MEET: Photographer Sarah Waiswa @lafrohemien

“There are so many stories to tell”, she says. In the galaxy that is social media things come in an endless flow and you step in an out of it moving between different sorts of nows. But there are also those corners that one seeks and returns to because they are their own flow. Maybe it’s a thinker, maybe it’s a youtube, maybe its an instagram. You don’t care if it wasn’t posted a minute ago and you take time to go there every now and then to feed your mind and soul. @lafrohemien is like that for me. Anything @lafrohemien lifts my mind, centers me, inspires me, enlightens me, soothes me… and I have become addicted to regular doses of it. This creative haven also comes in the human form of Sarah Waiswa. You will hear her being introduced as a photographer and beyond any doubt that she certainly is. An excellent one. But Sarah is really much more and maybe that is what makes her photography so powerful. She is an artist, a thinker, an ambassador for a city, a country, a continent and a world. I am madly inspired by this amazing person and so it is with great joy that I say to you… Meet Sarah Waisa aka @lafrohemien!

Sarah Waiswa

Sarah Waiswa aka @lafrohemien

For readers who are not familiar with you, how would you describe yourself?
SW: A closet introvert, just trying to find my way in the world.

Thousands of us find inspiration in your photos and know you as a photographer. How did you get into photography? Is photography your main occupation?
SW: I am a self taught photographer. I got into photography a few years ago after returning from the states. I had been gone for so long and photography gave me an opportunity to reconnect. I was in the states for 11 years and when I came home, I noticed, sounds and colors and things I had missed much more than I had as a child and so I began to capture them with my camera. I currently work in hospitality full time.

You were born in Uganda. What brought you to Kenya and what are your thoughts on the role of these two countries in your life?
SW: I was born in UG but moved to Kenya shortly after my birth as my parents fled during the Amin era. UG birthed me but Kenya raised me. I have never lived in Uganda, in fact I lived in America longer than I lived in Uganda. It is where my people are, but Kenya is home to me. These days though you’ll find that people have become global citizens, so having an identity that is linked to one place is often difficult, home becomes where you are at the time.

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A young farmer boy on Lake Elementaita. Photo by Sarah Waiswa.

You have also lived in the US for 11 years. What brought you there? And what brought you back?
SW: I went to undergrad and grad school there. It was just time to come home.

You are based in Nairobi, a city with a very dynamic creative climate with creatives from both same and different fields supporting each other. What makes this creative culture prosper like this would you say? And how does being based in Nairobi influence you creatively?
SW: I am based in Nairobi, however I lived in Diani for 3 years. I find that there are more creative opportunities available in Nairobi, in terms of access to people, projects and resources. Personally, travel enhances my creativity and that’s why I try to do it as often as possible. I find that the people of Nairobi inspire me, there are so many stories to tell.

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“In a dark hotel room in downtown Nairobi, Kissima shows me the fulani earings I have been looking for. The room is filled with jewelry, spears and masks lined on the wall…watching, what I would imagine a witch doctor’s hut looks like. Except Kissima has no cure to sell, or spell to cast, just the best jewelry in town. He imports artifacts from West Africa and sells them in Nairobi. He rents this hotel room for kshs 700/ $8 a day and it serves as his home and office. After doing the math, I ask Kissima why he doesn’t just rent an apartment, he says his customers are used to the location, and if he moves it will affect his business.” Photo by Sarah Waiswa.

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“It was hard not to notice him. He was cooler than a Nairobi night in July and sharper than a razor blade. He was styling, chains swinging and rings blinging. Like a scene from a music video, like he was about to drop a rhyme about the struggle. I almost expected him to say something like “What’s up ma?” But he said, “I’m from Mombasa, I came to Nairobi to work.” “What work do you do?” “I’m a parking boss.” Photo by Sarah Waiswa.

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“My tooth, it hurts, it’s killing me!” We ran into this man during #wwim10nai, and I was immediately drawn to him. He wore a helmet on his head, that had a makeshift visor on it. I kept asking him why he wore it, but he was so distracted by the pain. If you woke up today and you are healthy, give thanks. If you woke up today and have a roof over your head, give thanks.” Photo by Sarah Waiswa.

Could you tell us a bit more about African Cityzens, a project that has the aim to take you over land to all the 54 countries in Africa within the next 5 years documenting daily city life. How many countries have you covered so far? Are there particular countries or places that you are especially excited about going to? 
SW: We covered 5 in January. Joel covered parts of East Africa last year so there is still much to be done. I am particularly excited about traveling to West Africa, specifically, Mali, Senegal and also parts of north Africa like Morocco. We plan on having an exhibition soon, in addition to publishing a photo book at some point.

Do you have a destination somewhere else in the world that you dream of shooting?
SW: Cuba! Like Lamu, it has that original unchanged architecture, is full of culture and color.

You are an amazing ambassador for Nairobi, always finding new angles, faces perspectives, stories and capturing and sharing so many of the layers and aspects of this city. How would you describe Nairobi to someone who has never been there? I have also noticed you describing Nairobi as “mysterious” several times, could you elaborate a little on that?
SW: I would say Nairobi is diverse and eclectic in many senses. Maybe the mystery is my style of shooting more than in the city, in a sense that I want the viewer to think about the scene or the person without revealing too much, to leave something to their imagination.

A very recent photo of @velmarossa taken by Sarah in Nairobi. Velma is one of the two siblings in Kenyan creative fashion wonder duo 2manysiblings. Sarah’s caption to this photo: “Some steps need to be taken alone. It is the only way to really figure out where you need to go and who you need to be ~ Mandy Hale Outtakes w/ @velmarossa”

I asked Sarah to select the photos for this article but could not resist adding a few of my favorites. One is the photo of Velma above this one. And then this… I remember when I saw this photo the first time I just could not stop looking at it. I find it just stunning in all its composed dynamic and sculptural poise. Photo by Sarah Waiswa.

Do you have a particular place to go or thing you do to find inspiration?
SW: Going out in nature for a while always helps, perhaps because of the peace it brings. A favorite place is the ocean, but since that is not too close to Nairobi even a drive out of the city away from traffic is calming.

You are often in quite dynamic environments and seem to have a lot going on creatively in your life. Yet there is a particular vibe of calmness that radiates from you. Would you say that is a correct observation and if so… where do you find your calm?
SW: Yes, this is a correct observation. I tend to find my calm in photography, and in nature.

Lake Malawi during the African Cityzens trip. Photo by Sarah Waiswa.

“Sunrise on the beach in Malindi, the ocean calms me”. Photo by Sarah Waiswa.

Following you its inevitable to fall in love with you captions as much as your photos, you are more than a photographer, you’re an amazing storyteller. I remember commenting some time on one of your photos that I would love to read a book by you. Do you write?
SW: Thank you! I do write, but it has always been personal. Most of the time I like to let the picture speak for itself, but some of the time a person/place moves me to tell more about it.

Having followed you on Instagram for a while it is striking that you master – and seem to love – many different subjects and styles. You easily move from minimalist and graphic to amazing landscapes to soul-stirring portraits. Would you say that there is something that is typical of you as a photographer and does any of these directions attract you more or is it the variety that is essentially you?
SW: I am drawn mostly to portraits with an emphasis on identity, and street photography. But my eyes are always open, I see beauty in everything.

Mystery in Nairobian alley. Photo by Sarah Waiswa.

Why do you love doing what you do?
SW: When you go through life searching for a purpose and you finally find it or it finds you, nothing can compare to the feeling of getting up and doing it. Because it is so effortless and natural.

What do you wish more people knew about Kenya?
SW: How diverse it is, from its landscape to its people

Asante sana Sarah for taking the time to share your creativity and beautiful mind. For more of @lafrohemien please go to instagram.com/lafrohemien

Another photo I could not resist adding to Sarah’s selection. I find this so beautiful in the elegant composition and line and tones. But more than that this photo radiates the calm, confidence and super eye that I associate with Sarah. Photo by Sarah Waiswa.

One of Sarah’s most recent shots is this one from Yasiin Bey’s (Mos Def) gig in Nairobi. A beautiful portrait and it amazes me how Sarah could create this calm soft moment in a situation that was quite something else. Also I wanted to add this to recommend that you keep an eye out for images from a photo session that Yasiin Bey did with @2manysiblings (mentioned above under the photo of Velma). Sarah was the selected photographer and the previews I have seen are such a treat.

 

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