“I picked up my first camera when I was 14 years old but my business is two years old.” Before delving into the industry, she begins with her story. Her first contact with cameras was due to her father who would regularly take photos at weddings leading her to take a keen interest in learning about it and practicing. Cameras have been in her life for a long time, she says. Coming from a creative family, her older sister is a fashion designer, her younger sister is a classical pianist and she became a photographer. “To be a photographer you are going to have be a geek. You spend a lot of time on the computer.” With a sister who was an avid reader of Vogue Magazine, Thandiwe began to take an interest in the fashion photography and more specifically beauty shots.
By word of mouth, her photography spread and by the time she was 17, she was called to intern in the US with a photographer who had seen her work. Being in the US, she primarily learnt the business of photography, a lesson that has enabled her to start her own photography brand. She thereafter worked with Emmanuel Jambo, a Kenyan photographer who poached her, before she went to university to learn more about business. With the support of two acclaimed photographers, Emmanuel Jambo and Mutua Matheka (whom she also worked with), her career grew and so did her name.
“All the women these days are models and all the men are photographers. So I am an anomaly.”
One of the things that she had to battle with was her age difference. Being young and a woman photographer in Kenya was a great challenge so Thandiwe has had to push through the stereotype and initial judgment of the quality of her work to make a name for herself. “I Kept doing personal projects and that is what pulled people to me,” she explains. Because Thandiwe is her brand, she ensures to not make it about her and more about her work. The problem of making it about you, she has found, is that “whether the work is good or not, people will start to like it because of me and not because the work is really good.” So the separation helps her keep her creativity growing by challenging herself to strive to improve.
“The reality about photography is that it takes a lot of work. We are tired, sweaty, spend too much time in front of a computer than is healthy and fight contract battles 90% of the time.” Thandiwe Muriu operates her business strictly with contracts whereas the use of contracts with other photographers is not that common. The little business lesson that she has learnt is that one of the measures of a quality of a service is timeliness. “Our services are charged per hour so there needs to be a flawless system.” Keeping things professional, she applies the principles of time keeping, contract signing before commencing the work and model releases. “Picking your clients is important. It is brand image. Some associations can hurt your brand.”
“I want to be Kenyan based photographer serving Africa.”
“It’s not about what you sell, it’s about how you sell it.” There is a lot more than being good at what you do, she says. People also do not realize the cost of becoming a photographer. “There is a price to be paid. My social life…well…it comes at a cost but not many people are willing to pay that price.” The cost not only involves actual price of equipment but also investing in time and reading. Striving to be creative, as a result of starting with the very basics, has invaluably contributed to her brand. “Starting from nothing is the best way to understand the limits and the power of the bare minimum tools so when you kit up, you can do much more.”
“Photography is painting with light.” Photography requires knowledge of physics, IT and PR; that is the formula. There are unfortunately no photography schools in Kenya, she explains, so every major photographer has learnt on the job. “Those who are hungry to learn will learn.”
Her heart is in beauty shots, which in itself is a part of the fashion industry. Thandiwe Muriu is fascinated by faces, make up, and close up shots more than any other type of photography. “My heart is in beauty. I love faces so if I could have my way, if the market matures more, I would specialize in it and not so much in fashion editorials.” Her portfolio is also made up of her personal projects (such as the iconic image used for Naivasha Fashion Weekend- pictured below). What she has learnt, she explains, is that in the market you get hired to do less creative and standard jobs so as an artist, she explains, one needs the personal projects to keep yourself alive. “So these are the things I do to push my creativity, because companies still want to see your creative work before they hire you.”
This in fact is what someone is most likely to find on the Thandiwe Muriu webiste: personal projects. One arm of her clients is corporate and the other personal where women request shots to be taken for a particular occasion.
The image used for Naivasha Fashion Weekend (NFW), a personal project, was purchased from Thandiwe who operates her business under rights management and license purchasing, “which is a new concept here. Under Copyright Law in Kenya, you have ownership of any photograph you take” regardless of the object. Therefore, when she works with models, she ensures that a model release has been signed before commencing the work to ensure clarity of ownership of the photograph; being Thandiwe Muriu (the photographer) and not the model unless she purchases a license to use the photograph.
“Selling licenses makes more money than shooting. That’s how photographers make money really.”
On the topic of models, Thandiwe Muriu would use one particular model for her initial personal projects, simply because there are a few models who can be fashion photography models. Being a catwalk model requires a different skill from a fashion photography model, which is all about expressions, versatility and creativity, she explains. Thogi, whom she has used quite often, [pictured above in the Naivasha Fashion Weekend poster] is in her opinion a strong model. There are commercial models, runway models and fashion photography models. Fashion photography models, she explains, are more dynamic models, which she explains is like “having a PHD in commercial modeling.”
One of the models she has worked with in for her personal projects is a 16-year-old ballerina who, as Thandiwe explains, can change her facial expressions to represent any age.[Picture below] “It’s a skill and most people don’t understand that. They think that you just need to be beautiful with great skin.”
“Being a model requires you to be able to change and transform and be dynamic.”
In addition, make up artists also require different skills when it comes to commercial shots, beauty shots or fashion shots. Fashion however will require more creativity and the ability to transform a model using only makeup. “Finding make-up artists who think outside the box” is what Thandiwe looks for her fashion shoots
“The skill of the model has a direct impact on the quality of work I produce. I have to work with a great model, great make up artists, great stylist and great creative director to make an amazing image.” There are more commercial modeling agencies than fashion modeling agencies in Kenya, she explains, simply because of the profitability in commercial modeling rather than in fashion.
With regard to the fashion industry, she exclaimed, “it’s imploding. Killing itself.” From what she can see, “everyone is doing the same thing and at some point, something will have to give.” One of her biggest challenges was breaking through the secrecy in the industry- that unwillingness to share. There is a Photographers Association of Kenya (PAK) now so in that sense we are uniting more than what she can see with fashion designers. Thandiwe Muriu is looking to start her own blog so as to share her story, her experiences and matters such as intellectual property rights. There is no reason to join the industry and suffer in silence. “There is so much more. The fashion shows are disappointing because there are all the same. No creativity.” Over time, she explains, the true fashion designers will make the cut.
“People are seeing fashion design as a get rich quick scheme, like quail eggs.”
Beauty shots are part of the fashion industry but, as Thandiwe has explained, the market has not matured yet for her to specialize in this just yet. Vogue Magazine, for example, invests in their photographers for their editorials, which are usually 6-10 pages. There are parts of the market that are ready to invest equally as much, she explains, however “the risk has not yet outweighed the cost.”
For the next couple of weeks, Thandiwe Muriu will be focusing on personal projects. “I realized that my skills have improved and I have not been able to use them fully.”
Take a look at her previous work below as we look forward to what she will come up with in the next couple of weeks. She additionally worked with Wambui Mukenyi on her Fall/Winter Collection 2014: see here.