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Interviews

Sarah Waiswa: Photographing a New African Identity

Why this Ugandan photographer had to leave her home country to truly understand how to capture it.


Travel is often seen as a privilege afforded to few, but for some people, travel is a necessity. The latter is true for Ugandan photographer Sarah Waiswa who was born during dictator Idi Amin’s era, which forced her family to flee to Kenya shortly after her birth. Although she is Ugandan by blood, she is Kenyan by spirit. This early, formative experience led Waiswa to become a self-described nomad, and exploring one’s connection to place is a central theme in her work. Through Waiswa’s documentary and portrait photography, she also explores the New African Identity, which contrasts times when there was no room for self-expression versus today, where it’s easier to express oneself through art, fashion, film, and photography.

In 1999, Waiswa moved to the United States to obtain college and graduate degrees, and worked for a few years in higher education. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, so when Waiswa returned to Kenya in 2010, she had a newfound appreciation for the county that she didn’t have as a child. By day, Waiswa worked in human resources, and she picked up photography as a way to visually reconnect with the continent.

With an unwavering curiosity to learn the craft and find courage to share her work, Waiswa ditched her corporate career in October 2015 to pursue photography full-time. The risk was worth it. Waiswa recently won the prestigious Rencontres d’Arles 2016 Discovery Award, which is given out at the Rencontres d’Arles photo festival in France to a photographer whose work has recently been discovered or deserves to be for her photography project: “Stranger in a Familiar Land.” The series illustrates the life of an albino who is forced to face challenges emanating from both the sun and society. Waiswa is also a Uganda Press Photo Award 2015 category winner, and she has worked with international NGOs and brands including Samsung, Airtel, an Indian global telecommunications company, and Travel Noire, a digital publishing platform produced by black travelers.

We spoke with the self-taught photographer about her inspiration behind personal project, “Stranger in a Familiar Land,” the moment she realized it was time to make the leap to become a full-time artist, and the importance of sharing your work. 

Florence Kisombe, the model in “Stranger in a Familiar Land.”

What was your experience like moving to the United States, and what did you study?

I attended Berea College in Kentucky and received my undergraduate degree in sociology. This was my first time in the United States, so it was exciting and nice to have my independence. Then, I attended Eastern Kentucky University and received my master’s in industrial and organizational psychology. My first job out of graduate school was working in the equal opportunity office at my alma mater investigating discrimination claims from students and professors. After a few years, I moved to Chicago, and worked in a similar capacity at Northwestern University looking at their affirmative action plan and hiring practices.

When did you develop an interest in the arts?

I always knew I wanted to be an artist, but being raised in an African home, there was pressure to succeed academically, and obtain a certain position. During my time in the States, I fulfilled this responsibility, and actively saved my money. When I returned to Mombasa, Kenya in 2010, there weren’t any positions in my field, so I began working in human resources. As I continued to set money aside in my savings, I took up photography as a hobby. I started observing everything with a cross between nostalgia and looking for familiar and new things to capture on my Nikon D5000.

How did you teach yourself photography?

First, I began shooting in auto, which is the mode where the camera chooses all the settings for you, and you just point and shoot. I was particularly interested in capturing people. I also studied other people’s work on Tumblr, Instagram, and at photography festivals. I was struck by how people expressed themselves on these platforms without limitations, and it encouraged me not to restrict myself. Africans tend to be more conservative, and express themselves and art in a safe, similar way.

By 2012, I started sharing my images on Tumblr, and received positive feedback. YouTube was another resource, and I’d ask people how to improve photo composition and lighting. I’m still learning, but I’m much better at expressing things visually because I have control of the camera, and can achieve things quicker.

When did you realize you were onto something?

Late 2012, a woman from the States contacted me via Tumblr and said, “I’m from Mombasa and I love how you photograph my city, Muslim culture, and express yourself. Can you photograph my wedding?” This caught me off guard, but I was familiar and deeply interested in this subject because my father was Muslim. I accepted the job, and in 2013, I shot the four-day wedding by myself. The experience was exciting, culturally-rich, and exactly what I envisioned. In retrospect—after editing thousands of photos—I should have charged more. But, it was the first time I realized I could make money in a different way doing what I loved.

I also joined Instagram, started connecting with the Kenyan photography community, and with artists at 32° East | Ugandan Arts Trust. An Instagram competition was held to mark Kenya’s 50 years of independence, and I won the competition. It was awesome to receive recognition, especially since there weren’t many female, Kenya-based Instagrammers sharing their work. Then, in 2014, Instagram featured my work and my following surged!

I started receiving more requests for work and paid influencer opportunities via Tumblr and Instagram, but since l worked full-time, I could only accept jobs on weekends. For example, a South-African hotel chain based in Kenya provided me with a free, weekend stay, and in exchange, I was paid to Instagram my experience. I also love fashion and connected with local designers who hired me to cover their fashion shows. It was thrilling to field a wide range of requests from brands seeking my visual storytelling perspective. However, repeatedly turning down work made it clear that something had to give.

When you left your full-time job and made the leap to photographer, how did you make the financials work, especially at the beginning?

I had six months’ worth of savings and continued putting my work out there. I told myself, “If I can’t create a sustainable career as a photographer in six months, I have my master’s to fall back on, and will get another job.” Up to this point, the majority of my photography gigs were one-off projects, because that’s all I could handle with my schedule! Since I didn’t have clients lined up, I hit the ground running to build a website, print business cards, network and collaborate with other creatives to build my portfolio, and most importantly, shoot personal projects. There wasn’t a moment where I was sitting still. It’s easy to wait for the perfect time to leave your job, but fear will kill your dreams.

Additionally, as influencer requests continued to roll in via Instagram, I became savvier with pricing jobs because my stakes were higher. Your pricing mentality shifts when you move from doing photography as a hobby to doing photography as your full-time profession.

It’s easy to wait for the perfect time to leave your job, but fear will kill your dreams.

You live in an area where the dollar goes much further than a major U.S. city. What impact does living in a more affordable place have on your art?

Affordable is relative. But, having said that, people here are just now starting to value art and are willing to pay for it. Currently, there are so many people who consider themselves photographers and industry-set rates don’t exist. Africa is still a developing nation, so there are rules, and at the same time, rules are broken daily. For example, you can find photographers who charge $100 for a wedding, and others who charge $1,000 or more. Knowing your worth and producing quality work goes a long way towards building your brand, which results in repeat clients.

Although Kenya is my home base, the majority of my recurring and higher paying one-off jobs come from clients and brands who are based in different parts of the world, including South Africa, the United States, and Europe. This allows me to be selective with the local projects I take on, and also helps fund my personal projects.

So how do you set your fee when the range can be so wide?

It’s been critical for me to network with my local photography community and creatives who do influencer work with brands and NGOs. For example, I have a friend who is a talent manager and he has orchestrated influencer campaigns for telecom brands in the Kenyan market. He developed an algorithm for influencers to know how much to charge per post based on content generation, campaign length, and your number of followers. When Huawei, a Chinese global telecommunications company, introduced a new cell phone to the Kenyan market, they tapped me as an influencer for their campaign, and my friend’s algorithm allowed me to price this job more competitively. There are also influencer portal sites like webfluential.com, which help you gauge what to charge brands per Instagram post based on the reach and value of your following.

Finally, as I continue to develop my craft, build out my portfolio, and receive awards for my work, I increase my fees.

How have you built out your freelance photography business, and where do your main sources of income come from? Recurring jobs from certain clients? One-off jobs? Or some combination of both?  

My main sources of income come from a combination of recurring clients and one-off jobs from brands, NGOs, and individuals. For example, this year, I’ve been commissioned to shoot four-five group Travel Experiences to destinations in Africa for Travel Noire, and I’ll work on quarterly photography projects for a Finland-based NGO. Travel Noire was drawn to my travel photography aesthetic while the NGO said they were attracted to how I interact with the people I photograph, and convey their stories with dignity and honesty.

Additionally, I’m constantly fielding influencer opportunities and scheduling one-off jobs. I was recently contacted by a Portugal-based woman who is launching an African-inspired yoga clothing line. She will be traveling to Kenya in a few months, and would like me to shoot brand photos of her line. And, a US-based, global NGO reached out to me to discuss creating content for an upcoming Instagram campaign, so I’m starting to find my rhythm attracting work that aligns with my interests. Finally, I sell limited edition prints of select work, including “Stranger in a Familiar Land.”

 

Does it come naturally for you to put your work out there? And, what was your inspiration behind your photography project, “Stranger in a Familiar Land?”

It took me a while before I felt comfortable sharing my work, but I knew that people connect with something they can feel. When I’m passionate about issues I’m trying to explore, it’s easier to put my work out into the world. For example, in 2015, I came across an article about the atrocities albinos face in Tanzania and throughout Sub-Saharan African. People fear what they do not understand and, because of this fear, people with albinism continue to be at the receiving end of ridicule and persecution. I reached out to the Albinism Society of Kenya to learn more, and to shed light on this issue through photography. I was still working my full-time job, but would volunteer my time at the organization. After a few months, I developed the concept for “Stranger in a Familiar Land,” and asked the organization for an introduction to a woman with albinism.

It took me a while before I felt comfortable sharing my work, but I knew that people connect with something they can feel.

Do you feel like your sociology and psychology degrees influence your work?

Definitely. Through my photography, I’m always looking at how society treats and interacts with people based on their challenges and differences. By operating through this lens, I’ve found that multiple truths exist, and issues are never black or white.

Can you walk us through your process and concept for “Stranger in a Familiar Land?”

For starters, I always have conversations with the people I shoot to highlight their character. When the Albinism Society of Kenya introduced me to Florence Kisombe, I immediately felt her bold personality. She is very outgoing, wants to be a model, and I knew she would be perfect for the project.

The concept of “Stranger in a Familiar Land” groups together various portraits of an albino woman set against the backdrop of the Kibera slums, which are a metaphor for my turbulent vision of the outside world. The series also explores how the sense of non-belonging has led her to wander and exist in a dreamlike state. People notice Kisombe, but at the same time, they don’t.

Another scene from “Stranger in a Familiar Land.”

How did you decide to enter “Stranger in a Familiar Land” into the Rencontres d’Arles 2016 Discovery Award?

I was nominated for the award by Ethiopian photographer, contemporary artist and founder of Addis Foto Fest, Aida Muleneh. She was first introduced to my work as a judge for the Uganda Press Photo Awards 2015. I was unaware that she was also involved with the Rencontres d’Arles 2016 Discovery Award, but when she asked me if I was working on any special projects, I shared “Stranger in a Familiar Land.”

As background, five preeminent figures from the art world each nominate two artists for consideration of the Discovery Award, and the winner receives a €25,000 award during a ceremony at the ancient theatre in Arles, France. I was honored to be selected by Muleneh, and it shows that you never know what opportunities can come your way through grit and sharing your personal projects.

Were you surprised when you claimed the 2016 Discovery Award?

Absolutely—I had no idea that I had a chance of winning. I was up against photographers from Japan, the United States, Europe, and other countries, and was the underdog. No feeling can describe getting up, doing what you love, and being recognized. Before, I struggled with calling myself a photographer, and would always say, “I’m a photographer, but I have a master’s degree.” Today, I proudly call myself a photographer, and believe that regardless of one’s background or education, you can create meaningful work that inspires you and others. There are no limits to what you can achieve with hard work and talent. 

Have you received interesting feedback about the project? 

Yes! People contact me from all over the world about “Stranger in a Familiar Land,” and a mother in France recently shared that her daughter is doing a school report on the project. I believe that even if my work gets two to three people’s attention, it has served its purpose and can ignite change.

Additionally, Kisombe continues to be a spokesperson for albinism, and the photography project has given her another avenue to carry out her advocacy.

The recurring question I get about the project is whether Kisombe’s purple hair was a prop, but it wasn’t! That’s Kisombe’s sense of style, and it’s a great example of the New African Identity where she’s expressing herself no holds barred. Society would expect Kisombe to be soft-spoken and insecure because of her challenges, but she’s the exact opposite.

What’s on the horizon for you in 2017?

I’m looking forward to working on more personal projects around social issues I feel need to be addressed. This gives me life! I also want to give back more through trainings and workshops for youth and adults. Additionally, my friend Joel Lukhovi and I will continue working on our project, African Cityzens, where we travel by road throughout Africa exploring the barriers that arise in attempting to access different border points and navigation within the cities themselves. Our goal is to document as many cities as possible within a span of five to ten years in five legs representing regions of Africa; east, west, north, south and central. We’ve covered eight countries so far, and the plan is to head west this year. There truly is power in Africans telling our own stories and presenting Africa in a non-stereotypical way.

Jacqueline Lara

Jacqueline Lara is president of Mpact PR, LLC. She specializes in helping entrepreneurs and artists share their stories and art with the media and new audiences. She is also creative architect of The ArtFullness Project, which explores the intersection of art and business through creative projects and visual content. Connect with her @MpactJacq.

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