Fashion Lens: An Insider’s View of Joy and Beauty in Africa’s Biggest Shantytown

Fashion Lens: An Insider’s View of Joy and Beauty in Africa’s Biggest Shantytown

Fashion lensThrough Kibera Stories, Brian Otieno looks beyond the stark realities that have defined his hometown’s visual narrative to photograph inno

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Fashion lensThrough Kibera Stories, Brian Otieno looks beyond the stark realities that have defined his hometown’s visual narrative to photograph innovative fashion, art and everyday life. ImageChildren walk along railroad tracks in Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya, on their way to school.CreditCreditBrian OtienoPhotographs by Brian OtienoText by Finbarr O’ReillyMarch 26, 2019As Brian Otieno was waiting to start college six years ago, he spent his days snapping pictures with his phone as he wandered the unpaved streets and alleyways of Kibera, a sprawling shantytown on the outskirts of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. Often referred to as Africa’s largest slum, Kibera is home to up to a million people living side by side in ramshackle homes. Poverty, crime and hardship have long defined its visual narrative.Mr. Otieno, who had grown up in Kibera, saw beyond those stark realities.“I would look around me, at the rooftops and the scenery, and it just looks beautiful,” he said. “And I would think this view is amazing for photography.”ImageElsie Ayoo, 16, a ballet dancer, trains on a busy street in Kibera.CreditBrian OtienoImageA tournament hosted by Kentrack Boxing, July 2018.CreditBrian OtienoImageFriends and relatives take photos with Fatma, a newlywed bride, in her parents’ house in Kibera.CreditBrian OtienoRaised by a hairdresser mother and a carpenter father, Mr. Otieno knew little about photography. He had begun a three-year program in print and broadcast journalism in the fall of 2013, but there was no real photojournalism class, so he turned to Google for inspiration. He was impressed with the work of war photographers in Afghanistan and Syria, and dreamed of working in such places. Then, one day in late 2013, Mr. Otieno was sitting by the railroad tracks that slice through the heart of Kibera and started scrolling though images of the area on his phone.“They were pictures from Kibera, but only showing the deep, deep poverty,” Mr. Otieno said. “And I was seeing all these other sides that were not like that. So I decided to do stories from home. Here, I can do different stories every day. And they will leave a lasting impression on people’s minds. Home is like my studio.”Right then and there Mr. Otieno created a Facebook page and posted some of the photographs he had taken with his mobile phone. Those initial posts soon evolved into a project he called “Kibera Stories,” with Instagram and Facebook pages and a website featuring images of daily life.The learning curve was steep.“Back then, I didn’t know anything about photography,” said Mr. Otieno, now 26. “I didn’t understand it; I just had this project in mind. My skills improved little by little.”ImageChildren swim in murky waters that formed after heavy rains filled a pit that had been left open by road builders, January 2016.CreditBriano OtienoImageJames, 7, studied in an empty classroom at Olympic Primary School in September 2015, during a nationwide teachers strike that lasted more than two months.CreditBrian OtienoImageMen hang out the door of a commuter train that passes through Kibera daily, carrying passengers to and from Nairobi’s city center.CreditBrian OtienoImageStephen Okoth, 25, also known as Ondivour, is a filmmaker, photographer and model. He is known for his bright clothing, which he buys at local second-hand markets.CreditBrian OtienoThe Kibera Stories Instagram feed reveals the evolution of a personal style that defies stereotypes. There are joyful scenes of children playing at school, and images of people grappling with daily struggles, like flooding or blackouts. Fashion is a recurring theme, with Kibera’s youthful residents dressed in bright, patterned outfits and taking part in fashion shows. Simple details shine through. In one image, a tangle of colored electrical wires and tape protrudes from a rough concrete wall. In another, pink, orange and blue balloons adorn the inside of a mud hut with a concrete floor, plastic chairs and a desktop computer connected to a large speaker. The computer’s power cord is plugged into a power strip dangling from a ceiling of jumbled corrugated metal sheets. There’s also a frame of a single candle flame burning in front of an old TV during a blackout.Of all Mr. Otieno’s images, a shot of Elsie Ayoo, a 16-year-old ballerina, has drawn the most attention. She holds a pose on a dirt road lined with shacks and onlookers, her outstretched arms diagonally bisecting the frame beneath dark rain clouds. There’s a hole in one of the knees of her tights, and a serene, distant expression on her face.“I asked her where she wanted to be photographed and she took me to a street near her home,” Mr. Otieno said. “It was a busy Sunday morning and people stopped and looked at what we were doing. It’s a strong image and it shows her skill and talent and where it is rooted.”Kibera Stories gives a sense of what it’s like to be a resident of one of the continent’s most notorious slums, and Mr. Otieno doesn’t ignore the grimmer aspects of what that entails.ImageContestants at the annual Mr. and Miss Kibera fashion and beauty pageant, December 2017CreditBrian OtienoImageSchoolchildren play in front of a mural at Toi Primary School.CreditBrian OtienoImageArtists from Kibera, in post-apocalyptic costumes, at an event celebrating the debut of a music video by the Wakuu and Dandora music groups, June 2018.CreditBrian Otieno“I’ve shown some really bad things, like police brutality and extrajudicial killings,” he said, “but people don’t say I’m giving a bad impression of Kibera because this is the reality. But doing it with integrity and dignity is really important.”As the photojournalism industry grapples with issues of representation, there’s a growing acknowledgment that a more diverse range of perspectives is needed to reflect a broader spectrum of lived experiences, especially from the African continent. There are numerous efforts to address that imbalance. Mr. Otieno contributes to Everyday Africa, a collective of photographers who share images aimed at undermining stereotypes and clichés. He was also among a dozen African photographers who took part in a master class workshop that World Press Photo hosted in Nairobi in 2016.“That workshop really built me,” said Mr. Otieno, who learned how to pitch stories at the workshop and for the first time felt connected to a global photography community.Mr. Otieno often welcomes other photographers to Kibera, but suggests they approach it as if they were photographing in their home country. “Just don’t come with this image in mind that shows poverty and no place for growth and development,” he said. “It’s a matter of showing respect.”ImageBoys play on the frame of an unfinished church in Kibera, August 2017.CreditBrian OtienoImageA crowd at Kamukunji Grounds in Kibera following a boxing tournament and concert celebrating a visit by President Barack Obama in July 2015.CreditBrian OtienoImageOtieno Otieno, also known as Chiif Kadiif, 24. A poet and spoken-word performer, he is among the artists in Kibera who are using their talents to address issues affecting the community.CreditBrian OtienoImageSurrounded by relatives and friends, Prince Adrian celebrated his first birthday in June 2016.CreditBrian Otieno
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