Vox Nairobi | 2

Lens Photo Studio, Kibera, Nairobi, Kenya. Peter Otieno                      shoots passport pictures and portraits from his Kibera studio, often using an old Pentax K1000 camera.               According to Olendo "When making a picture you have to include the feet. If people can't see their feet they might not pay you. They might say 'I came in here with feet and you've forgotten them. This picture is no good.' " (Photographer: Brendan Bannon)

Name  – Peter Olendo

Age – 59

Work – Photographer, Lens Image Creation Center

Lives – Kibera

KIBERA, April 10, 2011 (Daily Dispatches) – Peter Olendo talks to Mike Pflanz about his business as a studio photographer – his first camera, the advent of digital photography, and never forgetting a customer’s legs.

“People here, they don’t like natural pictures, they like a formal portrait, nice clothes, nice shoes, their hair straightened. Their collar if it is bent a bit they will not pay for the photo. They want to see their legs in the picture as well, not only their face.

“If you take the face and you cut out their legs, they say you have not done it right. They say, “I came to your shop with my legs and you have cut me halfway. I wanted to see my shoes, where are my shoes”, they ask. Then you are in trouble. Eh, they might not even pay you!

“Here in my studio I have different backgrounds which I can pull out for people to stand in front for their picture. Even though you are in this small room, I can make a picture showing you in Nairobi city, in a church, in Rift Valley, with the mountains. I can show you in a tea plantation.

“On this side I can take you to the coast, you can see the ocean, canoes, people buzzing on the beach, it’s all there, just in this one room. I can even put a different carpet, maybe green for grass, you may not know that this was taken inside.

“I also keep ties here, different colors to match different suits, for people who don’t have a tie. Clip-on ties even, for those who have no time to waste. You can be assured that you are now looking fit for your photograph.

Peter Olendo keeps a cache of neck ties for customers to  wear at his  photo studio in Kibera.            Olendo also has clip on ties for those "with no time to waste." (Brendan Bannon)

Peter Olendo keeps a variety of ties for his customers to borrow

“I started with photography when I was in school. I bought a camera, a Linda Super Lens, for 25 shillings. My first photo was of my Catholic priest. I had cut off his legs, in some pictures I cut out his head, but even so I was very excited when I saw my first prints. I never knew I would become a photographer in the long run.

“I have learnt photography, I am trained, a professional. I’ve taught people in laboratories, in studios, printing and all that, many now have their own businesses. This attitude of somebody saying photography is something you do not learn, I can rule that out. Even if you don’t go to a classroom, you have to be taught.

“These cameras which do everything by themselves, you can pick them up and call yourself a photographer, but you are far back behind. Really, you know nothing.

“With digital photography today, things have become simple. But I find it’s like it’s fooling people. Should there be a problem, would you know what to do? I can say I’m lucky to have known the basics in the original photography, film processing, manual cameras, everything like that.

“Nowadays, I have to struggle, I depend on walk-in customers, but in the digital world today, most people are doing their own things on their computers at home. If they come to your shop, lucky you. You can get only two or three customers in a day. That cannot sustain you. I’m supporting my whole family, it’s quite a big family. There are seven children and many grandchildren. I am the one responsible.

Husband and wife photohrapers,Teresa Atieno and Peter Otieno at  their studio in Kibera, Nairobi. (Brendan Bannon)

Peter Olendo with his wife Teresa Atieno, who is also a photographer

“Also I have had some problems. I lost my job in a professional laboratory a long time ago, during a coup here in Kenya when I found I was unable to get to work. And then when we had violence after the election in 2007, my studio was burnt to ashes. I had a complete studio with dark room, printers, enlargers, all my cameras, frames, imported and local. I had a very big stock. I lost something like $3,500 of stock. That fighting, I can say it was hell on earth, we thought the end times had come.

“But thank God we’re still alive. It’s been very hard to rebuild. It’s like I’m just starting, like I never existed before. You can see the kind of camera I’m using, it’s a Pentax K1000 from so long ago. Look at the flash that I am having, it’s tied together with string. I have a long way to go to get back to where I was before.

“If I had some more money, I would go fully digital, I would try to find some businesses outside of my studio, marketing myself, I could talk to schools or colleges to offer them the kinds of services they need. I have a bank account, but it’s reading zero. If you have some money which is floating in and out then you can be confident going to ask for a loan. But I don’t have that.

“It’s not easy for a good business to be lifted from here. This place is prone to wars, each time there are elections you are just worried. Even I want to move from here to somewhere spacious in town. If you mention your business is in Kibera, everybody thinks, no sir, that’s a no-go zone.

“Here, I feel like someone swimming in the sea and you are not very sure if you will reach the other side. If my shop was in town, I’d be on dry land, standing on a firm foundation, not shaky as I feel here.”


Related: Brendan’s full-size images from Peter’s studio

© DAILY DISPATCHES: Nairobi 2011

2 Responses to “Vox Nairobi | 2”

  1. It was quite interesting to see that they studio tradition of photography is alive and well after its beginnings in 1950 or so. But, it got me wondering if any more traditional aspects of Kenyan culture still exist in Nairobi and elsewhere, or has it all be erased by European colonialism and the apparent desire of this city to emulate the West?

  2. CMoore says:

    I love what Daily Dispatches has done with allowing college students in America, such as myself, to be aware of what is happening all over the world. It’s nice to see actual people telling their stories without media putting twist on them to make them seem more interesting. It’s also eye opening to see hardship, and triumph over over that hardship in smaller countries that i haven’t been exposed to before.
    Peter, even losing everything and starting over didn’t stop you from supporting your family. I think it’s odd seeing the different technologies and how photography that was once done with backdrops and an actual photographer is now digital and easy to do at home. I think that the photographs are so much more original and meaningful when done professionally rather then just taken at home with a digital camera and digital programs on the computer. It must be tough owning a photography studio in an era when digital cameras are allowing people to stop coming to professional studios. Staying afloat and working for your family is really inspiring.