Millions of pictures are taken on the streets of the world's cities every day, but snapshots from the streets aren't really the same thing as street photography, for what a street photographer captures are candid moments that reveal the truth of a place and its people. They often make you see the city's streets as if for the first time and act as a mirror to society. It's an intimate art that surely must come from a deep interest in and love of the theatre of public places - the beauty and comedy of its randomness and unexpectedness, its noisy energy and its quiet moments - and, probably most of all, compassion for and empathy with people of all shapes and sizes. And humility; I doubt you can be a snob and a good street photographer.
For a long time most good street photography from African was shot by visitors from the West, but thankfully this is starting to change, albeit very, very slowly - people must tell their own stories. Photographers like Amaize Ojeikhere, Kelechi Amadi-Obi, Boubacar Toure Mandemory and Mamadou Gomis are internationally acclaimed, but thanks to the internet we're starting to come across photographers who've been beavering away for only a short time, aren't yet that well known, but whose work, from the moment you set eyes on it, has that revelatory quality of the best street photography.
Louis Majanja is one such photographer. What first struck me about Louis, besides the quality of his work - the chosen moments, the composition, etc. - was that he'd been shooting in places like Brazil and Cuba. You don't come across many street photographers from Africa working that far afield, so not only was I eager to do a regular Q&A about his work but also curious to know about the man himself, and how he ended up shooting so far from "home". So first Louis's story in his own words, then the Q&A.
- [Transit workers] same hustle different street - in the daily struggle
I got interested in street photography about 2 years ago when i lived in Oakland, CA; I didn't even know it was called that then. I had made up my mind to move to Africa, but up till that point I had spent half my life in the U.S., so I went out and got a camera and started taking pictures of the mundane things, people and place I knew I would miss. I also travelled extensively within the US the year prior to leaving - most of the images from this period are nothing to write home about, but I got comfortable having a camera with me all the time and knew what kind of pictures I wanted to take.
Then when I left the US I decided to travel quite a bit before settling down in Kenya - I travelled to Colombia (Bogotá, Cartagena, and a few places in between), then to Brazil where I spent close to two months travelling from the south all the way up to the Amazon in the north. I was supposed to travel to Peru and Argentina, too, but it gets tricky when you're travelling with an African passport. Anyway, I also travelled through Guyana, Jamaica, the Cayman Islands ad Cuba. I was in all these places just enjoying myself and meeting people, but I was also in the streets taking pictures.
From Cuba I travelled to Spain, from where I was supposed to travel across to Morocco and Senegal, then down along the coast of West Africa, then Kenya and to South Africa for the World Cup. But all this got interrupted which is a whole other story. Still, I managed to travel to Ethiopia, Tanzania and Ghana.
I hope someday to travel to and shoot in the streets of the different African cities, because Africa is changing, getting more urbanised, change is everywhere and I'd take part in documenting this.
Anyway, when I got to Nairobi I started setting up a business - I'm a businessman - but the pace of things can be glacial here at times, so I kept on taking pictures and called my blog The Daily Struggle. I called it this because of my daily struggle to get my business up and running, and the images are the paces I pass through and the things and people I see on my daily struggle.
As for equipment, I have a humble camera called a Sigma DP2, a compact non-DSLR camera that I have been shooting with for close to 2 years now - I should probably replace it but it's served me well thus far.
All things being equal I would prefer to shoot in the early morning and late afternoons, but this isn't always possible, so I shoot whenever and wherever.
- Daily Struggle, Kakuma (Refugee camp, northwestern Kenya)
A Q&A WITH LOUIS MAJANJA
This Is Africa: What would you say is missing from street photographs shot in African cities by Western photographers?
Louis: Well, I'm not to sure what's missing since I haven't taken much time to study what's out there. And also Africa is big and diverse so it's hard to judge what is or isn't missing unless you've been to all the different places. But what I can say is that most photographs taken or commonly available about Africa are shot for advocacy purposes and reportage.
- Aga Khan walk, Nairobi. Aga khan walk, stretches a couple of blocks from the Hilton Hotel all the way to Haile Selassie Avenue. Its iconic but also neglected at the same time.
[It's] one of the few civic spaces that has not been appropriated. Most days you see people sitting on the sides marking time, mostly waiting for a ‘meeting’ with somebody, [for] an appointment with somebody who doesn’t really care about somebody else’s time.
This Is Africa: What draws you to the streets, and to the streets of Nairobi in particular? What are you trying to capture or convey?
Louis: Well I'm not sure if there's anything in particular, but when I started really taking pictures - habitually it was in the streets of Oakland and San Francisco. That was the type of photography that interested me, and now I'm in Nairobi and those are the pictures I take here too.
This Is Africa: Do you have a theme or some ideas in mind when head out, or how do you decide what to shoot?
Louis: I don't really have anything in particular in mind, I just try to capture whatever is around me that catches my eye. But more importantly I try to capture the mundane things that might not seem interesting and people take for granted. You know everybody has a camera nowadays - so everyone captures the big events the obvious things. But on the whole I keep an open mind.
- Njugu Lane. May 2011
This Is Africa: How is Nairobi different from any other city you've shot in?
Louis: I think every city is different, and has its own characteristics. In Nairobi many things tend to be fenced in. Capturing colours here is quite difficult. Also Nairobi is on the equator, which means the sun is up most of the day so you have to deal with direct sunlight if you're shooting outdoors.
This Is Africa: What are the pitfalls of shooting in Nairobi, problems you didn't encounter shooting elsewhere? And what's the best defence against overly enthusiastic police officers and officials?
Louis: There are no defences except for your understanding of the law and how well you can communicate with people to get them to understand that you are within your rights. But also try not to get into unnecessary fights.
- Nairobi. May 2011
This Is Africa: How do you get close to your subjects without alerting them to your presence?
Louis: I don't really think that's my goal. I generally have my camera where it can be seen and just take pictures; if people object so be it. On the other hand I don't use a big camera so people don't pay too much attention to it.
This Is Africa: Do you think you'd encounter more, fewer or simply different problems shooting in Nairobi if you were a white guy, and why?
Louis: Hmm, thats an interesting question. I think [it makes a difference] in places with gatekeepers, because most gatekeepers are also rent seekers; I see that often. For instance a while ago I wanted to take pictures at the railway station. I would think that it should be easy just go to the station and take pics right?, but instead I had to go through six months of bureaucratic mess. And for what? but I know of people who walked in one day and got permission the same day.
- In transit - Dandora
This Is Africa: Which Nairobi-specific clichés do you avoid shooting, and why?
Louis: Nothing is a cliché, to me anything that's in front of me and interesting is fair game, as long as it doesn't bother my conscience. There are thing's I've seen but didn't take pictures of, like corpses on the street. I think you actually have to actively seek out a lot of the clichéd stuff. Like if I pass through Kibera [Nairobi's largest slum] I will take pictures but it's not like I'm in Kibera daily so you will see one or two pics and that's it.
This Is Africa: Which photographers do you admire, and why, which ones have influenced you, and how?
Louis: Thats a whole topic on its own. I'm still new to this and discovering great photographers, old and new. But some of my favourites are Sebastião Salgado, Gordon Parks and Garry Winogrand. But there is a whole bunch of photographers doing great work out there. I also admire what Vincent Laforet and Chase Jarvis are doing.
- Daily Struggle, December 2010
This Is Africa: And if we restrict the question to African street photographers?
Louis: Not sure I know any out there, but I'd like to meet and learn more about them. It seems to me most photographers are mainly photojournalists, but there are many whose work I appreciate and admire, mostly out of SA - Ernest Cole, Zwelethu Mthethwa, Peter Magubane, Alf Khumalo. I also need to mention Malick Sidibé.
This Is Africa: How have Kenyans and other African visitors to your blog responded to your photographs, and is there any noticeable difference between their responses and those of Western visitors?
Louis: There is a mixed reaction. I think most Africans in the diaspora like images that contradict the popular portrayal of Africa in the media - it's like they are looking for some sort of affirmation about their view of Africa, so if I post an image with modern looking building or maybe a highway people like that stuff for some reason. On the other hand I get responses from people who say that I mostly dwell on the struggles on the gritty side of life. I somewhat understand where people are coming from with this, but I take pictures of life as it happens. Most Westerners are intrigued about Nairobi. I think [they discern] a different view of life, and I get request a lot of the time to contextualise the images, to describe them.
- Dunga Road
This Is Africa: If you could save only one shot from all the ones you've taken in Nairobi, which would it be and why?
Louis: That would be difficult. I don't think I'm emotionally attached to any image, at least not yet. [I asked Louis to choose one, nonetheless, and he chose the one below].
I think this image has so much going on. You know, the reason I sometimes take pictures is because writing is difficult, but there is a lot going on in this picture; each and everything in the picture is telling a story, from the building, the guy in the overalls, the lady in the white jacket, the man sitting down, the man lying down.
This Is Africa: How has the way you look through the lens changed since you moved back to Nairobi?
Louis: I don't know yet, but it has allowed me to get to know the city more intimately
- Model at the main bus terminal. Let me switch gears a little. A few weeks ago I got together with some friends to shoot some models in the streets. Now fashion shoots are not really my thing, but I wanted to shoot in the streets as if it were real life. The biggest challenge taking pictures in Nairobi, is dealing with the direct sunlight. Also the city requires that you have permits, though for what we were doing we didn’t need permits - but the idle city council staff can harass you to death just to extract something from you. To add to that Nairobians have a tendency to form crowds around anything so that if you stay in one place long enough a crowd will inevitably form and crowds quickly become uncontrollable mobs.
The shoot was largely experimental, my goal was to show and integrate fashion and the streets knowing very well that in the streets of Nairobi function precedes aesthetic. There is a tendency to cover, not to adorn, to wear not to dress. But there are always those that stand out and that's the effect I was trying to get.
This Is Africa: How much interest do gallery owners in Kenya have in street photography, or in photography in general, and what sort of photography tends to attract an appreciative audience in Kenya?
Louis: I haven't had any interest from gallery owners, but there aren't that many galleries here either.
This Is Africa: How has photography changed you as a person, and changed the way you look at the world?
Louis: I don't know yet, I'm still relatively new to this. I think i see the world as I have always seen it, but maybe it has made me aware of the small things happening around me.
- In most places taking pictures of the trains is simple and straightforward, [but not in Nairobi].
This Is Africa: What advice would you give to anyone thinking of taking up street photography?
Louis: Just do it.
Check Louis Majanja's photographic chronicle of Nairobi at The Daily Struggle. His photographic blog of street photography beyond Kenya runs under the name Foreign Streets.