The Artist Behind Kenya's Viral Photography
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this is the Afrofuture.
When Osborne Macharia began taking photographs, he was so broke that he sometimes had only 20 cents to his name. He woke up at the crack of dawn to sludge through Nairobi traffic, carrying cameras, lights and stands with the help of an assistant, Victor. Everything he earned went back into gear; at times he’d arrive at shoots with no idea how he’d fund his way back home. One morning Macharia pointed up at a plane flying overhead. “One day that will be us,” he said to Victor.
That was five years ago. Today Macharia is one of East Africa’s most in-demand photographers. He’s landed gigs with some of the world’s biggest advertisers — Coca-Cola, Mercedes, Guinness and Safaricom — and his work has been featured eight times in Lürzer’s Archive, the premier global magazine showcasing top advertising work. He was named the No. 3 photographer among its rankings of 200 artists worldwide in 2015-2016. The self-taught photographer has shot campaigns for Oxfam International, and the latest album artwork for iTunes for Afropop band Sauti Sol. But it’s his viral personal projects that have really propelled his career — like his series on badass grannies, shown here, which reached some 500,000 eyeballs. He’s converted virality into high art: He’ll be at the Lagos Photo Festival, Africa’s biggest photography exhibit, this October. His goal: to change the Kenyan ad game and see his country’s creative scene compete on an international stage. He’s among the best, says Bobbi Gassy, a renowned Australian photographer and Macharia’s mentor. “For Osborne, it’s only the beginning,” he says.
Macharia’s personal work has been branded “Afrofuturism,” a relatively new term to him, but one he says applies. Call it a movement of African creatives seeking to reimagine the past, present and future to craft a divergent tale about the new Africa, one with “positive vibes,” he says. Forget starving children and wildlife shots. Rather, the soft-spoken 30-year-old tells fictional stories highlighting Kenyan history from a new perspective. For that internet sensation, Kenya’s League of Extravagant Grannies, depicting former female corporate bigwigs and government officials passing a glamorous retirement, he photographed the grannies in his shared studio, with bright red walls and floor-to-ceiling windows. He combined the images with shots of retro planes captured during a shoot for a tobacco company in Somalia. Macharia’s “appreciation of the classic craft with a twist of a digital manipulation” makes him stand out, says Gassy.
There’s also his series recasting Kenya’s Mau Mau freedom fighters, usually portrayed as barbaric militiamen, as dudes with dreadlocks sporting futuristic night-vision glasses. His creations are absurd enough to be shocking, while also flirting with reality. Journalists and historians inquire, hopefully, into his subjects, or they chastise him for “erring” on the facts. He points out, gently, that his art is fiction. But that visceral reaction is exactly what he’s seeking. “Osborne is a storyteller,” says Peter Gitonga, founder of ProKraft Africa, who represents the artists at Macharia’s shared studio.
Photography never crossed Macharia’s mind until his fourth year in architecture school, in 2010, when he came across some images of Ethiopia by New York-based photographer Joey Lawrence. He had never seen Africa captured in a way he recognized. Macharia became obsessed, spending hours researching photography techniques and equipment online. Photography increasingly took precedent over mathematical school work, even as he took architecture modeling freelance gigs to fund his new habit. It took him an extra two years to graduate. Friends and family thought it was crazy to give up a lucrative, stable career for artistic insecurity, especially in a country where good jobs are hard to come by.
When Macharia started out, “no Kenyans were doing ad work,” he says. Indeed, the Kenyan ad industry was a $78.6 million business in 2015, up from $64.7 million in 2010, according to Euromonitor International — a tiny slice of the global industry. He went it alone, negotiating contracts and dealing with the politics of pictures in a place where “having a Kenyan name” means you have to work more cheaply than expats; Gassy estimates the average price of a gig is a couple thousand dollars, while expats make around five times that per shoot.
Advertising companies approach Kenyan consumers differently, too. “There is this idea that Kenyans can’t grasp creative work,” says Gitonga. That means you won’t find a majority of Macharia’s work on his website; it isn’t up to his own standards. Kenyan advertisers, he says, prefer direct messages; think images of Kenyans holding a Coke or shots of Johnnie Walker Black bottles. But his artistry may be working: This year he shot a campaign for the Mercedes-Benz 2014 E-Class, classy because he eschewed shots of the cars altogether. Instead, he shot black-and-white images of Kenyans with car parts as body parts: Headlights as eyes, shock absorbers in a woman’s afro, engine cylinders as vertebrae. Today, Macharia is working with Middle Eastern clients for the first time, and, he says, learning to play the game.
When Macharia took his first flight, Victor sitting next to him, it was indeed for a photo job — for Tigo, a telecom company in Tanzania. He remembers looking at Victor and saying, “See, I told you.”