What would you do to get the perfect shot? For Mutua Matheka, it involves some enigmatic heights that most wouldn’t dare to venture. However, his love for heights has accorded him some of the most iconic images of the Nairobi Skyline. But dangling his feet from our tallest buildings isn’t enough for this architectural and landscape photographer. Between scaling the Huawei and Safaricom cell towers to traversing the trails of Southern Africa and the Great World beyond, Matheka has a body of work rich in portraiture, as well as, astonishing travel and landscape scenes. Not to mention some of the most visually-satisfying shots of architecture that could satisfy any perfectionist’s heart. With eight years of knowledge and experience to his name, we talk to the architect turned photographer to look at his origins, present and all the elevating stories in between:
When I started, I didn’t have a specific purpose. I had been playing around with graphic design when I was in JKUAT (Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology and I loved manipulating pictures. The problem was that I couldn’t find interesting images of black people on stock websites. So, I decided to buy a camera, take pictures and manipulate those images. Then I started to take the pictures and found that I really enjoyed photography.
How did you teach yourself photography?
You can learn anything you want through consistency. For the first six months after I got the camera, I didn’t know what to do with it. Then I was introduced to this daily shoot website (which isn’t there anymore), that would give out a photography assignment after 24 hours. The idea was that you would get an assignment, shoot it, upload the work to flicker – which was the platform we were using then – within 24 hours, and then tweet out with #dailyshoot and the name of the assignment. This kept me on my toes and I think it’s the fastest way I learnt photography. Because with each assignment, you were to interpret it in your own way. I had to have my camera with me every single day because I was employed and I never knew where the shot would present itself.
What made you decide to go all in?
Something had to give. After graduating, I got my first employment job in 2009. My typical day was waking up at 6am to be in the office by 7am. Official working time was 8:30am, so I’d use that extra time to blog (I was blogging daily to share the pictures I’d shot), see what other people had shot, get inspired, get the new assignment for the day, and then start work. Then at lunchtime, I’d go around the office trying to complete the assignment. Back to the office to have my packed lunch. Workday would end at 5pm and I’d be home by 6:30pm. Then, I’d have a shoot in my house from 7 to 8pm. At that time I was newly married, so then I’d spend time with my wife. After she’d gone to bed, I’d sit at the computer and work from 11pm to 2am. Sleep then at 6am, start the cycle all over again. Most Saturdays I’d be shooting a wedding. Two years of doing that got me quite exhausted, so it was either photography or architecture.
And you settled on travel and architectural photography…
I enjoy travelling because of the different perspective that it gives you. Seeing different places expands my horizons. Because I truly believe that we are a product of our experiences, and our thoughts and ideologies can’t be bigger than the container in which we exist. I especially enjoy travelling within Africa because I’m curious about African cities and what urbanity means to us. Additionally, how we view our spaces, especially in contrast or comparison to how westerners define their architecture in their cities.
Architectural photography is my choice of commercial work. So I photograph buildings, hotels, restaurants; basically things that have been designed to be appreciated and to be functionally sound.
A common question on your blog is how to get started as a travel photographer, in particular do you self-finance?
Yes, I do! I feel that the only way that you can advance as an artist is if you are your own client. Personally, I find it very hard to trust a voice that has been paid for. Because then, how do you know what you shoot is something that you actually enjoy as opposed to simply what pays? I find that as any artist, you have to find or have your own voice.
I was interested in travelling and that’s what I started doing. Thankfully, I was with a group of friends that appreciated the same things. With a group called One Touch, we’d plan road trips which we financed ourselves. And by coming together it becomes cheaper. The idea is to see new places and experience new cultures, take pictures and share with others. In a nutshell, the simple answer is that if you want to become a travel photographer it has to come out of your pocket first.
I’m sure people won’t like that answer.
Ah, people don’t like the answers that are the most obvious. I still pay for a lot of my trips. It’s just that now, I combine a lot of my personal travel with client-related travel. Thankfully, there’s some attention on my work that accords me opportunities that I didn’t have before. So when I’m called to do something for a client, I ask them to extend my ticket, and then I cater for myself on the extra days that I use to explore where I am.
What’s your favourite location so far?
I find that everything is a favourite for different reasons. All my experiences come together to make something that’s a lot bigger. I think that people, places and events are so complex that everything can’t be binary. The places I choose to go to, I try to take them at face value and avoid trying to romanticise or vilify them. Rather, looking for the interesting moments within them by going there with an open mind.
How long do you usually take to set up or capture a shot?
Concerning landscapes, it’s all about being in the right place at the right time. There’s no shortcut to that. With architecture, it doesn’t move or change its angles. It’s upon you to change yourself and your approach of it. Depending on when you see it, it becomes something else. And I really love architecture for that because it’s a game of perception. Many times when I want to shoot I won’t stay in a place less than two hours. Furthermore, if I get a chance, I go back to the same places to shoot with a different lens because things could be more interesting on another day.
Does the story or the location guide your concepts?
Both. One may precede the other but they will feed each other. However open-minded you are, you’ll still have some bias of where you want to shoot and what you want to see. Now, whether these perceptions are crippling or empowering is what ends up making the shot or experience good or bad for you. So, I acknowledge that I have these expectations, but my mind is open enough that when I get there, I’m aware that my plans may change.
Is it intentional to show places in a positive light?
It is! I’m incredibly optimistic and I like to see the best of every situation. Consequently, I do the same with cities and try to capture them in their best light. A lot of the clap backs that I have received in the past is that African cities and countries can’t focus on beauty when they have so many problems and issues that need resolving.
While they are entitled to their opinion, I question why we can’t exist in both realities. Just because we have acute inequality, horrible wealth distribution, and hunger among other problematic issues, those things do not take away from the existing beauty. And vice versa. For me, beauty and tragedy have a very complicated relationship that is very alive in most African cities that I have been to. I don’t shy away from the reality, but I choose to capture the beauty.
Is that why you call yourself ‘The city changer’?
That was a project that came to me, and because of my belief system at the time it was the perfect project to participate in. Back then, I was more about changing the narrative. But in the past two years, I realised that all the talk about changing the narrative was very reactionary. So for me, it’s now about increasing and saturating the narrative with other angles and encouraging others to do the same. Whatever your reality is, photograph and share that. It will all go to increasing the understanding that we shouldn’t be defined as just one thing; as we are the sum of many things. We allow western cities to be complex, and as African cities we deserve the right to be described in the same way.
Is Wallpaper Monday part of this move?
I started it about five years ago when I couldn’t find any wallpaper that was African inspired. The plan was to provide people with images that reminded them of home. That they could look at their screen every day and see something that they can recognise. So I started putting up my pictures as wallpaper for free.
After some time, I noticed other photographers with very interesting pictures and I asked them if they wanted to have them as wallpaper. People really liked the idea, so I made it a regular thing. By making it 50% guest wallpaper 50% my work, I use it as a way to showcase other people’s work. NB: It’s free if you’re using it as wallpaper, if you want to use it to make a print or as a company that wants to use it on their website, it’s not free. People tend to confuse that a lot.
Apart from running the wallpaper, you still blog. Why is that?
I’m using the blog to inspire by sharing my thoughts, as well as, the ideals and way of thinking that shapes the work that I do. Since I believe that photography is a way of thinking and the way we see things is based on how our minds work. I want more conscious photographers who are very aware of what they’re shooting and what they’re trying to say with their work. That way, they’ll make meaningful work that will outlive them. I know for sure, that’s what I’m trying to do. I think sharing my thoughts on life and how I process my photography helps others in the way that they approach their work as well.
Can we talk about those crazy heights? Knowing the value of cameras, aren’t you scared you’ll drop it?
I’ve actually dropped a camera 26 floors during my first aerial shoot. It got me over that fear. For me getting the shot and safety is important. I’m not afraid of heights, so that helps. And then over the years I’ve learnt to position myself to reduce the risk. I love the perspective from above because it elevates me above everyday shenanigans. I definitely believe that our world view is influenced by our perspective, and seeing a city from a distance is to see it as another entity.
Lastly, tell us about your most recent project.
There are two main ones for this year. The first one is ‘Unscrambling Africa’, which is an exploration into African cities, and our use of space. My goal is to photograph all African cities. I’m currently in the first phase in Southern Africa where I’ll photograph cities there over the next two months. I’m travelling with an illustrator, photographer and a film maker, so that the end result will be a photography book, a colouring book, and a documentary film from this project.
The next thing is an exhibition in Nairobi and the details will come out later. It’ll be a culmination of seven years of shooting in Nairobi with an experiential twist. I’ll be sharing updates of both projects through @truthslinger