Thomas Mukoya is the photo journalist behind a 2017 photo of a protestor catching a teargas canister. He tells Maria Nene how patience has paid off in his 18-year career and what being recognised as the Photographer of the Year at the 2018 Annual Journalism Excellence Awards (AJEA) means to him.
Who are you?
I am a father and a photojournalist who is passionate about photography in general. I am normally a shy person but the lens always manages to strip off my boundaries. When I am handling the camera, I become absorbed in photography and I find myself doing stuff which can probably be out of this world.
What kind of things are these?
There’s a photo I took last year of a demonstrator catching a tear gas canister. This is when the former Prime Minister Raila Odinga was coming back from the USA and the police had placed road blocks along the road. I had to be patient in order for me to take the photo. It was intriguing because the police are used to beating up protestors but in this scenario, it was the protestor fighting back in a controversial way.
How did you get into photography?
My journey into photography started in a Diploma in Journalism class at The Kenya Institute of Mass Communication (KIMC). Then I joined KBC as an intern but broadcast journalism wasn’t my thing. So I left for The People newspaper and I found myself on the photography desk. I was keen on it and the fact that there were few photographers boosted my interest. In 2001, I decided that I should polish up my photography skills.
What inspired you to venture into journalism?
I was always interested in telling stories when I was growing up. I was the one who would always gather people around to tell them what was happening all over the world, because I was an avid reader of newspapers and magazines. I was always the story teller, and I also wanted to inform people about current affairs from all over the world. When we closed school, I would be glued to the TV just watching news and trying to find out where the world was heading.
What makes your photography unique?
Every event I attend is always special. I never have any perceptions about the situation. I always face every challenge in a new way because every photo shoot has a different setting, people and environment. I normally prepare myself very well, even psychologically. I just don’t take the photos and leave. I talk to the people, make contacts that make future sources and socialise with them. I ensure that I sympathise and empathise before I can start.
You are the 2018 AJEA Photographer of the Year, how did you feel when you heard the news?
I was excited, happy to be AJEA’s top photographer of 2018. It proved to me that I’m on the right track and that I’m ethically correct. The judges had faith in my work and they felt I worked professionally and it proved to me that we should regulate ourselves as we work. I am grateful that the judges appreciated my work.
What makes you a cut above the rest?
I do a lot of research. I keep abreast with current affairs and all possible events. This helps me in predicting the future possible intriguing moments, to know what is still relevant in the past and to know what is current.
How do you handle difficult subjects in the field?
I have to study the environment to understand the story I am working on. I get to the field in advance and talk to everyone and I will use crowd psychology to read the mood of people who are present. I always hang my camera around my neck and when I observe everyone who is present and whoever isn’t comfortable will just leave or ignore me. Generally, I take photos and I try and explain what I am doing and my endgame. In difficult scenarios where there is a lot going on, I have to talk to people even before I start taking photos. Talking to people will always help me in knowing the story behind the story and at times, it gives rise to other stories. It even helps me work better and develop other interests. I cannot remember a scenario where someone wanted to destroy my camera or told me to delete photos because they were uncomfortable.
Apart from photojournalism, what else do you do? How do you unwind?
I’m an all-round life photographer, my life revolves around photography. I am the Senior Reuters photo director for East Africa. Even when I am not in the field, I am on my desk hard at work. During my free time, I always look at photos on my phone, books or magazines. I am passionate about photography and I am naturally drawn to it. Photography and editing photos has been my work and my passion for the longest time.
When did you get your Aha! moment?
My turning point was in 2003 when Professor Odhiambo Mbai was killed in his house. He was a university lecturer, and one of the commissioners in the body that was working on a draft constitution. University students were protesting and I got some very dramatic photos. There was no social media, so the following day in the newspapers, my work was appreciated because of the quality and the context. I was on the scene at the right time and I got the right photos and people started appreciating me and following up on my work. I receive e-mails from people who want to get the story behind the photo and this makes me proud.
Single or taken?
I have a wife and three children but I am rarely at home. I have two daughters who are 10 and 6 and a 2-year-old son. My work keeps me moving all the time. When I am in Nairobi, I try to spend as much time as possible with them, although it is not so easy. I find it difficult to cope especially for the kids and whenever I can squeeze even a second, I pass it with them. When I am traveling, I always countercheck my schedule and find out when I will be coming back. Although some stories might prove to be interesting and following them up can be overwhelming, I prefer to know the exact dates when I will arrive and leave. When I have a return ticket, I always look forward to coming back to my family.
How do your children cope?
They miss me and I thank them for understanding what I do because I only get to spend a little time with them. They approve of my work and when I have to travel, they understand my work. Whenever I travel, they always research and find out where I am going so that they can follow up. We communicate frequently even though being with them physically is what I cherish. If I could travel with them everywhere I would be very happy.
How do you keep the flame burning with your wife?
I know that it is challenging for her when I am in the field. It becomes more difficult especially when I am on leave and I still have to leave for personal projects but I thank God that she understands what I do. I know that she needs me and I miss her but at times we have to do what we have to do in order to earn a living.