With the gift of storytelling passed down from her father, Khadija uses photography to chronicle the journey of humankind in its most unadulterated form. Check out her story below.
Say hello to Khadija:
Where are you from? Where have you been?
I was born in Kenya, lived in Texas for 15 years before moving back to Kenya two years ago. I’ve been to Kenya (obviously), Tanzania, South Africa, England, Wales, Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, Switzerland, Canada, 10 US states, UAE, and Saudi Arabia.
What’s your favorite place in the world?
This changes every year, but currently, my favorite place is the Lamu archipelago in Kenya. I love how each island has a unique personality – from incredibly well-preserved ruins to abundant marine life (you can find whales, sea turtles, and the endangered dugong around one of the islands). It still retains Swahili cultural practices that have been around for centuries such as dhow making and sailing.
What’s on your “bucket list” of ideas to create?
I would like to retrace/recreate Ibn Battuta’s first journey to Mecca from Tangier in 1325. The original journey took him 16 months. I’d love to see what it would be like to embark on the same course, with the same travel method (on horseback, camel caravan etc) today. Logistically, it would be a huge challenge, but I’m up for it.
How would you describe your visual style?
Photojournalistic. I like to find ways to capture the reality of a moment in a way that is easily digestible. I wish I was more “artistic” in my approach but most pictures I take, although well thought out, are easily executable.
How do you find your inspiration?
Instagram, books, and documentaries.
Do you get photographer’s block? If so, how do you overcome that?
Always. I envy photographers who have a seemingly endless stream of inspiration. The easiest way is to travel. When I don’t have that option, I put down my camera for a few days, sometimes weeks or (if it’s really bad) months. It helps me to stop looking for the perfect shot and appreciate the world around me, with my natural lenses. During this time, I usually focus on my writing instead.
Tell us about your father and what role he played in you pursuing photography.
I come from an oral culture – our history is passed down from generation to generation through poems and song. My father is the best storyteller I know. It’s effortless to him. He has lived an extraordinary life and has seen and been a part of history.
One story has always stuck with me. Dad flew the Kenyan president and then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher when she visited Kenya on her tour of Africa in 1988. He took her to visit various tea farms and plantations. The next morning, he received a copy of The Daily Telegraph where one of the journalists who was traveling with Thatcher wrote that about the “antiquated military carrier” that carried the Prime Minister. Of the cattle farm they visited, he wrote that the owner had several wives and “everything that could be pregnant was pregnant.” My father, obviously angered, saw the story as a continuation of colonial injustices and confronted the journalist about the clear inaccuracies in the story: the airplane was a 6-month old aircraft in pristine condition and the farmer had one wife who wasn’t pregnant.
Until today, when people tell African stories, they either belong in the “Africa rising” or “Africa falling” narratives. And we still have journalists and photographers come in and produce ethnocentric works that do not accurately portray the reality on the ground. They continue to play into this played-out fantasy of what Africa is or isn’t.
I wasn’t blessed with the gift of oral storytelling. Instead, I create “primary sources” by visualizing our history through photography. This way, the next “antiquated military carrier” can be accurately documented for what it is.
What types of photography do you do?
Documentary, street, and travel photography. I love documentary photography because it enables me to tell a complete (or close to) story. I get to know the subjects I shoot and learn from them. It’s the most rewarding for me. Street photography, however, is more challenging, especially when you’re in a community or within a culture that is not open to being photographed. So when I get a shot in that kind of environment, it gives me a tiny bit of validation which I enjoy.
What was the moment you decided to become a photographer?
My first selfie was at 8 – I pointed the camera at my reflection on a shiny car. In libraries or bookstores, I’d sit there poring over hundreds of photo books, my favorite being those about Kenya. Somehow, I’ve always known that this was the career path I wanted, but I was always reluctant to embrace the label “photographer.” It seemed like one of those things that would never happen for me. My hesitation also came from fighting against a culture, and sometimes, even my family who don’t see photography/photojournalism as anything more than a hobby or a quirky phase. I cannot count the number of times I’ve been told that it’s not “proper” for a Muslim girl to be traveling and taking pictures. It wasn’t until a colleague told me, “don’t get me wrong, you’re an amazing social worker. But you’re an even better photographer and writer,” that I decided I would focus all my energy on telling stories through photography. Nine months after quitting that job, I finally introduced myself as a photographer.
What is the strangest situation you’ve ever faced as a photographer?
When I was working in Dadaab refugee camp, I was photographing some South Sudanese refugees playing volleyball at sunset. The light was perfect and everything was going my way. Photographers are usually not allowed in the camps during that time so this was extra special. That day, I had two cameras and one of the young boys asked to see his picture on one of them. I obliged. While I continued shooting with the other, he ran off with the camera. A tiny (read: huge) panic set in. After a long search, I ended up getting my camera back. Apparently, he got so excited that he had to show his parents the picture. A few weeks later, I gave him a print of that same picture and I watched him walk home with it, cradling it like a baby.
What has been your biggest setback as a photographer?
Transitioning from a salaried photographer to a freelancer, and subsequently, not getting regular assignments is always difficult.
Of the photos you’ve taken, which three are your favorites?
This was one of the hardest scenes to photograph. Behind this Kenya Wildlife Service ranger, burns 105 tonnes of elephant tusks (from some 8,000 elephants) and one ton of rhino horn, a statement made by the Government of Kenya calling for the end to the illegal wildlife trade. Prior to the burn, I held one of the tusks in my arms and noticed it was still blood-stained, evidence of the brutal way it was acquired.
This is another one from Lamu. I spent almost the entire day on this dhow. At first, I was interviewing the captain, not paying much mind to this young boy. A few hours in, when I realized he had been singing and talking to himself almost continuously for hours, it became clear that he was the real story.
This is a simple one, but it was the moment right before the hunt. I wanted to show how perfectly camouflaged the lion was in the tall grass of the Masai Mara.
Photography is competitive. How do you stand out?
I don’t really try to stand out because there are so many other people who are more talented and accomplished than I am. I just try to “do me” as the youths say.
What’s the best advice you can think of for someone just starting in photography?
Cultivate your own vision. You can have all the gear in the world, but if you have no vision, you have nothing.
What’s the funniest story you have from being a photographer?
I once mounted a GoPro on a giant termite mound so I could get some shots of a football match in the desert – with no trees or buildings from which to climb, it was the highest vantage point. When I remotely connected to the camera, I realized the mound was occupied by a colony of sneaky banded mongooses. They took the camera with them and then tossed it back out after two minutes. This is the moment right before they went off with the camera:
If you could photograph anything in the world, what would it be?
I’d love to photograph my parents in their ancestral homeland in Somaliland. Both of my grandfathers died when my parents were very young. Being able to visualize the stories I’ve heard about them would be a dream come true.
What’s your philosophy when it comes to being a great photographer?
I’ll let you know when I become a “great” photographer. Currently just focused on trying to be a good one.
What do you think is the biggest thing holding you back in your photography?
Not trusting my own talents/vision. It’s easy, especially when you surround yourself with people who are so much more talented than you, to think you’re not cut out for this field.
How do you express yourself through your photography?
I’m an introvert, so photography and the stories I can tell through it, help me get over much of the anxiety I have communicating in public.
What photography advice do you wish you had when you were first starting out?
You don’t need the best gear to create a good photograph.
What are 3 tips you have for aspiring photographers?
- Be patient, be honest, and keep it simple.
- Sometimes on assignment, we (documentary photographers/photojournalists) might go in knowing what we would like to shoot, what images we want to produce. Most of the time, we get confronted by a completely different reality that makes us rethink the story we end up telling. That can be frustrating at times, but this is where patience comes in. It helps me (when given enough time) not to go in with my camera attached to my face. I get to know the area and community first before picking up my camera.
- Documentary photographers and photojournalists especially, have more impetus to keep their photography honest. We have a responsibility to present a scene as close to reality as possible. If you come into a new environment and start shooting immediately, you’ll miss out vital aspects of a story.
What is your most life-changing event?
Almost two years ago, I got a job as a social worker in a refugee camp in northeastern Kenya. Until that point, photography was something I relegated to the “unfulfilled dreams” section of my life. But in the year I was serving in Dadaab, I must have seen dozens of journalists come through the camps, most for just a day and others for a week but not any more than that. They would then go on to write pieces about the camps that were very one-sided and portrayed only one facet of the refugee experience. It’s because of this that I started taking pictures more regularly while there, in the hopes that I could portray not just the negative aspects of being a refugee but their daily lives. I was privileged to have access to a place that elicits so many questions from people across the world and it gave me great joy to be able to answer some of those questions and address many misconceptions about life in a refugee camp. Photographing the lives of refugees, telling honest stories about their experiences, provided a light-bulb moment for me and led me to where I am today.
What has photography done for you as a person? How has it changed you?
It has made me more honest. Not that I was a compulsive liar before. But I am more honest in terms of my storytelling, as well as more open to sharing my work, something I was always reluctant to do.
Who’s your biggest hero in your life?
My nieces. They’re fearless. I wish I could be more like that.
What’s one of your biggest fears?
Other than spiders? Spider webs.
What will you be doing five years from now?
I have no idea. But whatever it is, I hope my camera isn’t far away.
What’s something you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t?
The list is endless.
For anyone that wants to get in touch with Khadija, here’s some contact information:
Khadija, thank you for sharing your story with us! 🙂
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