17 May 2017

Kenya: Old Lensman Still in the Picture

Photo: William Ruthi/The Nation
Photographer Mark Mwangi.

For nearly three decades, Mark Mwangi was well-known in most villages south of Othaya Town in Nyeri County. Every Sunday after church, Mwangi would pick up his trusted Konica Minolta camera, sling it over his shoulder and go to work. He would be in a tie and shirt sleeves because image mattered.

He would walk fast up the ridges and back trails, appearing at the agreed hour to find a family dressed in their Sunday best waiting to be committed to film.

As he prepared to take the shot Mwangi would count, "Now, one and two, and three." The camera flashed at the click of a button and that was it. No second take; the magazine chamber allowed just one take.

"Let's see," Mwangi would tell the anxious subjects as he checked the remaining film on the camera. "A week, maybe two."

In contast, today anyone with even a most basic cell phone can take photographs, and one can process hundreds of photos in a day.

There was a time when a photographer was next in importance only to the village shopkeeper and priest. With his credit notebook, the shopkeeper allowed cash-strapped families to get by until pay day. Meanwhile, the man of God provided spiritual nourishment, and when death struck, presided over funerals. For his part the photographer immortalised the cycle of life, recording births, baptisms, graduations, weddings and funerals.


That Mwangi chose photography, a vocation considered marginal compared with other well-ordered careers such as teaching was a bold and unprecedented move. One didn't go to school to learn how to unwind film and parade people in a line. But Mwangi had a sense of what the future held.

"I was adamant that I wanted to study photography," he says with a laugh.

So he packed his bag and bought a bus ticket to begin studies at a photography school in Limuru, Kiambu County. During the course -- in the early '60s -- Mwangi got to understand the pull of brand. "It was all about being a professional in how I went about my business," he says. He returned with a certificate and burning zeal, and opened a photo studio in Othaya Town.

Mwangi used his charm to win over customers and entered their postal contacts in his notebook when they showed up at his shop or when they sent word for him, and the fledgling business thrived. As his fame grew, Mwangi stood before such prominent people as then Vice President Mwai Kibaki when he attended fundraisers in the eighties. Mwangi also printed his name and postal address below every photograph. Then, in the seventies, he adopted the business name Inoi.

"Every now and then people come to me and tell me about their childhood pictures I took years ago. It is good that I was there," he says. "It is about a legacy. I feel fulfilled that they still hold these memories."


We are standing outside Snowline Studio, a tiny room painted in Kodak yellow, where Inoi is waiting for some photos to be printed. Once a vibrant photo studio, Snowline is now a relic of a bygone era. For more than a half century, Kodak was the first and last word in photography. But the people at Kodak did not see the revolution in the horizon, which came and swept the cumbersome film roll out of the picture and replaced it with a tiny memory card. Gone was the two-week wait for photos to be printed at the studio. The choice was clear: adapt or perish.

Inoi accepted the new reality and retired his faithful Minolta for a Sony camera. He also landscaped a portion of his sloping farm in Thuti village at the foot of Karima Hill in Othaya into a scenic photo-shoot ground. "Wedding parties need not travel to Nyeri town, they come here," Inoi says.

Inoi's bailiwick lives on in countless homes. Framed copies tracing life's milestones hang on many walls in local homes. Others feature in photo albums.

But even that is slowly being going out of the picture, another casualty of our impatience, and of course, technology. When it was still vogue, the camera film roll was housed in small plastic canisters, which would be thrown out once the film had been taken out. The few remaining in Kenyan homes are used to store buttons and trinkets, and even tobacco snuff.

But even with technology, there is one place where Mwangi is still highly valued: the school ground. Most Sundays after church, Inoi, now in his early seventies, takes his camera and heads off to work. Today, he will be at Othaya Girls' Secondary School, about four kilometres outside Othaya town.

The girls are waiting impatiently, just like the past generations did. If he looks hard enough, Inoi might pick out one or two girls whose mothers he photographs. Inoi sets them in frame, nudging them to move here, the tall girl to stand, the others may sit.

"Mr Inoi," glows Maggie Wanderi, a former student of Othaya Girls' School. "We looked forward to his photo sessions!"

All across the land the photo studio is slowly dying. Some of the most prominent ones, like Ramogi Studio in Nairobi, closed shop.

"It was a great time," Inoi says of the old days. "There weren't many of us. "But now, well.... "


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