When was the last time you let your curiosity run wild? As creatives, we are at risk of typecasting ourselves in a specific role under the identity guise. But what if we took it off its leash every once in a while and wish it Godspeed? In a bid to learn how to express himself as an artist, Brian Siambi embarked on his photography journey in 2014 with the help of his mobile phone. This graphic designer evolved from directing shoots for a popular fashion and lifestyle magazine in Kenya, to being one of the photographers contributing to the growth of African creatives, “changing the narrative one photo at a time”. We caught up with the Nairobi-based creative with a diverse aesthetic to further elucidate why he’s one of Our Top Ten Photographers To Watch:
We’re curious, what is the meaning behind the alias, UrbanSkript?
Don’t really think there is a meaning to it. I just felt I needed to change my alias at the time, which was @iamsiambi, to separate my name from the work. So, it came about [while] brainstorming ideas with friends. I combined what I wanted to shoot at the time, which was urban stories.
You started out at True Love and credit Emmanuel Jambo for inspiring your start… how did you transition from graphic designer to photography?
I’m a self-taught photographer and transitioning from design was sort of natural. At the time, I was working for True Love and I used to direct a lot of our cover shoots, from brainstorming to executing ideas. Emmanuel played a huge part… I watched him and how he works with his subjects, he has a natural way of getting even the most tough/serious subjects to let loose and have fun. I admired that and it got me interested in it. And even more so the fashion side, how he captures grand images, I wanted to do that in my own way.
Why travel, commercial and editorial – how do they help or hinder the other?
They don’t hinder each other at all; I just keep defining my style and what I would like to be known for so I chose what I enjoy shooting most. They each provide challenges and lessons that I learn every day.
We hear that you’re currently doing design and layout for NOMAD Magazine. How has this skill helped you grow as a photographer?
I joined Nomad in January last year and a day later my mum passed away, which was quite tough because I was really excited for her to see me in the new journey. I was to be the designer and photographer from scratch; bringing the magazine to life. I would say it has grown my travel photography skills. Before, I just used to travel with my friends but didn’t invest much time in learning to shoot travel images, as my interest is more fashion. It’s also let me appreciate travel photography, capturing places in a way that people can look at the images and feel transported to the place. A lot of my shots are usually wide angle shots, which I feel show the grandness of a place. Every time I shoot, in the back of my mind, I’m always thinking of how I will layout the images on the page and still have enough space for text.
How do you develop concepts for your personal projects?
It’s usually a combination of inspiration from other people’s work, or just a light bulb moment of an idea. I then take notes of these ideas that I’d love to execute, and then talk to my partner in crime – Bryan Emry – who helps with the styling of the shoots. We then do research on who we want to work with, locations and logistics. The shoots usually take time, as I always want to think about my shoots before actually doing it. Personal projects to me are always scary, as I have to take time and think, ask myself why this concept and what I want people to see and get from them. Once we work out the concept, we create a mood board on Pinterest, share referral images, reach out to models, the makeup artist we want to work with, then plan. Good work comes out as a result of everyone understanding the vision, so I do my best to work with the best.
Which do you prefer – studio or location?
I shoot mostly location and natural light as I enjoy the freedom and challenge it comes with. Sometimes the weather can be great, the next minute it’s moody, so that usually keeps me on toes in regards to always be creative and going with the flow. I shoot studio when doing commercial projects but I want to do a bit more personal projects in studio to challenge myself with artificial lighting as well.
How would you define your style of photography? And what would you say is your signature element that makes people say “that’s Urbanskript”?
My work involves a lot of contrast and rich tones, but also it is where I shoot, mostly being random locations from farm fields, quarries etc. And it’s a constant refining process. Not sure how I would define my work yet, it’s still a work in progress I believe. I’m my worst critic so I’ll get back to you after a few years haha!
One thing you certainly seem sure about is your on-going #TheDarkMatterProject series. Why is this project important to your journey/brand?
It started at a time I was struggling with my identity as a photographer. I was asking myself how would people define my work or how would I define what kind of photography I do. And that was around the time Emry and I worked together to shoot Adele Dejak’s lookbook, which opened my eyes to fashion and I fell in love with it. It [the project] is a personal appreciation of dark skin. Growing up, I had this idea that being light-skinned automatically made you beautiful and I believed that most of my life. But as I grew older, and with photography, I started appreciating dark skin people and I wanted to share that through fashion photography differently.
Growing up, I had this idea that being light-skinned automatically made you beautiful and I believed that most of my life. But as I grew older, and with photography, I started appreciating dark skin and I wanted to share that through fashion photography differently.
What I’ve learnt from #TheDarkMatterProject is that personal projects are what define you as a photographer. It’s what will make people call you for jobs. It’s what people come to respect you for. It’s what keeps you hungry and constantly wanting to improve, I mean, look at where Osborne Macharia is at the moment. His drive and commitment to his personal projects have opened doors for him and Kevin Abbra to endless possibilities and that’s what I want to achieve with my project.
So it’s safe to say we’ll be seeing more additions to #TheDarkMatterProject?
More of Dark Matter, yes. I feel fashion photography can be shot more creatively and differently than the way it’s been and I enjoy collaborating with different fashion designers who constantly challenge themselves by creating amazing work.
You started out with a mobile phone…what are your tools of trade now?
I shoot with Sony A7 and A7ii, I find they give me what I want in terms of colour and dynamic range. Just works for me. I use Lightroom and Photoshop for my edits; I use Photoshop in my graphic design as well.
Speaking of graphic design, what is your stance on post-work editing?
It’s a subjective matter, but I’m not a fan of too much retouching. If done tastefully, like how Thandiwe Muriu does her work, then it’s perfect. I do minimal retouch on my subjects as I feel a lot of my work should be as natural as possible.
You’ve expressed your appreciation for ‘natural light and shadows and how it forms interesting light against subjects’. What are you top three tips of working with these two elements?
- First figure out what you want to shoot and how you will edit beforehand. Morning light and midday light will give you different outcomes. Midday light gives you harsh shadows on your subject. Morning and evening light gives you a soft feel and it’s easy to edit in most cases.
- Use a reflector to reflect light back to your subject (Gold reflector gives you a nice feel with dark skin)
- Use a diffuser to reduce the light on your subject if need be.
Some of your shoots have slight exposure or nudity, what’s your advice on doing this tastefully?
It goes back to what you are trying to achieve. Shooting nudity is always a touchy subject, especially in Africa. But I would say, always think about the subject when shooting as they have trusted you enough to show their vulnerability to you. So, always make them feel comfortable, use props to make the shoots interesting and make people curious when they look at the image.
What is your take on Africa and how would you like the international community to perceive it?
Africa is an exciting place to be at the moment, the young generation is expressing themselves and defining their voice a lot and it’s exciting to watch. Not so much on what the international community receives but I’d like us Africans to appreciate each other more, buy from each other, support each other, and create with each other. With such unity, the quality of work gets better and will make everyone listen and treat us as equals.
What misconceptions and challenges have you had to battle as a photographer in this industry?
Hmmmm… people appreciating the value of your time and your work. Challenges are mostly the lack of proper structures when shooting in different locations, from harassment by security.
Highlight of your career so far?
Let’s see, was invited by Vogue Italia for a portfolio review in Italy but at the time couldn’t afford the travel as my late mum was unwell. But it felt so good for them to recognise my work.
You’ve spoken highly of Emmanuel Jambo and Bryan Emry in previous interviews and it seems working with others is important to you…Who else have you worked with that has had an impact on you?
I’d say different people have had an impact, from Emmanuel Jambo, Bryan Emry, Osborne Macharia, Kevin Abbra, Thandiwe Muriu, Mutua Matheka, and Trevor Maingi. They are friends who are so passionate about their work that it’s inspiring. They have put their all into their projects and that always keeps me in check.
You’re always experimenting with new techniques – what have you recently incorporated?
Can I answer this at the end of the year as I work on my projects haha
Okay, we’ll settle for a teaser of what we can expect from you in 2018…
This is a year of challenges is all I will say. A year of challenging myself to do better, plan better and create more images that are well thought and shot. No teasers yet J