There is something exhilarating about being out in the wild, but urban spaces can be fun too if you know how to look. It is not so much about the place, as how you view it. It requires looking at things from a new perspective. I remember reading a book titled Looking and Seeing back in university that explained how to see as an architect. It talked about being conscious of what’s in your environment as you take it in visually. It can be a tough nut to crack especially for non-creatives. In May, I had the opportunity to see Nairobi in a different light.
One Sunday afternoon, I joined Nairobi Google Local Guides for what I thought was a photo walk. It turned out to be a mapping exercise, but I did not realize that until I got to the meeting point. Google Local Guides program aims to get inhabitants of a city to document its streets and buildings through photos and information on establishments like operating hours, et cetera. Participants earn points and advance to different levels depending on how active they are. I was only here for the photos though! Shooting in this city’s streets is not easy so when you get a free pass, you seize it.
I must commend the organizer Robert and the rest of the team for being on time, contrary to the concept of African timing. Within a few minutes of arriving, Robert and his team had briefed us and handed copies of the Council permit that granted us permission to shoot for the afternoon. The hassles of shooting in Nairobi CBD are all too familiar to photographers, but that is a topic for another day. Right next to us on Kenyatta Avenue, a group of skateboarders was displaying their prowess. I had just started to enjoy the show when some Council officers chased them off in a huff. We ought to let loose and have fun in our streets.
We began the walk in search of the best angles and perspectives. The photos were to be collected and those that made the cut stood a chance to go on Google Maps. The sun was out and the streets mostly clear as is typical of Sunday afternoons in Nairobi. I noticed later on that the clouds were washed out because they were too bright. I cannot wait to get my hands on some Neutral Density filters.
As I took time to keenly look at the buildings, I noticed their impressive textures, patterns, lines and shadows and of course, the perspective views that always provide a feast for the eyes. Our group attracted stares from curious passers-by who wondered just how bold these kids were to shoot openly in the streets. Occasionally a security guard would ask us what our agenda was and whether we had a permit. In the previous photo walk, one of our team members was briefly arrested for taking a shot of the Supreme Court. Sigh! Somehow, it spiced up the experience. We relished the looks on their faces when we pulled out copies of the permit.
When I am shooting, I tend to get fully engrossed in the exercise. It was not until several hours later that I noticed how tired and famished I was. Before we concluded the walk, we decided to milk the permit dry so we headed over to KICC for some group photos. Being photographer means you are always thirsty for a sunset shot. We all would have loved to shoot one from the rooftop of Nairobi’s most iconic building but much to our dismay that required settling a separate charge. Many photos and videos later, we called it a wrap. I hadn’t had that much fun in a while. Moreover, I made new friends.
Some guys dashed home, but the rest of us went to a fast food restaurant to pacify the rumblings our tummies. As a famous Kenyan saying goes, mwili haujengwi na mbao, which loosely translates to ‘food is important for a healthy body’ – well, very loosely. I couldn’t agree more. With that, our street exploits came to an end.
If you plan to shoot photos in Nairobi (using a camera), you will need a permit from the County Council of Nairobi. Make several copies just in case. In addition, be patient while explaining to security guards (several times) that you have a permit and that you mean no harm. For some peculiar reason, photography on your smart phone raises no alarms but as soon as you take out a DSLR, people go on high alert mode.
Take up the challenge! Next time you walk in the city, take some time to see things differently. You’ll be pleasantly surprised!1