doubt. You think that maybe you aren’t cut out for the job. Truth is initially I felt like I was way over my head here. But then I sat back and said, wait a minute, I’m here because I have earned my place with the pictures that I took using this camera that I now fight with. I had no reason to feel insecure when I had earned my place.
Do you think your equipment was a limitation in this project?
They were at first, but then I made it work. In retrospect I think I made them a limitation. I was worried about sharpness a lot, and width, and so that kept bothering me. My problem at the very beginning was that I was always trying to imagine that other guys with superior equipment were getting better shots. That negative energy, I think, made me lose some ground and I regret it.
How big a role does equipment play a role in photography?
To be honest, not a very big role. A camera is a tool that helps you freeze what you have in your mind. If you don’t have it in your mind, no matter how great your equipment is you won’t capture it.
How do you intend to create your footprint as a photographer?
I’d want to be known for my story telling using a camera. I’d like to document photographically the story; a story of three kids, from birth to age ten; one in a slum, one born in middle-income family, and a privileged family. I’d like to show how their lives change and how they change with those lives. Maybe turn it into a book. My ultimate goal with photography is to change and improve the lives of people I interact with.
What will you remember most about the trip?
The wonderful people. My team was awesome. [Gee, thanks man]. I think I’ve had the best experience with this team. I have been sharpened by you guys, sacrificing your sleep, time, to help me get my shot, and being honest enough with me when you didn’t like a shot.
What do you think are your strengths and weaknesses as a photographer?
I talk too much and do very little. I second-guess myself too much. Also, I’m poor at self-discipline, still mastering this. I’m also temperamental. Strengths? I have an eye for detail; I always know the shot I’m looking for before I’ve seen it. I also rely heavily on what I have; lastly, I’m open to new ideas and sharing what I have learnt.
Any last words?
I’d like to thank my wife. She prayed for us daily. She cheered us on and she was very encouraging.
Haya, salimia her and say thanks.
PRODUCER, Eye Queue Production.
What was your impression of Kevin?
First time I met him, I could tell he had confidence. From his Instagram I could tell he loves close-ups. He should stop the mental over-reliance on equipment.
What were your highlights with him?
I noticed that when he was told by the creatives from Scan Group that his shot was good, it changed him completely. It suddenly gave him this energy that was missing, he became inspired and his erratic moments of temperament disappeared. I think he thrives on affirmation.