Picture this. A man on a black mamba that is no longer black. He rides around it in the neighbourhood, sometimes nipping in and out of houses, at other times ringing his bell. Not to ask the Migosi Site kids playing track or bano to move out of the way, but to announce his arrival. He is always in a brown jacket with many pockets, and a Kodak camera hangs across his chest like a medal. On the carrier of his ndiga is a wooden box. Picture a kid who sees this man pull up his ndiga in front of their white gate that is no longer white, drops everything that he is doing and makes a bee line for the house. He catches the man as he is ushered in by the house help, zooms past him and stands behind his mother. He mounts himself somewhere next to the arm of the sofa set thinking that she has not noticed the thick yellow film of dust painting his feet and legs all the way to his ogwalos. Usually, he would never risk presenting himself in front of his mother looking like that, but because this Japicha is visiting, he is more than willing to take the risk. The man begins to remove his shoes before stepping on Mother Karua’s carpet, and she does not stop him to say “Aaaaah, it is OK. Donja donja” like she does when it is our uncles from dala.
Picture a blue pair of socks that are no longer blue because they have been over-washed and now look like a dull sky on an overcast afternoon. They step into the living room and sit on couch opposite Karua. They exchange pleasantries, the small boy is asked to ruo juice for this wendo, and he asks “Cold or warm?”
He returns with a glass of juice and places it in front of him. And as he pulls away, the Japicha stops him, “Ero kamano, wuoyi matin. Ero take this and give your mother.” Wuoyi Matin receives a brown envelope with his right hand, always with the right hand, nods and gives the package to Mother Karua. Then goes back to standing behind her.
“Aaaaye ng’eya. You are sucking my blood,” she says, and Wuoyi Matin moves to the side and perches himself on the armrest of the sofa set. He watches as his mother puts her hand into the envelope and removes a pile of photos. She looks at them, one after the other, sometimes snickering, sometimes silent, many times making up some of the deadliest insults for people in the photos who did not pose well. Every time she looks at a photo, she passes it over to Wuoyi Matin. He looks at them for longer than she does, especially the ones which he is in. Notices the negatives attached at the back with a little film of cellotape.
The way this encounter usually ends is Wuoyi Matin being sent to fetch her kibet. No, to go discover it from wherever she had left it in her bedroom (because which African mothers ever remember where they keep their shit). He returns with the black one she came with from Kampala and she says no. “Bring the rachar one that was made in Turkey.”
The money is not in the kibet itself. It is inside a small purse that is inside the kibet. Japicha is given a couple of notes. 30 bob per photo – the ones that came out badly she does not pay for – and he says “Ero kamano” way too many times. On days when he sees that Karua is in a good mood, he begs her to let Japicha take more photos of him. When she agrees, he goes to wash his feet, oil his face until he shines like a new coin, stand at a corner and smile when the Japicha says “Say chiiiiiis.”
Lakini on days when he can see that Karua has been visited by the devils that visit African mothers and turn them into barracudas, he does not make a blip. He watches as Japicha mounts his black mamba that is no longer black and ride off, ringing his stupid bell, bothering Migosi Site kids playing track or bano for no reason whatsoever.
It has been a decade and some serious change since the man on a ndiga knocked on our gate. Gates changed. We grew tall. And nobody uses those Kodaks anymore. There are three albums on a speaker in Wuoyi Matin’s house. They are books of memory. Sometimes when people visit his house, they snoop around. He lets them.
The blue one with a cover that reminds him of The Bold and The Beautiful has snaps tucked into weathered sleeves; pictures from days he cannot remember. In it, Mother Karua is still a manyanga, and Deo was this tall, Sweeny had Reeboks nobody could take away from her, Nimrod looked like he has homework to do, and Wuoyi Matin was indeed a wuoyi matin. The small one with Titanic on the cover are the ones Japicha took. The other one has Karua’s graduation and wedding day. Then there is the big ominous one that nobody is allowed to touch. It is red and thick and in it we are all in black and white. In it, William is not awake. His face looks like he showered with Ushindi and forgot to oil himself.
In it are things we lost.
Always look out for number one. That was the unspoken rule of being in a Capture Kenya team. Number one here was Osborne Macharia. It was a photography project after all, so in as much as there was me as the blogger, the producer, the locations guy and the driver, everything we did was meant to support him. And Osborne was not shy to make use of that privilege. I mean, who would be? You have been given everything you need to come up with any concept you want and all you have to do is say the word? If he wanted to shoot an Indian holiday, he got an Indian holiday. If he wanted to shoot a choir alongside a dry riverbed in Garissa, the universe had to give him that damned dry river or else! If Oz wanted to shoot an old man dressed like a sapeur overlooking the browning corrugated iron sheets of Kibera in the morning, our producer called up a tailor, a police officer, a stylist and they made sure that he got what he wanted. So in the company of a history such as this, when Oz said he wanted to shoot a rooster whisperer balancing on a stunt, on top of a building, at 6am, well, damn, that was the easiest request he had made.
But it is not the trappings of this authority that intrigued me about what Oz was doing. It was the extent to which he was willing to get that one shot. The money shot. The one that he clicked, checked his screen, smiled and then said, “Hii ni pesa babaa!” And getting a pesa was not always fun. There was a time we were in Coasto and this man decided that he wanted to shoot two old men inside a boat in the middle of the ocean. Which is not a problem at face value, only that Oz shoots with a studio. Meaning we needed to get his lights and batteries into the ocean. “Chunga, usiwache battery ziguze maji. Tutapigwa shock hapa,” he warned us when we were already waist deep inside Indian Ocean. Our geese waiting to be cooked. Or rather, fried.
Lakini if that is not scary enough, then picture this.
Remember that rooster whisperer dude? The one who does bike stunts with his chicken? Clearly not from Western Kenya because us we do not play with food like that. Well, on that day, we were at the top of Lonrho House. 23 floors into the sky, if I am not wrong. You know what this idiot does? He decides that of all the angles that exist in this world, “shot ya pesa” had to be the one that requires him to have half his body over the edge of the building. Simeo Ondeto savior of Mary’s Legion!!! I could not look. I was like uh-uh. Then you know what he said after he was done? Ati “in case of anything, save the camera first.” He said it jokingly, but we all knew he was blahdy serious. It was a Hasselblad, after all. Camera ya picha moja. Google it.
The thrill got to me. Not the one for being stupid on high places. No. The thrill of chasing pictures. The thrill of looking at his laptop when he was going through what was done and trying to stop my jaw from finding the floor. The thrill of knowing that you made that. That you created something so beautiful Ezekiel Mutua is thinking of excuses to ban it.
I knew right there and then that I wanted to start telling stories in words and images. This was in 2014. I promised myself that I would learn how to take better photos. So serious was I that I put it in my 2015 New Year Resolutions. And it took me 2 years to actually pursue that resolve. You know how New Year resolutions are, eh? You decide something at beginning of the year, but then January is usually for trizex. Kidogo kidogo, it is Valentines, then Easter, then you sleep and wake up and it is Jamhuri Day. Repeat.
Somewhere in between those two years, I watched members of One Touch on The Trend with Larry Madowo, and it must have been either Joe Were or Mutua Matheka who said; the best camera is the one in your hand or something like that. They were talking about phone photography. So I bought a Samsung S7 Edge. Then downloaded Snapseed. And for a fleeting moment there, my IG got more and more action, and I felt like that wizard called Oz.
The first thing you do when you decide to finally pick up the 7D is open new accounts. This is you getting serious now. Big boy pants and all. You are no longer wearing briefs, you are a boxers person now. You create an Adobe account for its CC Suite. Behance to show your now professional work (LOL). Twitter. Instagram. Facebook Page. Website. Tumblr. Pinterest. 500px (mayie!). Omera this world is about to come to its knees when it sees the kind of images you will be putting out. Then you follow them all. All the big names in the industry. Starting with the ones that went for Capture Kenya; from 2013 all the way to 2016. Then you find more of them. You check out what they are doing and say,”Aaaa! An wuod meja. I can do this.”
You watch YouTube videos and tutorials. Soon, your Recommended segment changes from Bongo Music, Book Reviews and Comedy Central to suggestions from Peter McKinnon (even with that shit portrayal of Kenya he did, nkt), Jessica someone – the one with a funny accent, The Mango Street, sijui Casey Neistat, Adorama and Fstoppers kosokoso. You learn quickly the difference between JPEG and PNG. You learn that there is a language of Kenyan photographers in Kenya; first of all, they call themselves togz, they always have to share their images on Instagram with deep inspirational quotes (preferably from a dead hero), and every time they accept a compliment, they do not just use words, but also one of three emojis – the first bump, monkey covering eyes, person lifting their hands in surrender. You learn that ‘Exposure’ is not just a currency for payment for artists, but actually everything you need to know about photography. Because as Oz once told you so long ago, photography is the art of reading light. Then ati this exposure can be long or short.
Shockingly, too, you discover that Shooting Raw has nothing to do with having sex without a condom.
Halafu nobody seems to agree as to which Mode should be used for shooting. Everyone you respect has differing opinions. One says go Manual. The others said Aperture Priority. Then there are the rules. Rule of odds, rules of thirds, rule of akia ni ang’o. You are supposed to follow them, but then also break them at the same time.
While YouTube can be a great resource, it refuses to make sense at times. These photographers will in one channel tell you how gear does not matter, and then in the next, they show you their studio setup/gear bags littered with top of the range lights, lenses of all shapes and sizes and a Canon 1DX.
And if you manage to somehow Kalonzo your way through those two, then it is the people who will get you. You point a camera at them and they think you want to shoot them. Like literally. Shoot to kill means something completely different.
It takes a while before you understand the nuances of owning a DSLR. That to shoot Nairobi, you have to know the watchmen so that they can let you access rooftops. You oil their hands with a few reds and they let you in. That if it is a must you shoot street, go on Sundays when most kanjos are on their off day. That saying gear does not matter is not untrue, but rather incomplete. The truth is if you want to shoot a long exposure during the day, then you need ND filters. So that you get that delicious blend of colour when shooting during the day, then maybe a polarizer is necessary. That a camera with faster frames per second is better for sports and wildlife, and that you probably would need to marry it with a longer lens to get nice close-up shots. That an L-series lens gives you a better image than a kit lens.
But also that gear does not make you a great photographer. Great photography is a skill that you practice, not something you buy. If it was as easy as buying top of the class equipment and fancy gadgets, then everyone and his mother, rich enough to own a Nikon D5 and an f1.2 50mm lens, would be a great portrait photographer. That photography is less about the camera you have, and more about what you do with it. So when you post a fire image of the Nairobi skyline and people ask “Which camera do you use,” you laugh at first because it is funny how people imagine that if they had the equipment you have, then they would create the same image. Because cameras do not take pictures. People do.
You soon come to also understand that, while a camera/lens does not make you any more of a good photographer than owning a Mac with the latest Microsoft Word software makes you a better writer, nobody has ever asked “Which camera did you use” after looking at a mediocre image.
And finally, that Mutua/Joe Were lied. The best camera is not the one in your hand. It is the one that God gave almost all of us. Our eyes. Because when you are at the rooftop of the UAP building, standing at the top of the world and watching little ants with red buttocks and white heads run here and there, you realize that there is no camera that can ever replicate what you see. You feel sorry for those who will look at the image and merely like it as they scroll down their feeds. They do not understand just how close creating beautiful things comes to playing God.
He picked up the Canon 7D long after the bug to freeze beautiful moments had bit, but also at a time when his writing was taking a hit. Writing is his number one, no doubt. But there is something that is reducted from a passion when it becomes commercialized. It stops being just fun. It becomes work. And work is tiring. Picking up the Canon was a way for him to get his creative juices flowing again. But photography is addictive. The moment you touch it it sticks on you the way those cheap Eastleigh perfumes stick on clothes. He found himself carrying it everywhere. He even began seeing the world differently. He can no longer just walk around town or just attend a concert or just be in a building or a restaurant. All around him, he sees things. Leading lines. Rule of thirds. Rule of odds. He is always composing.
And yes, photography took him away from his number one. But it did not feel like a betrayal. He did not sell his writing down the river because of the Canon. In fact, that is what he needed. To get away from it all so that he could rediscover what he wants. So when people noticed that the writing became less and the photography became more, many of them asked, “Are you a writer or a photographer,” and right then he realized that we had been conditioned wrongly.
We are human beings with intellect. That was the side effect of eating the forbidden fruit. So whereas biting that fruit kicked us out of Eden, it gave us the possibility of becoming whatever it is we wanted to be. And nowhere is it written that a human being can only be one thing, is there?
I mean, it is not even possible.
The nature of being human is that we are different things at the same time. We are parents, students, Christians/Muslims/whatever, lovers, citizen and glorious heartbeats of the sun’s flames…all at the same time. But then when it comes to what you do for a living, then all of a sudden it is an either/or type of situation?
So picture this. A dream to tell stories of people and places, to dignify the human condition with expression in whatever form possible and/or available. When he takes off his writing cloak and picks up the 7D, he becomes Japicha. In memory and honour of the many men who came before him, riding on black mambas that were no longer black.