The Net Mender

His name was Ali Ibrahim. It probably still is. In all honesty, I know virtually nothing about the man.

But, I was in Malindi, walking off the beach, and saw him sitting in a rundown shed, mending his nets. I started to walk off, paused, knowing he would make a good subject. Approaching random people to ask their permission for a photograph has been my biggest weakness as a photographer, and I have missed many opportunities because I wasn’t comfortable asking the question (the problem is magnified by my oft-inability to speak local languages). This time, however, I was with Wawi Amasha (more on her later). Wawi is a constant inspiration to me, and her presence coaxes me to push myself to achieve more.

I almost walked off, but I knew I would be disappointed in myself, like every other time it happened. Instead, I asked Wawi to help me translate, and I entered this rather ramshackle wooden shed. This Ali Ibrahim, in our brief encounter, had one of the warmest, most genuine personalities I have come across in a long time. He granted me the courtesy of shooting while he worked, and I only stayed for a few short minutes, before he gave me his address, for me to send some prints to him.

Walking away, I reviewed the photos, and felt I could see his gentle personality in the eyes of this portrait. I was so grateful to him, for allowing me into his personal workspace, and to Wawi, for unknowingly forcing me out of my comfort zone, in my endeavour to become a good, if not great photographer. That’s the goal, anyway.

When I return to Kenya, I must return to the red wooden Malindi Co-op Fishing building, and if I find him there, I can hopefully have a real conversation with him. I’ll probably need Wawi to translate again…

TED visits Nairobi

I’m completely backlogged, and have too many awesome things happening lately, so forgive the potential lacklustre writing in spaces, I just want to get all the photos out… Deal with it. Anyway:

Sometimes things just fall into your lap when you aren’t expecting anything. You just need the right attitude, and to be ready for anything. Often I’m not ready for anything, and go into town for what is meant to be an afternoon before saying yes to a multiday trip somewhere without “necessities” like spare clothes, or a toothbrush.

While not as extreme as that situation, I did find myself in a position a few weeks back where I was in Nairobi central to meet some mates, who wouldn’t be there until later. I made some phone calls, and was told by my mates with the What Took You So Long Foundation, that they were shooting the TED Auditions at some fancy private school that night. If I had my camera they could pass me off as crew for the night Did I have my camera on me? Yes. So I decided against my other friends (photography always trumps dinner, especially with snacks on offer).

If you don’t know TED talks, they are, in my own words, a bunch of inspirational talks from people with innovative ideas, or outlooks, or just interesting things to say. They are worth a look of your own, because I don’t explain things well. Anyway, here’s some photos. The event also gave me my first real chance to test my new lens for the DSLR. So here’s results.

Oh, and I slept on another couch that night. No toothbrush, no spare clothes.

"I swear, it was THIS BIG!" Had to

The undercover journalist. Awesome

 

The Internet Banking Ordeal and My Regression to the Digital Age

In mid 2009 I bought a Canon 40D, and a Sigma 24-70 2.8 to accompany it, as a reward to myself for scoring well in the GAMSAT (graduate medical school entrance exams, it may be obvious I decided not to pursue that path anymore). That camera/lens combination served me well for concerts, clubs, mountain biking, snowboarding, street and travel photography. In late 2010, I was exploring the abandoned Bokor hill station on the Cambodian coast, when I slipped on my ass, and busted my lens. It was repaired in Hanoi for $40US, and worked for another 3 months, before it died a final death in Bruges, Belgium. The Canon S90 point and shoot I bought in Phnom Penh, as a substitute, continued to serve me until it was stolen in April 2011 on a train in Italy.

Just before the Italy theft, I was working in a hostel in Split, Croatia. Since it had been a few months since I had checked my bank account, I logged on to my internet banking to see how much money I still had. At least, I attempted to log on. 3 times in a row, I forgot my password, and subsequently my netbank was locked. Easy enough solution, I just had to phone the bank and answer my secret question, to reset the password. Of course, I had a job at that time, earning a solid $10/day working at this hostel. So I figured “What’s the rush, I’ll sort this out later. If I leave it locked, it could stop me eating into my savings. Besides, I’m earning enough to live on.”.

August rolls around. After becoming manager of the hostel, I had a falling out with the owner, quit, and went travelling around Western Europe for another month with my girlfriend at the time. I returned to Split, moved into an apartment, and started working for the pub crawl in town (there’s only one true pub crawl in Split: Tower Pub Crawls. Ignore the imposters.). During this time, in true tightass style, I would walk into the town centre, sit against a shop wall, and pull out my netbook to take advantage of the free internet. Concern was developing at my potential lack of future funds, so I started a weeklong attempt at Skyping my bank. After finally getting through, I forgot the answer to my secret question, three times in a row (It was “What was the first country I visited”. Don’t ask, I genuinely thought it was a trick question). As a result of forgetting the secret question, I was then required to fax a copy of my passport to the bank, so they could confirm my identity. Who the hell still uses fax?

“Eh”, I figured. “I still have this pub crawl job, and if I work hard I’ll make enough cash to get me to Turkey, for my flight to Kenya”. Combine this thought with my utter laziness and disdain in searching for someone with a fax machine, and I decided the email could wait. After all, I was living and “working” (read: Paid Partying) in Split, Croatia, renowned for it’s beautiful beaches. I didn’t want to waste good beach weather on a fax machine hunt.

September, 2011. I found myself in Skopje, Macedonia. Having befriended an American photojournalist, I was feeling severe withdrawals from the photography world. In a back alley antique store, I found an old Minolta SRT-101, with 50mm f/1.7 lens, for 40Eur (after bargaining). Ignoring the fact that I hadn’t seen my bank account in over 6 months, and had NO idea how much money I still had, let alone had access too, I made an impulse decision and bought it.

October, 2011. I had successfully hitch hiked to Istanbul. I fell in love with the city and spent 2 weeks exploring it before my flight. The Minolta was well-appreciated here, and I couldn’t imagine my stay without it. Five days before I flew out, I found a mint condition Minolta 28mm 2.8, for $80US in a camera store. By this point, I knew money was low in the 2 accounts I had access to, I mean, it just HAD to be running low, but, with a new friend getting a tattoo that afternoon, and I couldn’t resist the 28mm (Wide-angle super-grainy black-and-white film… I could just picture it). With just enough in my wallet, I chalked the purchase up as 2 less bottles of vodka. Two days later I ran out of money. Regretting my earlier laziness, I emailed my mum, who deposited money in my travel account (Thanks, Mum) and had enough money to get to Nairobi and buy my Kenyan visa.

January, 2012. I had tried numerous times here to fax my passport to the bank. First, the faxes were too faint, then they were too dark, then I faced numerous power outages each time I tried to send a new fax. I finally succeeded in sending a fax the bank would accept. Next problem, the signature on the passport didn’t match the signature on file from when I opened the account at age 13. F*&$. Correspondence with the bank followed, and I was left with the only option of trying to remember/guess every signature I had ever used up to this point. If that failed, I would have to unlock the account in person. Passports endorsed by the Aussie High Commission wouldn’t fly. Using my mother’s legal Power of Attorney wouldn’t fly. No choice but guess the signature or go home. Should be easy, I would only have to fly back to Australia and walk into a branch to do that. Shame all my money was in an account I had no access to, so I’m not sure how they expected me to buy the ticket home. Desperation peaked, with a trip to Zanzibar just 2 days after this new development.

April. It’s been a year since I forgot my internet banking password. It’s been more than a year since I have seen how much money I actually have. For a year I have suffered the frustration of having money, but also having no access to that money. As much as I wish I could say I made it on my own, I unfortunately have some small loans owed to both parents. But, after hassling my father, brother, and grandmother, I have finally had success. My brother made some inquiries, which unfotunately didn’t solve my issues. My father sent me an email saying “You should have dealt with this earlier” or something along those lines. Thanks Dad, I realise this, and am suffering the consequences, but thanks for the constructive suggestion. My nan, however, was able to sweet-talk the lady at her local branch (who apparently recognised my name) into pulling a few strings, and ignoring some red tape, and boom, I was allowed back into my account. Nan called me specifically to hear my reaction when she spelt out the new password, chosen by her (and dedicated to her too, it seemed). Ninety minutes later I bought new lenses for my 40D.

Now, truth be told, I love film photography. Many people over the last 6 months here have heard me explain my choice to shoot film only (partly a lack-of-money decision, but mostly for the feel of it), and I stand by everything I told them. Film is a dying medium which need to live. It’s a beautiful way to make photographs, and can carry so much more emotion, depth, and character in each frame than digital. But, as much as I love film photography, and will continue to shoot and promote it, Kenya has kicked it in the nuts. After losing 7 of my last 15 rolls, mostly due to poor developing, I started to lose willpower to continue with it. After all, how can you continue to dedicate much effort to shooting, when you have an almost 50% chance you will NEVER see the photos. I still have 15 rolls in the fridge, and will shoot them, but developing will have to wait until I’m somewhere with reliable developing services.

Now, after 18 months, my Canon has itself a new Sigma 17-50 2.8, and a beautiful Canon 85 1.8, which after just 30 minutes shooting, I have already justified spending the money on. All the photos are from the children’s centre my mum manages..

The man, the legend. Kingstone

Mum's foster daughter, Diana

The pose deserved the processing. First time doing PP in a long time

Two Weeks as an African Overland (Trainee) Tour Guide

There’s been a bit going on around these parts lately, and a definite backlog, but I just wanted to write about this one now. A month ago, a good friend of my mums told me that one of the overland truck tour companies were desparately looking for tour guides. After a lot of “Apply, you’ll be great for it”, I conceded, applied, and a few days later found myself meeting the crew, and packing my bag on to the truck for a 2 week trial trip to Uganda.

For those who don’t know, overland trucks (NOT a bus, as you will be told) run tours, traditionally between Cape Town and Nairobi, or as far as Cairo. They are an organised way for travellers to see the “rugged heart” of East Africa, while camping in secure campsites with frequently warm water and cold beer, and working as a group to cook tasty western food. The largest concerns for the guests are where they will find internet, safe water, and washing services.

I don’t mean to sound cynical, or pretentious. Honestly. I’m just calling it how I see it.

Anyway, back to the training. I was one of two trainees, the other a cool Kenyan dude. There was a driver and the tour guide, and 6 guests (plus an awesome Welsh couple for one week of it). While I won’t go into the specifics, the two weeks was spent driving from Nairobi to Kampala over 3 days(with a game drive in Nakuru, which the other trainee went on while I went shopping), Kampala to Queen Elizabeth National Park, where I did see elephants and hippos, Q. Liz to Lake Bunyonyi, where I did very little around the allegedly second deepest lake in Africa (or first, or third), while the clients went gorilla tracking, Lake B to Jinja, where I did little, went on a booze cruise (free for crew) and went white water rafting again (also free), then Jinja to Nairobi.

From my two weeks, I came to a couple of conclusions.

Firstly, overland trucks do a LOT of driving. In the 14 day Ugandan circuit, we were driving 9 days, 8 days were between 4 and 8 hours of driving.

Second, you don’t sleep in. I logged maybe one day after 6am, probably four 4am starts, with a clear majority at 5am. I’m a traveller, I’m not used to this. It also makes it exceptionally hard to rise after some drinks, which leads into:

Third, you will drink a lot. I did, anyway. When it comes to alcohol, the constitution of my “nah I don’t need a beer tonight” is exceptionally weak, I succeeded 2 days in a row, and one was a result of me leaving the tour group early to get back to Nairobi to get my new passport, but I’m counting it. The real problem here, although disguised as a perk, is that, at least on my trip, the guests were always offering to shout drinks. Now, I’m a poor, young, Australian backpacker, it’s almost criminal for me to turn down a drink offered. But, it’s lucky they were shouting so many drinks, because my bank account is minimal, which wasn’t helped by:

Fourth, the pay is rubbish. Training wages (which last for 6 months, that’s 2 CT-Nbi-CT circuits) with my company, was $80US/week. And I was a lucky one, some companies won’t pay their trainees. Now, if I was paying my own beers, each weeks’ pay would have been drunk by Thursday. The maximum wage is $200/week for fulltimers ($250ish for part time), but the policy says one pay rise a year, based on performance, and it’s unlikely you would get a pay rise from the lowest to the highest straight away. They say you don’t get rich, and you do it for the love of it, but hell:

Fifth, as a trainee at least, you will be working from 4-5am (you have to be up 1 hour before breakfast) until you go to sleep, or leave the bar. By working, I mean you need to stay relatively personable, cheery, and polite, and can’t resort to your normal self, whether that be bitchy, drunk, or sweary. Basically, that means game face is on for 16-20 hours of the day, every day, for $10/day. I said it wasn’t about the money, but hell.

Sixth, a trainee is basically a glorified assistant. Your responsibilities seem only to be helping out with the setting up and breaking of camp, helping preparation of breakfast, lunch and dinner and cleaning, and mingling with guests on the drives. Not hugely laborious, admittedly, but I thought the idea of a trainee was that they were “trained” on how to do the job. Rather than teach us any of the accounts, or how to get groups through immigration, or organise local safaris, we were just used to make the boring jobs easier.

But, end of the day, it’s a paid way to see Africa. I mean, you get to travel from Nairobi to Cape Town, with accommodation, food, travel, and beer money (and some free beers) all covered. And when you arrive at a campsite, and everything is set up, the guests are free to go wander and explore, but:

Seventh, as a trainee tour guide, you stay behind to start on dinner, or try and get information out of the guide. When the guests go out on excursions and such, technically your time is yours, but if their return time is unknown, the guide training you probably wouldn’t be impressed to see you return After the guests, or not have started on dinner, or done anything productive.

It’s easy to see why it’s a “dream job” for some… Assuming you are ok with travelling with a mix of foreigners, all spending big money, and are ok with passing through numerous towns, mixing with a very limited handful of locals, and staying in secure campsites with other tourists every night. It’s a GREAT job, if you want to see the campsites of East and Southern Africa, drive through some villages without stopping, do cool activities for free, and get drunk and try to sleep with girls from other trucks. But that’s not what I was looking for.

As for me and my situation, while not the main reason for quitting, the final push was the fact that the tour guide training me and the Kenyan trainee, showed favoritism to the Kenyan. Call me petty or whatever, but when he lets the other guy go on the game drive in Nakuru while I’m left to set up camp and prepare dinner, and then chooses the other guy to go on the 3 day Maasai Mara excursion, while I’m told to stay in Nairobi due to a lack of space in the vans… that just didn’t sit well with me.

But, at the end of the day, the issue that kept nagging at me, was simply that it’s not the way I intended to travel Africa. I wanted to be out, hating life while cramped on local transport, getting stranded on the outskirts of random villages when the minibus breaks down, meeting locals in countries like D.R.C. and Burundi, and basically having adventures and stories I find to be worth retelling. I wanted to be out, riding the 3-4 day train from Dar Es Salaam to Zambia, volunteering with the IAPF (International Anti-Poaching Foundation) in Zimbabwe, and basically, having the freedom to make my own choices. I have never been a fan of the Contiki/Busabout type tours, where a bunch of travellers pile onto a bus and rush through an area, spending 1 night here, 1 there, drunk a lot of the time, and shopping the rest. As someone who has only observed, it appears that, on those tours, you see a place but don’t “see” it, and the overland trucks remind me of that, just with a grittier marketing angle. After all, it’s a truck, not a bus.

West From Zanzibar

I was in Zanzibar a few weeks back, for the Sauti Za Busara music festival, with a large group of friends. Over the week there, I shot 12 rolls of film. One roll was misloaded, 2 rolls were lost, and another was developed wrong by the studio. While some photos were of the  music performances, most were shot around the streets. I still haven’t got everything developed, and I have been busy since, creating a backlog for myself. While there is plenty more, it will have to wait…

For now, here’s one. Wandering Stonetown one evening, I happened across an appropriately named “Soccer Beach”. I gathered the name from the graffiti at the entrance, and from the group of boys playing soccer on the beach. Obvious huh. Anyway, as the sun was setting, this dhow sailed between it and myself, allowing for a cliched photo opportunity.

A Quick Guide to Film Photography in Nairobi, Kenya

If anyone needs any help arguing that analog photography is a dying breed, they only need to come somewhere like Kenya. Film supplies, and developing services are dismal here. Don’t get me wrong, there is a relative abundance of photo studios, but few have the capacity to properly deal with film. Surprisingly (or not), digital cameras, and camera phones, have replaced film cameras so much, that the younger generations are completely oblivious to the concept of film photography.

That said, most kids in Australia are probably exactly the same.

I spent 3 months in Nairobi searching. Everytime I found another photo studio, I asked again. For 3 months, I continued to find photo studios buried throughout Nairobi and it’s outlying suburbs, and they continued to say they didn’t have it. Some had no idea where to find it, some suggested different studios, accompanied with incorrect directions and addresses. Others looked at me like I was crazy for even mentioning it. I knew I was getting desparate when I started asking in small studios I saw in dusty towns. I was hunting for black and white film, an item not too difficult to come across in Europe, I found, but proved almost impossible here. Nevertheless, after probably 50 studios, 10 suggestions, 8 incorrect directions from suggestions, and a lot of blank faces, I finally found my black and white film. The day before I left for Zanzibar.

Still, from that 3 months of searching, I gained enough information to provide a respectable breakdown of the film photography scene in Nairobi, to save anyone else in my position the hassle. The good thing I can say, is that it can be a much cheaper endeavour over here, if you are willing to sacrifice on quality.

Film Availability and Pricing

Unlike black and white film, colour is still easy to come across, due to the presence of the ‘paparazzi’. Don’t confuse them with western paparazzi – these guys crash weddings, funerals, and all those private family events, uninvited, make themselves at home and ruin other peoples views, just to take some boring photos, then rush off to the nearest studio, develop and print the photos, and rush back to the function to sell them, and make their profit. It’s not glamorous.

In a lot of studios, you will be able to find cheap 36exp rolls Kodak Profoto 100, or Fuji Prophoto 200, for 150/- (Just under $2). Depending where you are, they may be expired, but they do produce decent colour, in the right light. A small collection of studios will have other, nicer films, like Kodak Gold, or normal Fuji 200. If you want ‘better’ Kodak film, step into a Nakumatt. Some of them have a camera section, with a small selection of Kodak films, all 270-350/- ($3-4).

Ngong markets - Cheap Fuji film

Colour slide film.. forget about it. I already found what are probably the only two studios carrying slide film (Kodak Elite Chrome), and it was all expired in 2007-08. They gave it to me for free.

Black and White. Most people here, when I ask if they have it, don’t know why I would want to use it. One person recommended a studio called Colourcut. Following their directions I found Fuji Colourcuts, which had 2 rolls of cheap Lucky B&W for 250/-. 6 weeks later, I found Kodak Colourcut, 2 blocks over. This is one of the two places in Nairobi that I can say with confidence sells B&W film. Here I found Ilford PAN100 and PAN400, both at 250/- a roll. This studio supplies to the universities also, so when in stock, they also have chemicals. They have been out of stock for a while. The only downside, is this film is expired. You can’t tell when, but whoever imports it has decided to scratch the expiry date off of every single box of film.
The second black and white option is Fuji Neopan, also expired. But this one is found by asking the people at the Fujifilm studio in Junction to make some phone calls to ask, then checking in a few times more, then they will have found it.

Alternative formats…. Good luck. I have stumbled across 120 film once or twice. All of it expired, while in untouched original wrapping. Again, go to Junction..

Developing

If you plan on developing yourself, bring your own gear. There’s no developing tanks or reels, and definitely no chemicals. The only possibility is the Colourcut place mentioned above, and even that’s a gamble.

If you plan on outsourcing, you should only pay 50/- a roll for flat developing (but they will quote with prints). Things you will be risking are spots/marks on the film (dirty water, or very old chemicals), or scratched film (there’s a lot of dust, and most of the studios will give your film to you in one uncut roll, dumped in a paper bag). And don’t develop in town, those studios are overpriced, awful, and lack customer service. True story: I had 2 rolls of film developed at a place called Photo Vision, and paid up front (Also don’t do this). They ruined one of the rolls completely, and refused a refund. If you can handle waiting a couple days to pick up the film, take it to the studio at Junction Mall. They take it to their head studio to develop (don’t know where that is), but they will at least return your film in decent condition, cut and placed in those little plastic negative sleeves.

What you risk when developing - Calcium spots

By the way, if you want to shoot black and white here, either bring your own developing equipment, or wait til you get home. The only B&W developer I found charged me 250/- per roll, took a weeks turnaround, and returned to me one of the grainiest 100 speed films I have ever seen. Don’t get me wrong, I love grain, that’s what I like about b&w, but still.

I may be wrong, but this looks a little grainy for PAN100.. (Click for the large version if you don't believe me)

Printing & Scanning

4×6 is looking at anywhere from 10/- up. There’s some places that do 8 bob, but I don’t print my photos here, so can’t say anything more on the matter. I did receive a number of enlargers as a gift for asking questions at Studio Mona in Hurlingham (I haven’t printed there, but a friend says they do decent large prints) but that doesn’t help anyone else.

As for scanning, I have never had much luck. Rolls always come out misaligned in the scans, and the frames drift into each other, leaving me with 2/3 one frame and 1/3 the next. I found a photo studio behind the Nakumatt Karen (not to be confused with the studio next to the main entrance) which scans each roll onto CD for 250/- and includes a proof sheet. The studio in Junction charges 500/- and doesn’t have the proof sheet. Can’t offer any other options, because once I find something acceptable, I stick with it. Or google “DIY film scanners”.

Cameras

Overpriced. For a decent condition film camera, I have been quoted 35,000 shillings (That’s about $400) at Elite Studios. Photo Hive, on Moi Avenue, has some cameras, but after examining a $80 Yashica MAT124, it was irreparable. Some of the studios around town do have them, but you are seriously gambling on price and condition (central Nairobi is very dusty, very polluted, and most of these cameras aren’t stored well. Spare parts are difficult, and many won’t strip down a broken camera to sell you a piece of it. Just hope nothing goes wrong, or carry spares, or find someone to bring replacements. Remember, it only gets worse out in the country.

In summary, don’t expect to find any professional film. If you are coming from outside, bring everything you will need. Even though you might find some things, it’s a hassle to find which studio will stock it, and most storage conditions leave much to be desired. If you buy and develop here, you can get yourself operating as cheap as 200/- spent on every 36 photos, but the film quality might show it.

Elephants Can Be Orphans Too

It’s true. Baby elephants get orphaned, just like humans. Mummy elephant could be killed or injured. Hell, maybe she could even disown the baby, leaving it in some sort of jungle dumpster. As a Biology graduate, I have no actual idea if that happens.

The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, located on the outskirts of Nairobi, has been established to rescue and raise these orphaned elephant kids. The babies live out in the park, under their carers constant supervision. The carers sleep with the elephants at night, to watch over and feed them, until they are old enough to get out and explore the world. Every day they come into the feeding centre for lunch. The feeding centre is on the edge of the Nairobi National Park. It’s also one of the few real tourist attractions in town. I have been twice, and both times found it overpopulated by people who clearly fit the tourist bill. Think safari-looking clothes, rugged hiking boots, big floppy hats, or for the youngsters, think short shorts and singlet tops to cope with the heat. And of course, more cameras than most camera stores in town, and plenty of sunburnt arms and legs. For me, I went the first time with some little kids, and the second time with some friends just arrived. As a Biology graduate, I do enjoy seeing the little elephants play around, but it gets old quick, and I’d rather see them in the wild, personally…

Coming in for feeding

That said, it IS a good jumpstart into Kenya’s wildlife, for those with an impending safari. The elephant orphanage is part of the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, and every day between 11am and Noon, visitors can come to the centre, pay a measly, or hefty, 500 shilling “donation” (about $5-6… hefty depending on your budget) to watch the rangers feed the baby elephants, and give a speech/lesson about the shelter, what they do, and an introduction to some of the elephants. If you dig baby elephants, get there on time, because the little ones get fed first. Yes, you can touch them if they come close enough. There’s also a solitary white rhino chilling in its cage, and warthogs trotting around the grounds from time to time. Since it’s set inside the Nairobi National Park, there’s the chance, however slim, that a lion could cross your path on the way in, but I definitely think the odds are against us.

Even if you aren’t so keen on elephants, but willing to coff up the mandatory donation, the amusement gathered from listening to the dumb questions some people ask ( Sorry American, no offence to all of you, I know you all aren’t this ridiculous). On my more recent visit, we had an American man, keen to display his immense interest in all things elephant, by asking a series of questions. He started with “how old is the youngest elephant”, a fact stated probably 3 times in the course of the feeding. He followed with more questions, asking for information already told to him.. But the coup de gras was his final question:

“Do all the elephants get released into the wild, or are some trained to become circus elephants?” Come on guy, seriously??

Heading back to the bush