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Focusing on Kibera’s wins through the lens

By Harriet James
Tuesday, June 30th, 2020
Brian Otieno believed better strories can come out of unfortunate situations. Photo/PD/COURTESY
In summary
    • Brian Otieno’s favourite is a photo of a young passionate ballerina called Elsie training at a busy street corner in Kibera. It shows where her dreams are deeply rooted and that dreams of children is the same all over the world, its only opportunities that they lack.
    • In 2015 he was the Be the change Photo contest
    • In 2017, he won the Picfair #CelebrateAfrica
    • He won East Africa Photography Award 2018 with the series, ‘Kibera: Stories from Within’)
    • In 2019, he had Stories from Kibera Exhibition by Project Kenya in New York and Los Angeles,

Like Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi rightly puts it, there is a danger in a single story. That is why 27-year-old documentary photographer Brian Otieno took upon himself to tell the story of Kibera, away from its poverty and insecurities narrative.

Harriet James @harriet86jim

For decades, Kibera has evolved from a tiny settlement to a slum branded as the hub of everything negative such as unemployment, poverty, lack of social amenities, insecurity, high numbers of HIV/Aids and drug abuse issues.

Having grown up in this place and experienced such conditions, 27–year-old Brian Otieno is using photography to change the narrative in this area.

Through his online project dubbed Kibera Stories, Brian is documenting the other side of Kibera even during this period of Covid-19. 

 He has been documenting community responses to Covid-19. “Even in the slums, people are taking all necessary precautions.

So many hand-wash stations have been set up, and people are wearing masks.

The tailors are making masks, local organistaions are distributing free water, individuals have started food drives to help the elderly and the sick who are staying at home during these times.

People are not just waiting. They are acting fast to flatten the curve,” he explains

Real stories

“I want to share the real stories from Kibera, the unseen and unknown. Poverty is there and it’s prevalent and it’s known, but I want to show the people, the potential and the prosperity that Kibera brings.

So many people have emerged from the slum and are out there doing incredible stuff,” he adds. 

Growing up in the slum was not a bed of roses for Brian as it made him lack necessities of life just because his parents could not afford to pay for them.

A sample of Brian’s work, which is also his favourite piece. Photo/PD/COURTESY

His mum is a hairdresser and owns a small salon in Kibera while his dad struggled to make ends meet through menial carpentry jobs, which most of the time wasn’t enough to cater for the basic needs of the family. 

“I survived on aid while in secondary school and my mum saw me through campus with the help of loans from friends and some small amount of money I was making through my photography.

I still can’t say all was bad in Kibera, but it widened my scope, constantly reminding me that the slum is a good place to live in, because it teaches you different aspects of life,” he says. 

After secondary school in 2012, his passion for photography grew and using his cellphone, he began taking images of interesting moments of the daily lives of people living in his neighbourhood such as children playing, train passing or women selling their wares.

The passion grew stronger and with some bit of cash he had saved, he bought his first digital camera and began photography as a career. 

“It was just a way to get home hooked to the craft, taking photos of sunsets and sunrises.

The first images I was first exposed to were images of war, I always had this dream that one day I’ll go document war in Afghanistan and Syria.

Only to realise later on that the best stories can also be found here at home,”  Brian says.

On an award winning spree

In 2013, Brian applied for a journalism course at Multimedia University and in 2016, he graduated with a diploma in journalism and began a career path in documentary photography, which usually refers to a popular form of photography used to chronicle events or environments both significant and relevant to history and historical events as well as everyday life.  

In 2016, the award winning photographer was among the 12 visual storytellers selected for the first ever in Africa, World Press Photo East Africa Masterclass, which took place in Nairobi. The master class helped him to grow and build himself as a photographer. 

In addition, he is a contributor to Everyday Africa, which is a collective of photographers sharing images across the continent with the aim of fighting stereotypes and clichés.

In 2018, his project dubbed Kibera Stories was exhibited in Paris and in that same year, he was invited as a participant to exhibit his photos on Women of Kibera, at the 16th International Dialogue on Population and Sustainable Development, which took place in Berlin.

The images were taken as part of the EU-funded #RightByHer campaign, which works all across the continent fighting for women’s rights.

Making a difference

“What makes me stand out is that as a photojournalist, I share real stories, which I am also part of.

Through the stories that I share, there are a lot of things that people learn and also experience,” says Brian.

Even with the glories that have come because of work, there are still other challenges that him and other photographers face.

“Many photographers cannot do their work with freedom because that moment you have a camera hanging on your neck and minding your own business, the authorities may liken you to a terrorist or someone who’s up to no good.

It’s photography that saved me, and unemployment is real in this country, young people can only make a life by doing what they are passionate, skilled and talented about,” he says. 

Brian shares his knowledge on photography with the community. “Together with some of my childhood friends, I established a community library in my neighbourhood, which is bringing a tangible change to children.

In New York, together with Project Kenya (project-Kenya.com), I had a successful photo exhibition, which also raised funds to support scholarship and education programmes at Uweza Foundation and Red Rose School in Kibera.

I think that’s also the power of photography— to make a difference,” he says in conclusion.

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