Brian Otieno: The man behind the lens

Friday June 14 2019

Photographer Brian Otieno. PHOTO | COURTESY


How did it feel like winning the inaugural 2018 East African Photography Award?

The contest was very competitive, so winning it was prestigious and it made me realise that good work gets discovered and appreciated right here at home.


Why is photography important to you?

Very important because it helps me document moments, emotions, and feelings of people I interact with every day going through our daily lives.



Why have you dedicated your photography work on documenting Kibera?

This is where I was born and for many years it has been misrepresented. With my photography, I document the realities of life here as an insider with an insider’s point of view to try and change the public’s perception of Kibera.


How was life like growing up in Kibera?

It living on the front lines of abject poverty. While you feel at home and there's a sense of community, people still struggle for basic needs like food, better housing and a good education.


Does your experience as a person who has lived in the slum give you an advantage over a photographer who just comes to Kibera to take pictures?

Yes, I was born here, I know the people and the people know me. I understand their challenges and struggles and triumphs. The stories that I share are also a part of life that I have lived myself.


Have you observed any major transformations in Kibera over the years?

Yes. There have been some major transformations, especially in the recent past years. For example, the government built affordable houses for the dwellers here, and this brought other developments such as the tarmacking of roads that run through the slum; legal electricity connections have replaced illegally tapping from the local power lines.


Is it true that rich businessmen are constructing houses in slums like Kibera as a way of avoiding paying taxes?

I don’t know much about this.


You have done a number of photography projects and series in Kibera. Do you think you can exhaust the stories that need to be told?

The stories of Kibera are inexhaustible, there’s so much that happens every day, and you can share a different story every day for an entire year.


What would you have been if you were not into photography?

I cannot imagine myself doing anything else apart from photography. As a child, I always knew this what I will end up doing for a living. I always wanted to share stories.


Why do you find documentary photography exciting?

It allows me to share the truth and reality of life as I see it. The process itself is history in the making. You never know what to expect and once the photograph is made, it can advocate for change for the better.


How do you persuade your subjects to agree to be photographed going about their daily chores? Do you even seek their consent first?

Most of the time I do ask for consent to photograph. I often explain my project and what I do as a photographer and it’s pretty amazing that the reception is always positive. Sometimes people would even call me to go to their homes and take photos of them or even share a story with me.

Also, I photograph my friends and because of that, I connect with other people from Kibera who want to share a story or even want their photos taken by me.


What challenges do you encounter in the course of your work?

Despite the fact that social media is powerful, sometimes getting the work out there to other publications is a big challenge. Also, as a freelancer, it’s hard getting assignments when not so many people have seen your work.


What is your greatest professional achievement so far?

Winning the EAPA 2018 and seeing my work published in The New York Times.


Who are the people that have influenced you the most in your professional career?

The World Press Photo East Africa Masterclass I attended in 2016 had a big impact on my life as a young photographer. It was then that for the first time I started to interact with photographers from the international photojournalism community. The knowledge and skills I got in that masterclass marked a new beginning in my career.


How do you unwind after a hard day’s work?

Reading books and doing some story research on the internet.



Being born in a slum has not stopped me

Brian Otieno, born in 1993, is an emerging and talented photographer who has been operating an online photo project called Kibera Stories since 2013 in Nairobi.

His stories on Kibera go beyond the chaos and muck typical of the slum environment, and focuses on a vibrant and colourful community life. His pictures of the ballet dancing girls of Kibera have been published internationally.

Otieno was raised in Kibera, considered to be one of the largest informal settlements in sub-Saharan Africa. His passion and commitment lie in capturing the visual realities and documenting the norm of everyday life of the people around him and sharing their stories with other people.

He also uses photography to capture the socio-economic, cultural, political and environmental perspectives. By doing so, Otieno also tries to draw the attention of the public to the diversity, dynamics, and inequality of urban life as an observer with a unique point of view.

In October 2016, Otieno was among 12 visual storytellers selected for the World Press Photo Masterclass East Africa Masterclass, the first in Africa, which took place in Nairobi. He is also a contributor to Everyday Africa, a collective of photographers sharing images from across the continent aimed at undermining stereotypes and clichés.

Otieno held his fundraising photo exhibition Give Every Kid of Kibera a Chance to Shine at the Beekman Reim Building in New York, US, in March 2019. All proceeds from the exhibition will benefit the education of the children from Kibera and support the Red Rose Primary School and Uweza Aid Foundation.

In March this year he was selected for the New York Portfolio Review. He is also a recipient of photography awards and has exhibited in France and Germany. He has a Diploma in Journalism and Strategic Public Relation from the Multimedia University of Kenya.