Kevin Ouma is part of an epic group of Kenyan Photographers operating under the umbrella of One Touch Live, a collective of visual artists united in the common desire to document the cultures and beauty of Africa. Kevin photographs for an array of clients, but has a keen interest in documenting the day-to-day lives of marginalized communities across East Africa. Methodically binding portraits of inhabitants with the landscape, the composition in his photographs meticulously capture the emotions and character of his subjects, ultimately bringing the stories to life.
We caught up with Kevin to ask him a few questions about what it’s like to practice his craft as well as an assignment he did documenting the lives of the fishing community in Mfangano, an Island on Lake Victoria in the Western region of Kenya.
Describe the philosophy behind your photography. What inspires you?
Wow! That’s a tricky question. I don’t think I can define any philosophy behind my photography as yet. As for what inspires me, having shot a variety of themes over the past, it became apparent that my style revolved around light, utilizing the unique qualities of light on a particular time of day or weather to achieve the right effect for my subject.
As primarily a documentary photographer, I’m inspired by the world around me, documenting special moments and interesting people from different angles and perspectives. I am particularly interested in telling compelling people stories, stories that are ordinarily overlooked by the mainstream media.
Tell us a little about your background as a documentary photographer. What influenced and sparked your interest in documentary photography?
I kind of stumbled upon photography. Before becoming a photographer, I worked in the Kenyan Film industry for about 5 years and was kind of getting tired and uninspired. So one day my dad sat me down and asked me what I wanted to do with myself (I guess he saw I wasn’t making much headway in the film industry). Since I was already taking pictures with my Nokia N70 (really cool phone then), my response was photography. His final thing was, “if I get you a camera, are you sure you can make something for yourself?” I was like “yes!” (obviously completely clueless as to whether it was ever going to work out).
I didn’t know much about photography and online resources were not accessible then as they are now. I would occasionally do random jobs mostly for friends while still trying to figure out my niche. One day I met an American lady at a mutual friend’s house. She was working on a project with schools in Mathare. I pitched the idea to take pictures for the project, she agreed, and with that I was inducted into the world of documentary photography.
One of the many projects you have been involved in is the Mfangano fishing community project. Please share a little bit about the project. What was it about and what did the project aim to accomplish.
My observation every time I visited Mfangano was the dire state of poverty in most homesteads, especially those that were wholly dependent on fishing. I wanted to undertake a project that would delve deep into issues that affect the fishing community, their challenges, goals and future aspirations.
How would you describe the local culture and life in Mfangano Island?
Mfangano is an Island that has a population estimated at 18,000 inhabitants mostly from the Luo (Suba) community. The place is fairly isolated (you get the feeling of being totally off the radar but still in Kenya), with a pretty congenial and laid back community, whose economy revolves around fishing, traditional boat building and subsistence farming. It in many ways embodies the quintessential essence of lake-shore life for many fishing communities around Lake Victoria.
What was your approach while doing the project? Did you generally strike up a conversation with your subjects or just candidly captured the moment? How did people react to being photographed?
Mfangano happens to be my ancestral home, so even though I am seldom there, it was not a difficult undertaking, since my family’s name is well known. Then there is the sentimental bit, the idea of a native son returning home to give something back to his community.
I reached out to the community leaders, church pastors, village head men and the beach management unit chairman. Once I was given the go ahead, I pretty much had access to any place I wanted to cover.
When it came to the people, more often than not I would make a connection with the people I photographed. I believe it is important to develop a rapport with people before attempting to take any pictures. People really appreciate when you respect their space and ask for permission, and you will more likely get more pictures doing this. The people could sense that I was genuinely interested in them as individuals and not just their image. They would bear their souls through their conversations even after just spending a few minutes with them.
What was the experience like photographing, learning, and observing the community? Any memorable experience?
Throughout, the community was unfailingly gracious and welcoming. People were generally cool about me taking their pictures, some were however a bit hesitant because they have been taken advantage of in the past and assume all photographers have some sinister motive. One of my favorite experience was being welcomed in one of the local schools and served a cup of hot millet porridge. All in all I loved the warmth of the people, photographing their everyday life and capturing every special moment.
What would you say was the most challenging about your experience, how did you manage to work around it?
This was my first solo projects and and boy was it something! For one I was on a very tight budget, having solely funded this venture, so I did not cover as much as I intended to. Having worked with several companies and non governmental organizations, I’m normally accompanied by people who assist me move around and take care of the necessary logistics. Working on my own was challenging at times, but I learnt a great deal from the experience. I learned to take alternative approaches, I learned to listen and more importantly trust my judgement. I also learned to take a laid-back-approach and understand the temperament of the people. This allowed me to truly experience things as they came. For example, it is important to note that when you are working in such a community setting, you will have your plan and the community has theirs. So I had to learn how to be flexible with my time and avoid unnecessary disappointment.
What recommendations do you have for people interested in traveling to Mfangano Island (places to go, things to see, places to photograph etc.)?
Taking the ferry from Mbita to Mfangano, you are surrounded by camera-worthy scenes from the placid lake waters to beautiful Islands stretching out across the lake. Less than an hour away from the mainland is Takawiri. With its expansive stretches of alluring white sandy beach, swaying palm trees, and lapped by the sapphire-clear waters Lake Victoria, one would be forgiven for thinking you are in the Kenyan coast. When you get to Mfangano, explore the Island on foot. A hike up soklo hill affords you the sweeping views below over the Island’s surroundings and expansive views across the lake. Spend some time on the Lake edges observing the islands rich array of bird life.
Another favorite Mfangano memory is hitting beach at the end of the day just as the sun starts sinking into the ocean, illuminating the sky with the most stunning sunsets. Later in the dark, the lake is suddenly bejeweled with hundreds of tiny bright lights. The lights, are lanterns lit by fishermen who use it to attract shoals of tiny silver cyprinid locally known as omena, up to the surface where they are caught in fine mesh nets.
The Island is home to two ancient rock art sites, Mawanga and Kwitone. Mawanga cave is situated only a short walk from Mawanga village, where the boat jetty is located. Kwitone shelter is located near the top of a mountain above a sacred forest and can be reached from Mawanga after 40 minute hike through the forest.
Last but by no means least is probably one of Kenya’s best-kept secrets, the Mfangano Island camp, part of the famous Governors family of camps. Situated in a small, secluded bay, the camp consists of just six extremely smart double en-suite chalets that accommodate a maximum of twelve guests. The chalets are built in keeping with the traditional concept of Luo design, with down to the shoreline manicured lawns and pretty flowerbeds in rock gardens. You get to savor the spectacular views across the lake surrounded by giant Fig trees and huge boulders where birds and big lizards can be spotted basking in the sun.
Any additional advice …
Carry a mosquito repellant and keep any pre-conceived prejudices to yourself …
What would you like people to know about Western Kenya that the media rarely shows? Something other Kenyans hardly know about Western Kenya …
I feel like the media has done a great disservice to the region, perpetually portraying a picture of abject poverty and incessant political upheavals.
And while the region is certainly not a highly publicized destination, it has the potential of offering visitors just as much, if not more, than many of Kenya’s better known tourist areas. Western Kenya is an extraordinary sweep of geographic, cultural and natural diversity, from the stunning terrain to lush hills and forests, from small holder subsistence farmlands to sprawling tea estates. Through it all straddles Africa’s largest and the world’s second largest fresh water lake, Lake Victoria. The region also includes important towns such as Kisumu, Kakamega, Busia, HomaBay, Kisii among others.
Searching for a Masai Mara style safari? Check out the Ruma national park Kenya’s last remaining sanctuary for the endangered roan antelope. Also home to the Rothschild’s giraffe – an endangered giraffe species found only in Kenya and Uganda. Throw in the Kakamega Forest with its sheer abudance of birdlife and it becomes clear that Western Kenya is greatly underrated as a wildlife-watching destination.
What advice would you give the authorities and stakeholders on ways to make the region a viable tourist circuit?
I will not place the responsibility of promoting the region wholly on the authorities. Travel is a culture that needs to be thoroughly instilled among Kenyans. I strongly encourage Kenyans or anyone visiting Kenya to venture to other areas and get to know the country beyond the usual beach destination at the coast or its famous game parks.
By travelling in different places, you get observe the beauty and peculiarity of each region, hence change your perceptions and misconceptions and ultimately break down the barriers like the lack of national cohesion that have held us back as a nation.