A Story Retold – Brian Otieno

A lot of you have probably heard of Kibera. The slum in Nairobi, Kenya, where the average size of a shack is 12ft x 12ft, is built with mud walls, a corrugated tin roof and a dirt or concrete floor, often housing up to8 or more with many sleeping on the floor. The place whose residents live in extreme poverty, earning less than $1.00 per day. Assault and rape are prevalent; there is a lack of schools and of education. Clean water is scarce. Diseases are common. And many people lack access to electricity, running water, and medical care.

This is what comes to mind when many think of Kibera: the image painted by mainstream media and development representations. But that is not the whole story. Kibera is a place where people live, where they form friendships and connections. It is a place with its own culture and nuances, a place where people are striving to make the most out of their lives just like anyone else. Another story needs to be told.

This is where photographer Brian Otieno comes in. He has been working hard since 2013 to show the world another side of Kibera and to shine a light on the real stories of people from within slum.

Photographed Brian Otieno

Brian Otieno

Brian Otieno is a photojournalist who grew up in Kibera. During his youth, Kibera's visual narrative had long been about nothing but poverty and hardship, but Brian knew that there was more to this story.

At the time, he knew little about Photography, but despite this, in 2013, he began "Kibera Stories", dedicating himself to documenting the other side of his home.

Today Brian is an internationally acclaimed photographer with Kibera Stories being exhibited in Paris, Kampala, Lisbon and New York, and Brian winning the East Africa Photo Award in 2018 and the Kenya Press Photo Awards in 2017. Yet through all this, he has remained true to his goal: portraying the stories of the people of Kibera.

Growing Up in Kibera

Through his experiences in Kibera, Brian has been able to develop a unique perspective on photography. He explained that growing up in Kibera “taught me to look for the whole picture instead of focusing on first impressions. There is always a bigger story behind one moment eternalized in a photograph. We only get to know that bigger story if we take the time to observe, to ask and to listen.”

This philosophy has had a direct impact on his projects, helping him realise that “Kibera Stories is a long-term project, and I don't know if it will ever have an end. Life evolves, the community changes, people move, new projects emerge, it is an endless story. The Kibera I see today is not the Kibera I was seeing when I started my project 7 years ago.”

Photographed Brian Otieno

Photographed Brian Otieno

Photography vs stereotypes

The key issue that Brian’s work tackles are the stereotypes surrounding the people of Kibera. Brian explained the harmful effects that these stereotypes can have as they “[strip] people of their true identity and [deny] them opportunities.” Especially “in places like Kibera, [where] this has an even more serious effect”.

Brian elaborated on this, explaining that “When a child or a teenager who grew up in Kibera is confronted with the stereotypes associated with the slum, it can take a toll on their self-esteem and cause trauma and isolation. Nobody wants to be seen as a miserable or a criminal, a lazy or uneducated person. People judge you by the place you were born before you even open your mouth.”

And yet despite these debilitating effects on self-esteem, “the media, and photography in particular, too often end up enforcing those stereotypes. When you see a picture of a child standing by a pile of garbage, you see a child trapped in a life of disease, misery and hopelessness. You don't see a child who has siblings, friends, neighbours, a child who goes to school and shares happy family moments, a child who has dreams and aspirations, and who knows hidden talents.”

But it’s not just the media that perpetuate these stereotypes. All too often people visit Kibera, yet do not stay long enough to understand it for what it is. They go in expecting to see poverty and unhappiness, actively seeking it out and subconsciously disregarding everything positive about the area, and then leave, not having tried to understand the area, but just reinforcing pre-existing biases.

“For someone who lands in Kibera for a day, or even for a week, they see fugitive moments that will eventually grow into a bigger impression, and that impression may not reflect the complete or truthful reality. Getting to know a community, delving into a way of life and truly understanding it with all its colour, depth and millions of nuances, it takes time. You have to look with an eye free of stereotypes and prejudices. You have to let go of your own bias. I guess that's the big difference in my work in Kibera.”

Photographed Brian Otieno

Photographed Brian Otieno

Photographed Brian Otieno

Women’s Rights in Africa

Despite the improvements that have been made to women’s rights in Africa, there is still much to be done, with women remaining at the bottom of the social hierarchy, with poor access to land, credit, health and education. This issue of women’s rights in Kibera and across Africa is something that Brian has explored through his “Women of Kibera” project.

Women of Kibera is a series I did for the #RightByHer campaign, to advocate for the rights of women and girls in my community. I interviewed women leaders, teachers, and community workers whose stories represent that of other women in my community. This series ended up in an exhibition in Berlin during the International Dialogue on Population and Sustainable Development, to raise awareness and amplify the voices of women in Kibera and all around the continent.”

Women of Kibera – Photographed Brian Otieno

Women of Kibera – Photographed Brian Otieno

The Ballerina

Out of all of Brian’s images, the one that has garnered the most attention is of a ballerina on a street corner. Brian explained the importance behind the image:

Photographed Brian Otieno

“The image of Elsie - the young ballerina training along a street corner in the slum, is an image that represents all of us - the boys and girls born and grown in the slum, who have dreams and ambitions and live up to them. It's a photo of a ballerina aspiring to rise, just like many other children in the slums, who are talented and skilled and despite not having it all in life, they make use of the little that they have to approach any opportunity that comes along. This image portrays the untapped potential from within and is a representation of the dreams of children growing up in the informal settlements.”

Closing Thoughts

Through Brian’s work, the world is coming to see the other side of Kibera, recognising its intricacies and culture, understanding that its people have aspirations and agency, and seeing it for what it truly is rather than just as a place of poverty and people needing help. While Kibera is far from perfect, and Brian recognises this, the stigma surrounding it can be just as damaging, and this is something that photographers need to realise.

“I think photographers have a responsibility in the way they portray vulnerable communities. These are communities that are already stigmatized, and you don't want to cause more victimization with your photos. It is important to shine a light on degrading living conditions, or human rights violations, but you should always seek to portray people with dignity. People living in slums are not less deserving of this than people living in other parts of the world.”

But photography can also be used as a tool to help strip away this stigma, with the medium having the potential to do such good. As Brian said himself, “Photography is a powerful tool for advocacy, self-expression, and personal growth. It can offer an alternative venue to create community reflection and dialogue, to reach policymakers and to champion for change.”

Photographed Brian Otieno

Written by Finley.