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The Perfect Shot: Street photography in Nairobi

Arts and Culture
 Lewis Lee (fotorickenya) a photographer in the streets of Nairobi photographs a client on Sunday afternoon. [Denis Kibuchi, Standard]

On one end of Nairobi's Central Business District, at Standard Street, two young women pose for a photoshoot. It is Sunday, and the beaming ladies bask in the flashing lights of the camera together. It is a whole set, with reflectors standing by to make sure the sunlight hits the subjects perfectly. There is also an assistant helping the photographer out.

Over on Kenyatta Avenue, groups of young people, photography equipment at hand, appear to be completely engulfed in the business of the day - street photography. There are also other groups shooting dance videos in other appealing crevasses of this place that Kenyans fondly, yet informally, call "town".

Although it may have started as fun and games, street photography is growing rapidly. It is also a form of self-employment for many youths with a passion for the arts. Being passionate is a major part of this line of work, as The Sunday Standard learns from dozens of youths whom we spend the day with.

Laban, 25, says he has been a professional photographer since 2019. Before taking on the interview, he photographs two friends, and then a gentleman. It is a busy day for him.

"I enjoy the fieldwork in my career, as well as interacting with people and the thrill of taking good photos. I charge Sh150 per picture."

Social media is a driving force for this kind of photography. It acts as the photographer's portfolio, showcasing their best shoots and attracting new clients. Not only that, but young Kenyan men and women will go to great lengths to get flawless pictures for their Instagram feeds. If it means hiring a professional to capture them looking their best and surrounded by beautiful Nairobi scenery; then so be it.

Although Laban has had no challenges with security, some of his colleagues working on this day have. Lewis Maganga, who goes by Photorick, warns that street photographers have to be wary of their surroundings and leave the CBD early enough, for their safety.

"I have been doing street photography for four years. The industry is a bit challenging, but we are adjusting and doing our best, Lewis says, adding, "I get most of my clients through referrals. I advertise my work through Instagram."

The 23-year-old says he shows up at appointment times and is packed up and out of 'town' by dark.

"To carry my equipment, I come by cab. I want my company to grow," the shutterbug says.

 A photographer in the streets of Nairobi photographs a client. This has become a trend, especially on Sundays when the city is less congested. [Denis Kibuchi, Standard]

There has also been a change in the CBD since Nairobi Governor Johnson Sakaja waived the permit fees for photographers late last year. Nairobi County Executive Committee Member for Finance and Economic Planning, Lawrence Wambua, in a memo to his Trade and Industrialisation counterpart directed that the photographers and filmmakers be granted a waiver.

Reuben Muigai, who goes by Lexie Arts says that nowadays, the police do not stop them from doing their work.

"The Governor straightened things up. Prior to that, police would interrupt important shoots, dispersing photographers and their clients, ruining a shoot."

The 22-year-old runs a studio in Kikuyu, but will spend the day in 'town almost every other Sunday. He has been doing street photography for two years. He reveals that when starting in the field, securing photography equipment was crucial.

Susan Matanzia shows up to the CBD looking cute in a crop top, faded jeans and Nike shoes, ready for her shoot with a good friend and photographer.

"This is my first professional shoot. Today, I was told to do streetwear, and that is how I came up with this edgy look."

The model of the day says she appreciates street photography for its role in promoting Nairobi's culture as well as offering an avenue for youth to earn an income. As the afternoon progresses, we meet Keith, who goes by Greengrapher. The 21-year-old Biochemistry student credits his father for guiding him through becoming a photographer.

"My dad was a photographer and I always admired what he did. I learnt by watching lots of YouTube videos, and dad also gave me photography books to read through," Keith says, adding, "When I told him that I wanted to do photography, he was very supportive."

He took on the craft in 2020.

 Reuben Muigai (lexie arts) a photographer in the streets of Nairobi photographs a client on Sunday afternoon. [Denis Kibuchi, Standard]

Ramadhan Saiid of Karali pictures handles his street photography differently from most of his peers. He works the camera throughout the week, often coming to the CBD by 4am just to catch the images he describes as "specific".

"I have been doing this for two years. What gives me an edge is that I practice a lot. In a day, I will shoot up to 20 separate images, all different from the other and unique. I want to get a specific shot like Nairobi at night or capture the sunrise. I will also be around in the evenings to capture the sunset, Nairobi is my canvas."

The 28-year-old photographer says his clients are mostly at exhibitions, so he frames the beautiful sites of the city, which he has captured.

"There are also publications which purchase my street photography - like Stock Photos," Ramadhan says, revealing that he has worked with Shutterstock, iStock, Adobe Stock.

Ramadhan encourages those just starting in the field, noting that practice makes perfect, and persistence is key.

In 2021, The Standard covered street photography as it was gaining momentum. At the time, we spoke to Haim Photography, who explained the ins and outs of the craft. On this day, we serendipitously run into him conducting photoshoots in town. He lets us know how things have changed since then.

"Vitu zime change kwa street. Nowadays, security is upon you as an individual. We are allowed to shoot at the CBD, but there is the risk of being mugged," he says.

He shares a colleague was mugged while working, and recently.

"He lost all his gadgets. The thieves posed as clients, picked him up and said they had changed the shoot location. They held him at gun point, relieving him leave all his belongings before leaving him stranded."

He notes the need for tightened security as well as for the beautification of the CBD.

"We ask the government to beautify and improve the city as much as they can. If the look and style of the city is changed occasionally, we will be able to capture something different."

 A photographer in the streets of Nairobi waiting for a client. [Denis Kibuchi, Standard]

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