Jeri Muchura came into the limelight recently when she won the professional category in the Mo Ibrahim Foundation-sponsored MyAfrica photo competition 2016. She tells us about finding hope through photography and life behind the lens.
In person, it is easy to reconcile the image of an award-winning photographer and the skill attached to it. She is as picturesque as they can get. On her head, a bohemian Mohawk; on her neck, a piece of jewelry that speaks about her love for art. And when she takes out her camera, she cuddles it like she has a relationship with it. Her cute face is hence merely a plus to who she has become.
But don’t be deceived with her level of perfection. Behind her success is a story, one she has accepted is part of who she is.
In the early months of 2012, Jeri Muchura found herself sliding into an unfamiliar space. A mysterious hand had a firm grip around her and pulled her into a dark cave. Millions of thoughts crisscrossed in her mind like rush-hour traffic in India, she says.
She didn’t understand it herself. But she recalls a strange feeling; a sense of foreboding; like something terribly bad was going to happen. This darkness, like a bad fog that won’t go away, would stick around her for hours, days and weeks. At such times, she contemplated the unthinkable.
“While randomly walking in town I would move in front of buses and hope that the driver would run me over. But every time the vehicle would stop soon enough to avoid such a catastrophe,” Jeri says.
She was 29 at the time. The journey of her life had suddenly hit a blind spot. Not long before that all seemed well. She had even participated in the 2001 Miss Tourism Kenya pageant.
But then, in 2010, she moved in with the man she loved. Within two years, she would give birth to two children.
“Motherhood meant that I had to take time off work. We depended on my husband’s earnings to survive,” she says.
The family lived in Ongata Rongai – on the outskirts of Nairobi. But Jeri’s husband worked in the city. The distance and the ‘nature of his work’ separated them. And so, the couple resolved to move the family to the city.
“We moved from a two-bedroomed house to an SQ. It was what we could afford at the time,” Jeri says.
Within this limited space she found no comfort. And despite moving closer to her husband’s place of work he was constantly away from home working. She had two children, both quite young, to look after.
“I stopped seeing life as it was. Slowly, I slipped into depression,” she recalls. But things were about to get worse. Her husband quit his job in May 2012 citing “struggles at work.” It put the whole family in an awkward position. “There was no money and we had two children to cater for and bills to pay. It didn’t help matters that we were planning to have a wedding in two months,” Jeri says.
She couldn’t have needed anything more to nudge her over into the depression. She contemplated leaving him: ending their relationship and shedding a little of the misery.
“We fought frequently. I told myself I was pretty and could easily move on after him. In anger, I would tell him that I no longer loved him. I would pack up and tell him the wedding was off,” Jeri says.
She was tired of his 'half-assed plans’ which never yielded anything. When grief hung in her heart she got suicidal. Sometimes, she numbed the pain by taking pictures of her daughters using her mobile phone.
Clicking away at her daughters provided a cathartic release. Her mother-in-law saw the pictures and was impressed. She gifted Jeri with a camera, “so that I could continue taking more of my children’s pictures.”
A week before her wedding day, Jeri’s husband got a new job and the family moved into a three-bedroomed house. It was the big break; coming in the wake of broke months on the edge.
She had managed to keep it together. It could have been because of her husband’s understanding nature – the fact that he didn’t take her outbursts seriously. Or maybe the socio-psychological support she received from friends and church members. She was just grateful to be alive.
The wedding took place on August 15, 2012. “Our families came together to make sure that all went as planned,” she says.
Jeri submitted the pictures she had taken of her daughters for a photography competition. It is through the competition that she got her first award and got a camera for the prize.
Since then, her job has been photography. Her career had been in TV production. But photography seemed to tickle her fancy – apart from earning her a living. Her camera is a reminder of the vagaries of life. At the same time, in it, she sees her salvation.
Looking back, Jeri says the depression was not at all shocking. “My mother had clinical depression. My sister too has it. I have traces of it,” she says. Thus, she was genetically predisposed to the condition.
“For a woman, there is nothing more satisfactory than financial security. When that security is no longer assured, then you see the real test of love. Not that my love for my husband was dependent on money: I felt like he was the cause of my problems. After our fights, we would calm down and talk. It was not him that I didn’t love but rather our situation,” she says.
Jeri is now a full time photographer. She has been contracted to work for corporate firms and private citizens alike. “It is my career. And in a way it is therapeutic too,” she says.
“I don’t look for perfect pictures. My interest is always to capture the soul of the picture,” she says, knowing too well that it is the soul of a picture that saved her own from sinking when darkness hung over her like a bad cloud in 2012.