Nairobi’s traditional family portrait goes al fresco

Box of tricks: Ben Kariuki’s toolbox acts as an advertising board for his photography business at Uhuru Park’s central lake. (Sean O'Toole)

Box of tricks: Ben Kariuki’s toolbox acts as an advertising board for his photography business at Uhuru Park’s central lake. (Sean O'Toole)

The battered toolbox, its lid wide open, looks like a yawning hippo. I stop to look at the unattended box, which is placed next to a walkway leading to Uhuru Park’s central lake. The gaping mouth offers a display of 10 neatly laid out photographs.

Two young men seated on a red pedal boat smile at me from one of the photographs.
I can hear the distinctive slapping sound of the boat — or one just like it — in the background. The lake where the photo was taken lies just beyond a patch of grass where the box’s owner, Ben Kariuki, is kipping.

Another photo catches my attention, a weather-beaten portrait of a self-confident man in his late 20s. He wears sunglasses and jeans, has his left leg hiked up on to the raw concrete surface of an arching cement structure extending up into the air behind him.

Like many of the Pretoria-meets-Pyongyang public monuments dotted across Uhuru Park, the structure the man has his foot on was commissioned by former Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi. Informally known as the peace, love and unity monument, after the words appearing beneath the structure’s trio of arches, it was officially unveiled in 1983 and marked the 20th anniversary of Kenya’s independence.

Garbage-strewn, its fountains no longer working, the monument now largely functions as a prop for the friends and families who enlist the services of the park’s 20-odd professional street photographers. Men like Ben.

Recognising that mine was more than just idle curiosity, Ben — a tall, thin man with elegant fingers and a necklace of outdated cameras — lifts himself up and saunters across. The purpose of his box clarifies itself. I could pose in front of the monument, or stand in front of the lake.

Ben suggests I pose with Nairobi’s optimistic post-independence skyline as a backdrop. The photo would include the tall, hat-wearing Ken-yatta International Conference Centre building, built in 1974. I prefer the monument. Ben waits as I circle it again, debating in my head “unity”, “peace” or “love”. I go for the latter.

Ben’s neck adornments are a clever ruse. He uses a compact Sony digital camera to snap my picture. The old wind-up film cameras are just for show: they simply denote what he does.

Photo taken, Ben walks over to a mobile printing kiosk: a gleaming black Epson digital printer with retrofitted ink cartridges powered by a car battery. He hands over his memory card to its owner. In less than a minute the printer spits out a reliable portrait. The cost: 100 Kenyan shilling, or two of our R5 coins.

It is an ingenious and efficient set-up, one that is duplicated at strategic points across Nairobi’s abundant inner-city parklands.

Not so long ago, Nairobi residents wanting a formal portrait would travel to the city centre, enter a shop, pose in front of a fictitious backdrop, and return later to collect the finished product. It was a ritual common across cities in Africa.

“The 1980s saw a distinct shift in the production of studio photography in Kenya,” offers Sam Hopkins, a Nairobi-based videographer and amateur photography historian, by way of an update.

“The advent of colour photography and the availability of affordable cameras caused many of the traditional studios to be redundant.”

The closure of these formal photographic studios coincided with the emergence of Nairobi’s street photographers. Working in a more informal and contingent way, they tend to congregate in the city’s sprawling parklands, which abut the main business district.

Ronald “Rony” Ndalegwa (40) works a spot on the southern corner of Nyayo Monument. Located in Central Park, a hurried run across Ken-yatta Avenue from Uhuru Park, this severe monument, unveiled in 1988, illustrates the hubris of its commissioner: Moi’s fist bursts through the top of Mount Kenya.

Although shabby and in need of repair, the monument remains a popular destination. Rony, who is married with four children, has been working the spot for 15 years.

The vagaries of weather and unknowable swerves in photographic technology notwithstanding, Rony is nominally self-sufficient. He owns both his camera and the same reliable black printer appearing at intervals across Nairobi’s popular green urban spaces.

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