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The cost of ‘fotomoto’, the most valuable thing today

The first time I ventured into street photography, I managed to sell only one photo for Kes100 after a lot of coaxing and begging. Nevertheless, it felt immensely satisfying to finally earn something from my skills. As dusk approached and my camera batteries neared exhaustion, I took solace in the fact that I had captured my best shots and felt content with my work.

On my way back to the CBD, just before reaching the GPO roundabout, I happily tucked the worn-out Kes100 note into my watch pocket. However, my joy was short-lived as stern government agents intercepted us. “Simameni hapo nyinyi!” yelled a man with blood-flecked eyes and a weathered face, quickly advancing toward my friends and me. Though tempted to ignore him, we were apprehensive given our activities.

Engaged in covert photography around the city center, our actions at the time were borderline unlawful, resembling activities like hawking. Initially maintaining composure and continuing to walk, our unease escalated when the man began to chase us as if pursuing a criminal. Faced with a dilemma, we had to decide quickly. Running would implicate us, akin to hawkers, while staying put meant anticipating potential repercussions from the approaching man. We chose to flee.

Amid the chaos, two more burly men appeared, seemingly coordinating to corner us from the opposite side of the road. Clutching my bag tightly to my chest, I swiftly boarded one of the buses that had momentarily stopped on the orders of a traffic police officer regulating the flow into the city.

City askaris hunting photographers

“Buda hii imejaa!” the conductor yelled loudly, piercing me with unwelcoming eyes. “Acha tu nisimame, ntalipa bado,” I pleaded innocently looking at him because I knew hell had broken loose with all those kanjos (City county askaris) hunting us down.

As I breathed a sigh of relief having barely made it out of the jaws of the Kanjos, my saviour served a gut punch on me… “Gari ni Kes50,” he said, looking at me with stretched-out hands for the dues. If you know Globe Cinema roundabout, it is a two-kilometre drive into the city that hardly justifies the tout’s demands. I had only saved my hundred shillings from the government only to get conned by this matatu guy? I was not having it, “Aah bro, nashukia hapo Ambassador, mimi ulipa Kes20,” I pleaded, feeling my pockets for the hundred bob afraid I might have dropped it even. 

“Shuka basi kama hauna 50,” the tout said all of a sudden, angry and threatening to throw me back to the reception committee of the marauding kanjos baying for our blood. I felt he knew I was being followed by kanjoz and that was why he was hiking the charge for me. Plying this route, he must be familiar with scuttling hawkers, and petty offenders fleeing the long arm of the plain clothes county police enforcers from whom he has been offering overpriced refuge. 

I took out my one-hundred-shilling note and gave it to him and he quickly gave me back my change, now my earnings for the day had been slashed in half. I waited to alight on my destination, quickly held my bag on my chest and walked to Orokise Sacco stage and took a bus back home to Rongai.

I sat there thinking about all the possibilities of me not being able to make it back home that day just for trying to organize my first street photoshoot. Poorly compensated and shaken, I realised just how risky it was for me and put myself and my work out there to the world. I was among the many young men and women paying the true cost of photography that sustains a much larger global economy.

The rise in street photography has been fuelled by a demand for beautiful pictures to meet the mind-boggling social media platform business model that outsources content creators for free, mines consumers’ data secretly, and then sells it to advertisers making billions in the process.

Data: Most valuable thing

Instagram for example where most of the photos we take go to, makes about Kes6.4 trillion ($51.4 billion) while TikTok created less than a decade ago makes Kes1.1 trillion ($9.4 billion). 

Their business model built around data, the most valuable thing today, relies on cultivated narcissism and preying on insecurities that has made it a must to have clear blemish less high definition photos. This demand has created opportunities for photographers like me either chasing street photos for a hundred shillings bob or studio photography like ProStudios where I work currently. New concepts such as the Selfie Village, a one stop shop content creation charging about Kes2000 are also coming up feeding into the massive flow of data, that like the industrial age is extracting data and content from developing world to billion dollar business in the developed world. 

In Kenya, where unemployment of 15 to 34-year-olds, who form 35 percent of the Kenyan population, stands at 67 percent, photographers are more than willing to feed the system with fresh authentic content for Kes100, less than a dollar. Maybe because for some of us, it is not just a job, photography is a passion. 

I have fond memories of capturing moments for people, always experimenting with my phone camera. Back then, my passion for photography was driven by the joy of seeing people smile through the camera’s lens. While I enjoyed the process of taking photos, I wasn’t focused on preserving or storing them. I would capture the moments, revel in the smiles I had frozen in time, share them with my subjects, and delete them from my end.

At some point, inspired by encouragement from those who recognized my talent, I decided to elevate my photography skills. After forming connections in the photography field, I joined a crew specializing in weddings and club photography. It took me a couple of months to save up around Kes80,000 to purchase my first professional camera, a Nikon D5300, equipped with a high-quality prime lens.

Saturated market

Read also: In Kenya, ‘Nikw’a ngwete’ famine of dying while holding money unfolds

However, owning a professional camera marked just the beginning of my journey. Establishing my clientele and making a name for myself in a saturated market with numerous photographers and amateurs proved to be challenging.

I faced the harsh reality of having a camera but no clients. Initially, I offered free photoshoots, but this led to people taking advantage of my services. I found myself shooting at baby showers, accompanying other photographers to events, and shooting for free at various occasions, which eventually left me struggling.

One day, feeling the weight of desperation, I psyched myself up with the thought, ‘Ayaa, kwani hii Nairobi ni ya kina nani? Hakuna vile ntakua na camera nimewekesha tu kwa hao nangoja wasee wanitambue’ (Why should I let this camera gather dust while waiting for recognition in Nairobi?). At that point, I had nothing, not even maize flour to prepare ugali.

I would sit in my small bedsitter, hoping for a kind soul to drop a Kes20 coin at my door so that I could afford a mandazi for sustenance. My small HP Pavilion computer, initially intended for professional photography and editing, became a means to escape hunger through a Truck Driver Simulator game, providing distraction during nights when hunger gnawed at me.

On the fateful day, in the midst of hunger-induced creative emptiness, I launched the game and played for about two hours until my laptop’s battery ran out. Unable to summon the energy to search for a charger, I sat in the darkness, listening to my neighbor’s loud music. With my phone as the only source of light, I scrolled through Instagram, pondering my situation.

In the dimly lit room, fueled only by creative thoughts, a genius idea surfaced in my mind. What if I offered a free photoshoot in the streets of Nairobi? This could be the perfect marketing strategy, showcasing my work, attracting future clients, and establishing myself as one of Kenya’s leading photographers – pure genius.

I retrieved my laptop, plugged it in, turned it on, and headed straight to my trusted teacher, YouTube. First on the agenda was creating a website, and serendipitously, a Wixsite ad popped up. Taking it as a sign, I swiftly compiled some random photos for the website and organized an event for street photography, sharing the details with friends and fellow photographers. I closed the laptop, eagerly awaiting the evening of Friday, 10th July.

Laws amended

While content generators can now breathe a sigh of relief thanks to a directive from Nairobi County Governor Johnson Sakaja, amending laws that previously prohibited photography, videography, film, and the creative industry in the city, it wasn’t the case back then.

During that period, shooting in town without expensive permits was prohibited, but I didn’t care. I hoped that we would be more than five photographers—safety in numbers, so I wouldn’t be the only one harassed in case we encountered kanjos.

I went to bed hungry, hoping to secure a few bookings before the week’s end. When I switched on my phone in the morning, I was greeted with 15 inquiries from people I hadn’t even heard of. Some expressed their desire to shoot with me, while others wanted to come see and learn. More experienced individuals cautioned that shooting during weekdays would be impossible, but I ignored the naysayers.

At this point, I wasn’t going to entertain any negative comments about what I believed would be the best thing to ever happen. I went ahead, booked, and invited many people to witness me claim my crown.

“Hello, Niaje, Ni Kevoh, ushatoka?” I asked Kevoh on the other end of the line while putting on my shoes, preparing to leave the house a few minutes before 15:00 hours on July 10, 2020.

“Wasee wakifika, we anzanga tu, alafu ntakuja kama tumeendelea. Tuende tupige picha huko uptown coz kanjo ni ngumu wafike huko,” I instructed Kevoh as I locked my house, rushing to catch a 50-bob manyanga (matatu) to town.

On my way, I contemplated how to attract potential clients, provide them an unforgettable experience, and generate enthusiastic referrals. I quickly joined the rest of the group, and we decided to head to Muindi Mbingu Street because it was less busy with only pedestrian traffic.

It started off perfectly, we did a full street photography shoot with people from different parts of Nairobi. From the outfits and conversation, they were having, I quickly realised I had hit the most broke demographic, university students. While they were happy to pose, in flashy outfits and proved the best subjects in a country where strangers do not necessarily appreciate having their photos taken, they did not pay a dime for the service. 

As I went on clicking away TikTok and INsta billions dollar content for free, someone shouted. “Majamaa kanjo wanakuja hii side” I didn’t care to figure out who said that but I quickly opened my bag hid my camera. “Mnafanya nini hapa?” I looked back and saw a woman dressed in civilian clothes questioning one of our photographers who still had his camera in his hands. She held his hand and started leading him away from where we were.

Nairobi’s pickpockets

They even seemed like they were having a normal conversation until I heard someone shouting from the crowd “lens yangu iko wapi?” Nairobi had done that thing, apparently, in these streets, unattended bags grow legs to find new owners and things are only safe when held where they can be seen by the owner.

I believe when you walk into crowded areas in the streets of Nairobi your personal belongings aren’t yours anymore because of the pickpockets. I tightly held my camera bag close to my chest.

“Majamaa, hapa kanjo ni kama wameshuku kuna kitu, hebu tuendeni izo sides za Kenyatta Avenue. Kuna street flani inakuanga empty,” I quickly suggested on noticing kanjo trying to contact his group. So we slowly walked towards Kenyatta taking pictures of random people. I soon discovered that in these streets, people have personal problems and they don’t like to be approached or photographed. Especially the older generation harbour the suspicion that somehow you would be making money at their expense, just like the social media platforms.

“Oyaa broo, mbona unanipiga picha?” a man shouted from the other side of the road. “Sijakupiga picha bana, ata sijafanya anything.” I replied trying to quickly delete it as he was struggling to cross the road to come and confirm if I really wasn’t taking a picture of him. He had been a good subject, I personally thought he was well dressed and was even thinking I would hold on to that picture and maybe write something about the fashion sense in Nairobi. Anyway I deleted the picture, he crossed over, checked and confirmed and it want there. 

Having confirmed my innocence, I cheekily sought to ask his consent for a photo, “So we unaonaje, nikupige kamoja uone vile itakaa, umevaa fiti bana, promote boychild,” I asked him hoping to clear off the air. “Aai zii alafu muipeleke wapi? Mtanilipisha?” he asked eagerly, waiting to hear my response on the second question. “Mimi ukanipatia tu ka mia moja itakua fiti, ntashukuru sana,” I replied looking at his dissatisfied face.

What he really wanted was a free photo from me, he wasn’t about to spend his transport money on a random photo. In these streets of Nairobi people don’t want to promote young talent, even for Kes100. I turned and quickly walked to meet up with the rest of the group. 

Photography needs paying clients

It’s sad that not so many people support photography as a craft. Nobody is willing and ready to pay and if they pay, they won’t match up to the value of service we provide. Photographers and models rarely get paid their worth and when they do get their money’s worth, it is only when corporates are compelled to pay for intellectual property infringements and the use of marketing imagery without consent.

Most photographers do street photography risk and hope for the best when they walk through Nairobi trying to perfect their craft. Even though restrictions on shooting and filming have been lifted, it is no use when we don’t have support from people. Street photography needs more than just streets; we need subjects and paying clients.

Instead, the reality is that our kind of photography is struggling, our clients can easily match up to the quality image with the latest iPhone even as professional cameras increasingly incorporate features to make it easier for amateur photographers to take just as high quality photos. I can tell you today, without fear of contradiction that there is no longer a good photographer, just a good camera.

The days of the old, haggard hunched over a bicycle with a manual camera moving from place to place taking pictures until they fill the KodakPortra 400 color – 35mm-36 picture film before going to ‘wash’ them and ride back delivering the prints is now history.

In their place are the mobile phones that have turned into camera’s and with it the death of creative storytelling photography, newspaper and magazine jobs forcing us to fight it out for scraps on these unforgiving streets and allay ways.  

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