From firing at the enemy to shooting pictures

Saturday January 13 2018

A photo of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta waving his fly whisk at his supporters, by Terence Spencer.

A photo of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta waving his fly whisk at his supporters, by Terence Spencer. PHOTO | KARI MUTU | NMG 

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Former British air force pilot Terence Spencer went from hitting enemy targets in World War II to shooting professional images. Living Dangerously, an exhibition of his photographs, is currently showing at the Nairobi National Museum.

Organised by the British High Commission together with the Museum, the exhibition follows the work of Spencer who worked with the American publication LIFE magazine.

Over several decades, he captured Hollywood actors, the Beatles and other pop stars of the swinging sixties. He also covered conflicts all over the world, including the Vietnam War and the Sharpeville Massacre in South Africa.

The pictures include some from Spencer’s travels in African countries as they emerged from colonial rule in the 1960s.

Spencer was in Kenya in 1961 when Jomo Kenyatta was released from seven years in detention. One of his photographs is of Kenyatta chatting with a police superintendent. Another is of Kenyatta waving his fly whisk at his supporters (pictured above).

An almost forgotten piece of history is captured in a picture of Moise Tshombe, who was the president of the State of Katanga, a region of southern Congo that broke away in the early 1960s not long after independence from Belgium.

Another set of shots is of boxer Muhammad Ali relaxing in a Kinshasa hotel room. Spencer accompanied Ali to Zaire in 1974, capturing behind-the-scenes moments before the “Rumble in the Jungle” match where Ali beat then world heavyweight champion George Foreman.

Spencer’s portfolio extends to images of Cuban mercenaries during the Congo revolution, jazz maestro Louis Armstrong on a visit to West Africa, and Princess Diana and Palestinian political leader Yasser Arafat in a playful moment with children on a visit to Libya.

Spencer was born in England in 1918, during an attack by German Zeppelin airships in the final year of World War I. As a Royal Air Force pilot, he flew the famous Spitfire aircraft. In 1946, he relocated with his family to South Africa for 15 years.

Ironically, according to exhibition information, Spencer abhorred violence of any kind and he reportedly refused to watch cowboy movies.

He died in 2009 leaving more than one million photographs.