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Boniface Mwangi: activism, photography and making <br class="br_visual" />a difference

Boniface Mwangi: activism, photography and making
a difference

© Boniface Mwangi

May 2015

Kenyan photojournalist Boniface Mwangi uses his camera to draw attention to social injustice and repression. But there’s a deeper meaning behind his images and how he works as a photographer, as he reveals to CPN Editor David Corfield...

Half an hour in the company of Boniface Mwangi is all it takes to make you want to raise your game. The 31-year-old photojournalist has taken his love of photography and applied it in the most effective way possible to effect change in his beloved Kenya. And so vigorous is his technique that he’s become something of a infamous figure among those who stand before truth, free speech, equality and decency. His enthusiasm for his craft is so infectious that you can’t help but get slightly caught up in his cause…

The changing rules of photo activism

Boniface Mwangi is passionate about his country. A Kenyan boy through and through, he was born in Taveta – under the great presence of Mount Kilimanjaro – and at the age of six was uprooted from his village and taken to live with his grandmother in central Kenya. Aged eight he went to live with his mother in Nairobi and it was at school there that he discovered the power of photography.

© Boniface Mwangi

“Thousands of Kenyans have ended up in internally displaced camps, kicked out of their homes never to return. Lest we forget,” reflects Mwangi. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D with an EF28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM lens at 28mm; the exposure was 1/125sec at f/8, ISO 400.

“I got my first camera when I was 15,” he recalls. “It was just a point-and-shoot but it introduced me to the amazing feeling of taking and creating an image. And then when I was 20 I went to Bible school where one of my teachers gave me a book to read about the late, great photographer Mohamed Amin. I read it and immediately knew what kind of photography I wanted to do. I wanted to touch people and make a difference with my photographs.”

“Mohamed Amin’s work on the Ethiopian famine of 1983-1985 really moved me,” Mwangi continues. “It was because of his work that the world gave so much help to that country – and I saw for myself the positive power of photography.”

But what is photo activism? Quite simply, it is using the power of an image to effect change. In the modern world nearly everyone has a camera, and it’s the power of the people that Mwangi wants to harness, and take activism to the next level.

“I am currently the only photo activist in my country, but I want to change that,” he says. “I think anyone who has a camera can be a photo-activist. They all have the power to document a problem or an issue. I’m using photography to bring about a change that I want to see and I want more people to document what they feel is wrong in their lives. Take an image and circulate it and it’s surprising what happens.”

“If you look at the world now, and the political and social changes that have happened in the 20th and 21st centuries, you can see that they have all happened thanks in part to the power of photography,” he states. “You can use as many words as you want, to talk about brutality, police violence, poverty, inequality and so on, but without a visual to go with those words, there is still a missing connection. Human beings are very visual. When you look at an image you might feel love, or you might feel hate; but you feel something. There is an emotional connection between a human being and an image.”

© Boniface Mwangi

US Senator and Secretary of State, John Kerry, addresses media during the South Sudan referendum of 2011. Kerry, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, visited Southern Sudan three times during the referendum period.

But he has a warning: “It’s so easy to miss a moment in this day and age, because when photographers think they have got a nice shot, they look at it on the camera screen. And then they miss a moment! As a result I think photographers today don't spend as much time concentrating on composition because they are either too busy reviewing their photos or grabbing a moment without really thinking.”

This habit of checking every image on the camera LCD straight after capture (known as ‘chimping’) is in stark contrast to the way Mwangi was brought up. With a roll of film being almost prohibitively expensive, he shot sparingly, sometimes taking only one image to sum up a scene. But the sheer discipline of thinking carefully about the best composition has stuck with him. “Even today, because of my film-based photography background, I never shoot continuous mode on my digital camera,” he laughs.

“I use an EOS 5D Mark III – two bodies – and I shoot with prime lenses. I’m fully kitted out but my favourite lens is the 50mm. When I was learning you had to use one standard lens. When you use zooms it makes you a very lazy photographer. Using one lens makes you move around; it forces you to move closer or move back.”

He continues: “The camera is like a relationship; it’s an extension of your life. For me, it is like a wife. For me to be happy you need to understand how she feels; her moods and all those things. It is the same with photography. You need to understand the weather and the light and how your camera performs. If you don't understand your wife, it means you will have an unhappy marriage, and if you don't understand your camera, you will take lousy pictures. If you’re going to become a good photographer, you need to understand how your camera performs and to do that it means it must become an extension of you.”

Harnessing arts and minds

Mwangi’s greatest professional achievement – in his eyes – is the organisation Pawa254; ‘Pawa’ being Swahili for ‘Power’ and ‘254’ the telephone country code for Kenya. Established after he became too well known and infamous among the Kenyan political establishment – thanks mainly to the publicity generated by his award-winning coverage of the 2007 post-election violence – he set Pawa254 up to help bring creative minds together for the common good.

© Boniface Mwangi

Scared schoolchildren walk past a police dog during a crackdown on Mungiki sect adherents in the Kosovo slum, Nairobi, Kenya, June 7, 2007. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D with an EF28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM lens at 50mm; the exposure was 1/320sec at f/11, ISO 400.

“It is a collective of creative people – filmmakers, journalists, writers, photographers, graffiti artists – all working together for mutual inspiration, to bring about social change in Kenya,” he states.

He continues: “When I started out in photography there was no school to go to and learn how to become a photographer. I struggled a lot to get these skills and so when I made it, and I became this award-winning photographer, I decided to build a community where emerging artists could come and pass on skills and learn from one another." Boniface helped organise the Canon Kenya Photography Awards 2015 recently, a yearly event organised by the Photographers’ Association of Kenya and PAWA254 to distinguish skill, talent and hard work among professionals and rising photographers in the country (winners this year being Thomas Mukoya, Johnson Wambungu, Seigmund Kamau, Thomas Mukoya, Alice Oldenburg, Peter Ndung’u and Siegmund Kamau).

“We wanted to bring back ability and professionalism into being an artist. We want people to take our work seriously and that’s what Pawa254 is all about. I can proudly say they are over 10 photographers that l have mentored in Kenya and one in the US who are making a living through photography because of what l taught them.”

Once a photographer…

Mwangi is never far away from an image, and these days his work is more focused on helping others refine their craft. But he still likes to keep his hand in…

“I keep myself sharp by looking at other people’s work,” he explains. “The recent workshops with Canon Master Gary Knight were really encouraging. Most of the local photographers here do it to just earn themselves a living. They don't think about doing a photo essay, for instance. So when Gary Knight gave the students an assignment to shoot 12 images, which is something they had never done before, they learned a new skill – how to edit – and with that skill they have a new understanding of photojournalism. The class was very instrumental and a lot of guys have said that their vision of photography had changed because of it. It taught them a new way of seeing.”

© Boniface Mwangi

Kenyan tourism has made the Maasai and Samburu tribes the most famous because of their long preserved culture. Mwangi is proud of his country and wants the world to see Kenya as a vibrant, thriving nation.

“Photographers should be very observant, and to do that you need to be quiet,” he advises. “Some of the best photographers are introverts. When I’m working, I never talk. I turn off the phone, and I don't do small talk, but I am always looking. If I were to give advice I’d say to think about the assignment and what you are looking to show. Don't waste that moment. When you are working, make sure you are working. Get in the zone.”

From his early days as a student – watching images emerge in the dev tray for the first time – to his work as founder and fundraiser for Pawa254 (which to date has helped train over 10,000 artists through workshops and training programmes), photography is at the heart of Mwangi’s life. And he misses it.

“There is so much I still want to do as a photographer,” he admits. “These days I am more of a desk guy, answering emails and phone calls plus fundraising for Pawa. I have tried to only have my phone switched on for two hours a day but these days it is just impossible.”

“But I have promised myself to do a documentary project for myself by the end of this year,” he reveals. “I want to shoot something that is not political – just beautiful pictures. There is something amazing in freezing a moment and sharing it. I cannot sing and I cannot dance, but I can take a photograph that people recognise as being beautiful.”

Biographie: Boniface Mwangi

Boniface Mwangi

Boniface Mwangi is an award winning Kenyan photographer. For four years he held a staff photographer position at The Standard, the second largest Kenyan newspaper, taking on various assignments of increasing responsibility in a number of countries. Boniface became the eye of Kenyans during the 2007 post-election violence and in 2009 Secretary of State of the United States, Hillary Clinton, wrote a letter commending him for his work. His images have appeared in many of the world’s most important newspapers along with other international publications. Boniface Mwangi studied human rights and documentary photography at New York University, USA, and has been recognised as a Magnum Photography Fellow and twice as the CNN Multichoice Africa Photojournalist of the Year. Boniface runs PAWA254, a collaborative hub for creatives in Kenya where journalists, artists and activists meet to find innovative ways of achieving social change.


Voting in the Kenya national elections. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM lens at 60mm; the exposure was 1/60sec at f/4.5, ISO 1600.