by Charlie Mathews (@CharlesLeeZA) Powerful, arresting, and alive with colourful imagination, Osborne Macharia is a whirlwind disruption who forces people to confront and change their perceptions of Africa and Africans. A self-taught commercial artist based in Nairobi, Kenya, Macharia calls his style of photography “Afrofictionism”.
Macharia explains that Afrofictionism is an independent, narrative style of photography that highlights three key principles —culture, fiction and identity — which he uses to blur the borders of reality and fantasy through the medium of storytelling: “Afrofictionism creates a powerful platform to convey important messages on topics like gender abuse, ivory poaching, FGM [female genital mutilation], albinism, dwarfism, minority groups and care for the elderly.”
Africa Dispatches caught up with Macharia to find out more about who he is, how he got to where he is today, and what advice he has for other young creatives who want to change the world.
Africa Dispatches: Who are you?
Osborne Macharia: I am a storyteller and identity creator, born and based in Nairobi, Kenya, out to change how the world perceives Kenya and Africa in general, through this style of photography known as Afrofictionism.
AD: Why photography?
OM: I never paid attention to photography up until 2010 when I came across the work of photographer Joey Lawrence. I came across his series from Ethiopia and that just sparked a feeling in me that resonates with me till today. At first you set out shooting anything and everything until you get the urge to create your own style, which I set out to do, and this has stuck with me ever since.
AD: When you first started taking photographs, what was the experience like?
OM: The first moments were actually frustrating and confusing as I didn’t know what I was doing. I was teaching myself using tutorials and there never seemed to be a relation between what I was learning and the images I was producing. With time I learnt to take it a day at a time. My first camera was an entry-level DSLR: a Canon 1000D.
AD: How did you grow your skills?
OM: I am self-taught and my advice to anyone getting into photography is to explore and teach yourself the basics. In this age, everything you need is available online. Yes, there will come a time when you will begin to specialise and grow and need to learn the next step, and that is when you seek help through internship, mentorship and workshops. These early stages of self-exploration help in defining your style and creating your identity, as opposed to copying someone else’s style. Research, day and night.
AD: Why do you use photography to tell stories?
OM: There is so much negative stereotyping when it comes to this continent. Fiction has been my most-effective tool of changing that narrative. In my fantasy worlds, I’m able to create positive and uplifting perceptions without any limits and restrictions. I imagine a different world altogether. It’s interesting how, when peoplhttps://www.instagram.com/p/BRLzx86Bo5F/?taken-by=osborne_machariae discover that my work is fictional, they do not want to accept that, as they have already connected with the characters in a real-world setting. I do get a number of emails and calls from people across the world, asking how they can get in touch with the people in the photos. This shows that there is indeed a longing to see and hear something good coming out of the motherland.
AD: Tell us about your latest series, ‘Magadi’.
OM: When I was invited to come for Design Indaba, I felt it would be nice to launch a project in Cape Town. At that particular time I was going through my portfolio and I came across an image I took in 2011 of a model dressed in bright and vibrant print fabric holding a spear, and the idea of doing the same, using elderly women, came to mind.
The hardest part of all my projects is creating the story, but luckily for this one I cracked it that very day. I shared it with my mum concerning the angle of FGM [female genital mutilation] since at that time she was working for an NGO that advocates for an end to this act. She was excited. We started producing it and then launched it in Cape Town.
The women were really really happy. Most of these women live in informal settlements in various parts of Nairobi and the fact that we took them out of the city for two days and catered for their needs was such a joy to them. As with all my projects the best part is seeing the reactions of the subjects when they get to see their photos.
AD: How do you use computers to supplement your work?
OM: I use an iMac as a major part of my workflow. I grew up in the digital age and never got to shoot film so the ‘digital darkroom’ is what I know best. Knowing how to use editing software has become an integral part of any photographer’s workflow. This being said, overreliance on retouching as opposed to getting things right on camera has also become too common, especially in the advertising industry in Kenya. I’m a believer in getting 80% of your final image on camera and the touch ups in post.
AD: Do you see yourself as a change agent?
OM: I believe I am and so are other young photographers who are working very hard to change this perception. This is something I am passionate about and with time I would like to extend this by creating other stories in other parts of the continent.
AD: How has photography changed your life?
OM: It has been life-changing indeed. I studied architecture and I do not believe if I had gone ahead and practiced I would have been able to get feel the same impact that I do feel now. I’ve met many people and travelled to places I never imagined I would have.
AD: What role has the internet played in terms of getting your work noticed?
OM: A major role I have to say. It all started in 2014 when I created a body of work with my new style and posted it on Behance. I posted about six different works with the same style and my views on Behance rose from 6 000 to 250 000 views within six months in 2014. To me this was absolutely mind-blowing. Their reception was so positive that I knew I was on the right track. I began getting emails regarding work for hire and exhibitions in different parts of the world.
Definitely the digital space has changed how we showcase our work to the rest of the world. For anyone wanting to get noticed, style is everything. Create your voice through your style and anyone in the world will be able to hear it.
AD: Who are you currently working with?
OM: I am currently on a three-month project with Coca Cola and am working on three personal projects that I want to release before the end of the year. (Macharia also uses creative teams for his work — see the credits for Magadi below.)
AD: What are the biggest challenges that you’ve overcome?
OM: I guess as of right now the biggest challenge that I have overcome has become my biggest strength — being a voice in a country and continent where nothing good is seen to come out from. We are always striving to get to the point where people can say ‘something good is happening in Kenya/Africa’ since the negative seems to outweigh the positive.
AD: Your biggest learnings?
OM: My biggest learning has been the power of collaboration. I work with some of the most-gifted professionals in this industry, right from the stylist/props master (Kevo Abbra), hair designers (Corrine and Richard) and makeup artist (Valary). These are individuals who are hungry to do good work and to enjoy the process while making it.
AD: The best advice anyone’s given you?
OM: Think global, act local.
- Design Indaba: Magadi: New work by phenomenal Afrofuturist Osborne Macharia
- Design Indaba: Meet Kenya’s courageous Mau Mau fighters in Osborne Macharia’s photographic narrative
- CNN: Inside Nairobi’s illegal ‘fight club’
- Quartz: A Kenyan artist’s powerful portraits of fictional characters honor the women who helped end British rule in the country
Photography: Osborne Macharia
Props/styling/production: Kevo Abbra
Styling assistant: Paul Kyalo
Makeup artist: Valary Mdeizi
Jewelry: Jackie Chirchir
Hair stylist: Richard Kinyua, Corrine Muthoni
Assistants: Victor Ndalo, Emmanuel Thuo
Charles Lee Mathews (@CharlesLeeZA) is the founder of TheWriters.co.za, a boutique strategy and content shop that helps brands better connect — and engage with — the people who matter most. When not writing, or thinking about human behaviour, she is a contributing editor to MarkLives.com through her monthly “Africa Dispatches” column.