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

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

The reality is that most photographers who undertake street photography risk their life and limb hoping for the best when they walk through Nairobi trying to perfect their craft. PHOTO BY KELLY OBAETE

The first time I did street photography I only managed to sell one; for Kes100, after a lot of coaxing and begging, but it felt so good to finally earn something from my skills. It was getting dark, and my batteries were about to die, but on the positive side, I had taken my best photos and I was happy with my job. 

As I was making my way back to the CBD, just before the GPO roundabout happily squeezing the worn-out Kes100 note in my watch pocket, mean agents of the government came for it. “Simameni hapo nyinyi!” a man with blood-flecked eyes and a timeworn face shouted quickly pacing towards my friends and me. We would have ignored the man but we were completely on edge on this one.

We had been sneaking around, taking photos around the city centre, an undertaking which at the time bordered on something unlawful, such as hawking. At first, we kept our cool and continued walking but then he started running as if he was after one of us. Now we had to make a quick call. If we run, we will be as guilty as hawkers, but if we stayed put we knew what he was going to do once he got a hold of us so we took off.

In the unfolding melee, two more heavily built men bumped into us from the other side of the road as if they had it all planned out on how to trap us. I held my bag firmly onto my chest and boarded one of the buses that had stopped momentarily on orders of a traffic police officer controlling the flow into the city.

“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.

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. 

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I remember I loved to keep memories for people and always tried out new things using my phone camera. At the time I really wanted to be a photographer because I love seeing people smile through that shutter. I wasn’t so keen on keeping or storing the photos. So I took them, frolicked in the smiles I was able to capture, and the admiration of my subjects as they looked at how beautiful they looked frozen in time, shared with them, and deleted them on my end. 

But at some point, I decided I wanted to take my photography skills to the next level, after a little nudging from people who thought I was really good at this. So I made friends in the field of photography and after a few months, maybe two or three, I joined hands with a crew that did weddings and club photography where I learned my trade while saving up to buy my first professional camera. It was a Nikon D5300 that cost me around Kes80,000 with a very good prime lens. 

But once I bought it, I soon realised that was just the beginning, it would not be a walk in the park getting my own clientele and pitting my name out there in the street, not with so many photographers and amateurs with similar if not better cameras.

It wasn’t easy having a camera and not having clients. At first, I started doing free shoots but people noticed and took advantage of it. I would go to baby showers and shoot for free. I would accompany other photographers to their gigs and shoot for free and go to events shoot for free. And soon enough I was starving. 

“Ayaa, kwani hii Nairobi ni ya kina nani? Hakuna vile ntakua na camera nimewekesha tu kwa hao nangoja wasee wanitambue,” I remember that is how I psyched myself before I decided to schedule my first street photography session in Nairobi. At this point I had nothing, not even maize flour to prepare ugali.

I would sit in my small bedsitter looking at the door hoping for a kind soul to drop a Kes20 coin and never look back to pick it so that I could at least buy a mandazi for my stomach. 

I had a small computer, a HP pavilion 500GB internal hard disk that I had also bought hoping to start my own professional photography and editing suite package that was supposed to make me rich and famous. Instead it turned into just the perfect machine to launch my Truck Driver Simulator game, that I would drive the whole night trying to forget I was hungry.

I am so sure without this game I might not have survived the pangs of nerve-wrenching hunger as I went days on nothing more than tea.  

So this day, I launched the game and started playing for about two hours just before my laptop went off. I couldn’t wake up to start looking for a charger, I mean, it’s not that I was tired, I was just trying to save the energy left in me because I hadn’t had a meal since morning.

So, I sat on my bed in the darkness, listening to my neighbor’s loud music, switched on my phone and scrolled through my Instagram looking at pictures and funny videos.

This vacant mind in the middle of the night hollowed out by hunger and fed only on creative juices came up with this genius idea, at least it felt like that at the time. What if I decided to do a free photoshoot in the streets of Nairobi? I imagined it would be the perfect marketing gimmick, I would be able to market my work, secure future clients, and claim my place as one of Kenya’s leading photographers- genius. 

So I reached for my laptop bag under the bed, quickly plugged it into the socket, switched it on, and went straight to the only teacher I know, “YouTube”.  First I needed a website and surveillance capitalism did not wait too long before “wixsite” decided to come up as an Ad. But for me this was a sign, a pattern confirming my bias and, what better sign that the universe and mighty Alphabet anticipating your needs.

I had not searched for wixsite, but it came as an Ad on YouTube and it was an ad for making a website. So I quickly put some photos randomly on the website and went down to organize an event and put up a poster for street photography. I quickly shared it with friends and other photographers hoping that I will get at least one or two people to show up. Closed the laptop and waited for the evening of Friday, 10th July. 

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While today content generators can breathe a sigh of relief following a directive from Nairobi County Governor Johnson Sakaja to have laws that prohibit photography, videography, film and the creative industry in the city be amended, it was not the case at the time.

At that time, shooting in town without expensive permits was not allowed, but I didn’t care. I was hoping that we would be more than five photographers, safety in numbers so that at least I will not be the only one being harassed in case we come up against kanjos

So I slept hungry and hoped to at least get a few bookings before the end of that week. Early in the morning when I switched on my phone, I was met with 15 inquiries, people I hadn’t even heard of. Some were saying they wanted to shoot with me, others wanted to come see and learn. Others, perhaps more experienced, told me it will be impossible to shoot if it’s not on a weekend, I ignored them haters.

At this point I wasn’t going to consider any negative comment on what I felt was going to be the best thing to ever happen so I went ahead booked and requested very many people to show up to watch me claim my crown. 

“Hello, Niaje, Ni Kevoh, ushatoka?”, “Zii, sijatoka but nakuja ivo in a like 30 mins, wasee washafika?” I asked Kevoh on the other side of the line as I put on my shoe to leave the house some minutes to 15:00hours on 10th of July 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 to quickly catch a 50 bob manyanga (matatu) to town. 

On my way I was thinking about how to attract my potential clients, to give them an experience they will not forget and inspire mad references to other clients. So I quickly joined the rest of the group and we decided to make our way 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.

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. 

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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