He was the most prolific indigenous photojournalists in pre- and post-independence Kenya to gain global acclaim. Priya Ramrakha’s pioneering legacy was brought alive by his blood relations nearly 40 years after being killed during Nigeria’s Biafra War in 1968.
Priya, a third-generation Kenyan, could have been forgotten, but filmmaker Shravan Vidyarthi, whose father was Priya’s cousin, began retracing his life through colleagues, family, friends and the over 100,000 photo negatives, prints, contact sheets and documents he found in 2004 inside a dusty cardboard box in a Nairobi garage.
Shravan’s documentary, Through the African Lens: The Story of Priya Ramrakha, features rare archival images and newsreels from 1950s and 1960s Africa, and interviews with various photographers, journalists and historians, including Morley Safer, the CBS correspondent he was with in Biafra, the late Prof Ali Mazrui, the late nationalist Achieng Oneko, Chester Higgins Jr, a New York Times photographer, Paul Theroux, the travel writer who once lived in Maralal, and Peter Sissons, former ITN correspondent.
The documentary won the Best African Film award at the 2008 Zanzibar International Film Festival.
Priya, the son of a consular officer, was from the larger Vidyarthi family, where patriarch GL Vidyarthi co-founded and edited anti-colonial publications like Colonial Times and Habari za Dunia, the first homespun Kiswahili newspaper he founded in 1935.
Through Colonial Printing Works, the Vidyarthis also printed militant indigenous publications like Oneko’s Ramogi and Sauti ya Mwafrika.
Vidyarthi was Priya’s uncle, who employed him as a photographer for Colonial Times at the height of the Mau Mau insurgency in 1952. He was 18. The earliest photos depicting Kenya’s State of Emergency, the roundup of suspects and the bloody aftermath in horrific retaliations like the Lari Massacre in 1953, were taken by Priya.
He later published his photos in pro-British press like The Citizen and Drum magazine after anti-colonial publications were gagged or shut.
A photography scholarship by American documentary photographer Eliot Elisofon saw Priya leave Kenya for Arts Centre College in Los Angeles, USA in 1960.
There, he took pictures of Martin Luther King Jr’s civil rights crusades, the marches of Malcolm X, the concerts of Miriam Makeba and presidential campaigns of John F Kennedy.
Shortly, his journalistic skills and artistic flair were noticed by photo editors at Time and Life magazines. With a British passport from colonial Kenya, Priya accessed hitherto off-limit zones in Kenya, Congo, Zanzibar, Yemen, Ethiopia, Nigeria and the then Czechoslovakia.
Priya was shot dead at the age of 33 by soldiers while covering the Biafra War for Life magazine in Owerri, Imo State in 1968.
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