On the rooftop

By Brendan

Yesterday we met JP, a young man with deep roots in the Westlands neighborhood of Nairobi, where you’ll have noticed we’ve been doing quite a bit of our night-time reporting.

We were standing on the rooftop of the row of apartments where he lives, which look out over Kangemi, Kawangware and beyond, to the Ngong Hills and the mountains of the Rift Valley beyond.

He has recently developed an interest in documentary film making, and is planning an ambitious cycle of stories that probe the root causes of Kenya’s post election violence and  their implications for the future of Kenya.

As a budding film-maker, JP aimed his deep curiosity (he never finished college, telling me he was “too unfocused” but he has a sharp, analytical, categorical mind) at me, a professional image-maker.

“One thing I’d like you to do,” he said, “is to take a picture of the Nairobi from way up on the Ngong Hills before you go. At night the city glows and you can see it from there so well.”

The Ngong Hills lie 20 miles southwest of Nairobi, a ridge of low peaks which mark the escarpment of the Rift Valley beyond.

I offered to try, but cautioned him to not expect a great picture. Trying to get an image of the city from 20 miles would be a bit far for the camera’s eye.

There is often an expectation that what we see with our eyes, what we think makes for a beautiful picture as we look at it, will appears as a beautiful photograph when we try to capture it on our cameras. Often, we’re disappointed.

The city from the Ngong Hills would look perfectly fine from the human eye, which works with the mind selectively to perceive what’s important in many elements of a scene before us.

But for the small frame of a photograph, it might look like little more than a glowing cloud perched far on a distant horizon.

Photography is all about how you fill the frame and there are a series of choices made in each photograph.

So I asked JP, up there on the rooftop, “Have you ever taken a picture and then looked at it alter and said, this isn’t what I saw?”

“Yes, it happens,” he told me.

That is because of the differences in how the eye perceives a scene and how a camera does.

We ran through a series of exercises (and these are things I’d advise any photography student to try): I asked him to look at a man a hundred and fifty yards away, and together we described what we saw.

We talked of the man’s size, build and clothes, but didn’t mention any of what was in our peripheral vision.

Then I asked him, without looking away from that man, to tell me what else he could see: the banana trees, the run of the road down a sloping hill, the shops around him, sky, lots of sky.

All of those things will be in your picture, I explained, unless you choose to exclude them. To make a picture of that man you need to be closer, using the frame of the photograph and its composition to guide the viewers’ perception to see what you saw when you framed and composed the picture.

“What is composition?” he asked. JP’s someone who always these basic but fundamental questions, the most important.

“Composition is the organization of elements within the frame in the best possible way to guide perception of the scene,” I said.

He asked me to show him.

Ten years ago I assisted Eugene Richards in a workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico. One of Richards’ first assignments was to have each student shoot a single roll of film of a subject, without moving from a set position.

Shoot 36 frames without moving from where you set your feet, without having your subject move, and make each frame different.

It is a great assignment for getting people to think about how to compose a frame.

I shot a half dozen frames of JP, each one different, some focused on the details of his hands, some with a twist of the camera incorporating different elements of background in the frame, some from above, some from below.

Each frame suggested a different context, emotion or place. Turn to the left, incorporate the banana trees, and you have a rural area. Turn to the right, and you see the sweep of the slum as it stretches to meet the city center and its high-rise buildings. Shoot from above, and you have the rooftop littered with building blocks and broken tiles.

Each frame told a slightly different story about where JP was standing.

“When I get a good camera, that is the first thing I’m going to do,” he said. Thirty-six different pictures of someone in the same spot, without moving my feet.

Why don’t you give it a go, too?

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