Click: Africa

image by mutua matheka

If you look for images of Africa online you’ll find an overabundance of wildlife or urban poverty. And, while these are part of our narrative, the vast quantity of these pictures would lead you to believe that this is the main story. Maybe it is for people who don’t live here, but why are we letting others own that?

This was brought up by Mutua Matheka, a friend of mine who is one of Kenya’s great photographers, as he was describing what drove him to get into photography. Mutua was annoyed by the fact that the images that he found online didn’t represent the country and continent that he knew. With a degree in architecture, he set out to capture the Africa he knows, not just Kenya, but the cities, buildings and people across the continent.

In Africa in particular, the world tells stories about us, other people create the imagery.

When the world isn’t the way you would like it to be, you have a choice to do something, or not. Mutua has clearly chosen to do something; he’s chosen to be one of the Africans who create the imagery and narrative of Africa for all of us.

What are the images that best define Africa’s challenges and opportunities?

Besides being a fan of Mutua, I’ve had the joy of working with him on the #Kenya365 Instagram project. Now, again we get to work together, as we are both on the judging panel for a new competition that IBM is running, called a ‘World is Our Lab’ over the next 3 months.

the IBM Africa photography competition

Now, unlike Mutua, I’m not a professional photographer. I’m a bit of a hack, to be honest, playing around with my phone and limiting myself to what I can shoot with that small device. This is good, it means that if you’re entering into the competition (which you should!), then even if you’re not a pro, you’ve got a chance as I’m just like you. :) The other judges are Salim Amin from A24 Media and Uyi Stewart. Chief Scientist, IBM Research – Africa.

What you can win:

  • A chance to visit IBM’s new research lab in Nairobi, Kenya
  • Laptops with photo editing software
  • Photography workshop with a leading African photographer
  • Trip to Hemingways Watamu Hotel on the Kenyan coast

The three main categories:

  • African Grand Challenges
  • African City Systems
  • African Innovation

Judges will be looking for photos that express how people living in Africa manage their energy or water needs, how they commute, how cities live and breathe and how people come up with innovative solutions to address their needs and create new opportunities.

AfricaKnows: An African Photo Project

Where do you go to find quality and *real* African pictures? How about the non-tourist ones, the ones that show everyday Africans, work places, bus stops and the lives of your neighbors?

AfricaKnows - Pictures of Africa

AfricaKnows is a new project by TED Fellows Josh Wanyama and Sheila Ochugboju. Their job: to tell a different story of Africa, through big pictures that let you see directly into the heart of African cities.

Africa Knows is about the challenges, triumphs, dreams and nightmares of being an African in a 21st century city that is straddling several revolutions at the same time; the technological revolution, the agricultural revolution, a democratic resurgence and a post-colonial identity crisis complicated by old ethnic tensions.”

If you like an image that you see, you can buy a print or a card of it.

An Airplane Lands in Eldoret

Sourcing

I talked with Josh and Sheila about the site this last week. Right now they get the majority of images by taking them themselves and from other African photographer friends who have good shots of their locale. One of my first suggestions to them was that it would be wonderful if there was a submission page for others to add images in easily. The curating of what shows up on the site would need to be maintained.

There are two reasons why AfricaKnows is a good site:

Quality
So far, the images on the site are pretty good. They’re not all “professional” quality images, but they’re much better than average. A purely open site where anyone could dump images (a la Flickr) wouldn’t work as the noise would quickly outdo the signal, so quality is important.

reality
The reality of the images is the second big reason, it’s why I care to visit and get the feed. If I want to see what the world thinks of Africa I’ll go to a newspaper. If I want to see how Africans view Africa, I’ll go to AfricaKnows.

Traffic at a roundabout in Nairobi

Suggestions

As mentioned earlier, there are others who have good quality shots that would be worth the team looking at. A simple submission form that allowed for me to send in images whenever I took one would be useful – for both me and the editing team.

There’s a real possibility of taking this platform further, making it into a place that is focused on African images and highlights African photographers across the continent. I’d be interested in seeing some images from Teddy Ruge (Uganda) and Nana Kofi Acquah (Ghana) on the site, among others. This could be done by first just allowing them to showcase some of their best images, linking to them and putting contact information on the site (giving them a page).

If others are sending in pictures, then there needs to be a clearly outlined understanding of image rights and ownership.

Lastly, we live in a social web with social lives. There should be the ability to embed the image on another site. Images for this post I had to download (bypassing the javascript security features), and upload into it, which is way to much work for most people. Sharing matters, as it’s how people get found in our digital age. You have to learn to let go – of at least the lower res images. Plus, removing that security will allow more Google image search juice to send more traffic.

Brain Food: Pop!Tech Fellows 2009

PopTech Fellows 2009
[More Pop!Tech Fellows 2009 pictures]

There are a lot of reasons to come to Pop!Tech, the conference, but honestly the highlight of my Fall is the Pop!Tech Fellows program that precedes it. It’s one of those seamlessly executed events where every detail is taken care of, which is a tribute to those orchestrating it, that pulls together some of the most amazing minds in the social innovator space into one place for a 5 days of immersion. The faculty is world-class and the innovation Fellows are exceptional in so many ways, not least among them their areas of focus.

This year I’ve met a young man figuring out ways to turn waste products into charcoal soil additives that increase crop yield by up to 200%. I thought I knew a little about the mobile space in Africa – and I did know a little, very little, especially compared to what Nigel Waller knows… Oh, and I sat amazed as a lady from Saudi Arabia shares how she won both the MIT and Harvard prizes for innovative business ideas (as a non-profit!) in one year – which is unheard of.

The first thing you need to understand about this pre-conference Fellows event is that it takes place in an incredible location. It’s Fall in the woods of Maine, where we’re housed in cabins surrounded by trees of varying shades of yellow, orange and red. The bay sits below us, with wooded hills behind the idyllic and well-appointed retreat center. It’s the perfect setting to leave behind your daily life and embrace a few days of learning, discussion, renewal and growth.

I was fortunate enough to be part of last year’s inaugural Fellows class, where fast-friends were made that still stay in contact. This year, I’m here as one of the two returning Fellows from 2008, with my partner Abby Falik, to serve as a bridge between the classes and help maintain a consistent ethos and to lend a helping hand wherever necessary.

PopTech Fellows 2009 - Hayat & Eben

One of the things I’ve been asked to do this year is help photograph the Fellows program. I can’t hold a candle to Kris Krug’s brilliant work from last year. Fortunately, Andrew Zolli (Pop!Tech’s curator) is letting me borrow his much better camera, which I hope will make up for any lack of talent. :)

PopTech Fellows 2009

[More Pop!Tech Fellows 2009 pictures]

Beyond the photos, beyond the scenery, beyond the relaxing wood cabins – this event is about feeding my brain. It’s about the chance to meet and share a unique experience with my peers and learn from some of the world-class faculty. It’s about challenging ourselves and not just talking about the successes and “good stuff”, but about ways we can all be better and speak openly of our failures.