Capture Kenya #UnexpectedKenya

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I pity photographers. Such anguished souls. I have been on numerous assignments with some distinguished photographers. I once did a story in Meru National Park with Joe Makeni. Joe said little. He always seemed to have something in his mind. We shared a room at Elsa’s Kopje Lodge and at night, while I read from my Kindle and eventually passed out, he would stay up on his laptop, the blue light from his laptop lighting up his tormented face as he brooded over his pictures.

In Lamu I did a story with the late Charlie Grievescook who would shut out everything and everyone, skip meals and stay out the whole day pursuing images. His focus was so intense it bordered on the neurotic. Then there was Hartmut Fiebig, or Hardy, him of the 50 Treasures of Kenya fame. I was with him in this KTB sponsored media trip to the northern frontier. Same thing. Hardy couldn’t stay still. Antsy pants, Hardy. He climbed boulders. He waded brown water. He climbed on top of our cruiser. And when everybody was seated in the car, ready to set off to the next location, he was still out there, prowling, haunted by the realization that he might be leaving behind an untaken picture.

Then there was Emmanuel Jambo. We did numerous safaris with him. Him and his motley of cameras and lenses longer than the arm of the law. He exhibited the same obsession only with more cheer. There was this day we had done a whole day’s work and we were back at this quaint lodge in Tsavo having our late lunch at the terrace. Suddenly, about 200 meters in the park, two elephants started mating. Have you seen elephants mate? No? How do I describe it? It’s like The Intercontinental Hotel building striding across Kenyatta Avenue to mount I&M building. The most awkward thing I have ever witnessed in the wild.  Emmanuel’s cameras lay dismantled on the next table and by the time he realized what was going on, running to his cameras, removing and fixing the right lenses and rushing to the edge of the terrace to gain a vantage spot for the shot, the bull had dismounted the cow. I know. Just when you want a nigga to last slightly longer than a minute. Emmanuel was distraught. (Well, so was the cow, I’m sure). He completely lost his appetite after that. (The cow too.) His mood plummeted. He sat there, with his camera ready on his lap, waiting and willing the bull to climb back. But alas, the cow had had enough of that trivial nonsense. That single event, that failure to take that shot altered the course of the evening. He talked of little else after.

I’m currently at the coast for this annual Safaricom project called Capture Kenya. Here is how the cookie crumbles: Safaricom carefully selects five photographers and sends them to different regions of Kenya with the intention of capturing great images of Kenya’s landscapes and its lovely people. Normal people.  Not people who hound free Wi-Fi and drink tequilas at Mercury. Or people who build tiers and tiers of burgers at Brew Bistro for fun. I mean real people. People like the group of women who converge at the edge of a tea farm in Kericho to pray before they go into the farm to pinch tea. People like the men who push their bikes laden with gallons of milk up a hill in West Pokot. Or the herdsmen in Turkana who look over their flock like Jesus looks over us. Or the fishermen at Rusinga Island, who get off their boats jaded at dawn after a long night fishing. Everyday people. Real people doing real things, not just tweeting.

These five photographers are accompanied by a blogger/ writers and a producer. The photographer is the main act. The writer’s job is to document his journey. For ten days we will cover the area we are assigned to (along the coastline for us, from Lamu down to Malindi). End of everyday the photographer is to send his best work of the day to Nairobi. I’m to send updates in form of blog posts and tweets and instagram images. It’s early mornings, long days and late nights. The theme for this project is #UnexpectedKenya.

Last night we checked into the Mombasa Serena Beach Hotel with Kevin Ouma (photographer), Lilian Maina (producer), Stephen Muiruri (driver) and Hussein Abdalla (local scout). As soon as we put our bags down, even before the welcome drink had settled in our system, Kevin said that he wanted to see the beach, that we might find something worth a shot.

This was about 6.45 pm, when the sun was just about disappeared and the camels had gone home. So we got to the beach, in our shoes. The beach was as dead as a dodo. The palm leaves murmured in the evening breeze. The sky was grey and sullen. Even the footprints on the sand looked jaded. There was not a single soul on the beach expect for this one couple; a lady and a man who looked like he would rather be back in the room. Or at the hotel bar. You know when sometimes you go on holiday and your mama thinks that taking a walk on the beach at 6:45 pm, when it’s windy, is such a romantic idea? Of course you would rather take a rain check but you can’t because you want to seem romantic, plus there is a chance that if she goes to the beach alone, she might just come back and get a headache later at bedtime. So you go, and your body language says more than your feet in the sand. That’s how that guy looked like.

Anyway, the beach was dead. But there was Kevin and his Canon 60d slung across his shoulder, a flash clutched in one hand, murmuring “ the unexpected” like a mad scientist, his eyes scanning this fading tableau as if waiting for a mermaid to come out of water and pose topless for him. And I felt sorry for him. A little. I have seen that look in many eyes of photographers like him.

But that’s the thing with good photographers, they are good because they go further, do more, get closer. They are good because they are scrupulous. Because they can’t rest, can’t eat, can’t sleep, can’t unwind until they have taken that picture that validates the artistic beast in them. All photographers are imprisoned by their trade.

We didn’t get that “unexpected” shot at the beach. We stood briefly at the beach and watched the foamy waves wash in. Out across the sea, in the quickly falling dusk, Old Town blinked at us. “Tomorrow we go to Old Town,” Kevin announced. I quickly went back to my room, stripped down to my boxers and sat down to write this down quickly before that fresh look of disappointment on Kevin’s face faded in my mind. The air conditioner sighed overhead with every word I wrote.

[Photo credit: Kevin Ouma]
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18 Comments
  1. lovely piece. I am intrigued by photographers and photography even though I am not one. However, I do know you should always have a digital camera handy or a good phone camera as a Pro. It’s like lip balm for photographers. He was right to sulk. That shot would have been epic!

  2. I quickly went back to my room, stripped down to my boxers and sat down to write this down quickly before that fresh look of disappointment on Kevin’s face faded in my mind……..hahaha everything changed after i read this,however its a nice read as usual Biko.

  3. A way with words, as always. Awesome piece. Make a point of dropping some place in south coast,msambweni beach house….am sure Kevin will love the view of the pool seeming to ‘drop’ into the ocean……and you will blog about the serenity too!!

  4. Wow…I’m not a photographer..yet, but I can relate..sometimes you are out there kicking yourself for not taking your camera along..there are everyday sights even right in your city. Once you start taking pictures, you are kinda hooked..you never look at a bird, or a car, or landscape/sunsets the same way..I understand where Kevin is coming from…:-)

  5. in the early morning, at mwembe tayari you will find shirtless mkokoteni pullers, the way they go about their work with a huge smile on their face is amazing,

  6. That single event, that failure to take that shot altered the course of the evening. He talked of little else after….Jumbol or Jambo?

  7. Kevin is an amazing photographer. He shot a wedding where I was a bridesmaid and he kept getting excited about all the potential the grounds had. Patient, even when we disappointed with our ‘inartistic’ poses 🙂 Great writing Biko!

  8. As usual, a poignant piece. As an amateur & aspiring photographer I totally get that waiting for the right picture. That priceless & timeless moment. Its wretched but pure magic when it happens! 🙂

  9. Love the pic.do not stick to tourist places like the “old town”..that’s just you guys playing safe..

  10. Biko good piece as always, but this was too short! We need more, Sasa, you write, Kevin takes the pictures, the drivers takes you around…. okay enlighten us, ati what do the other crew members do?