by P. Wamaitha Ng’ang’a
Born and based in Sumbawanga in Tanzania, John Kiyaya is an established photographer. His debut photo book titled, Mpiga Picha Mtanzania na watu wa Ziwa Tanganyika (Tanzania photographer and People of Lake Tanganyika) is a delight and one of the most refreshing photo books that I have come across in a long time!
There are 100 photos featured in the book and they are mesmerizing in their portrayals of the citizens of Tanzania. Not to be limited by language barriers, the beautiful essays are written in French and Kiswahili and translated into English. It is the very first photo book that I have come across written in an African language.
An encounter with a French journalist named Jean Rolin aboard the Lemba, a mixed cargo and passenger ship on Lake Tanganyika in the 1980s, would mark the beginning of a beautiful friendship and Kiyaya’s dream to become a photographer. On their encounter, he was studying to be a priest! However, after mail correspondence between France and Tanzania, Rolin sent him his very first camera, a film Kodak box camera. And Kiyaya’s long photography career began.
This book is a celebration of Kiyaya’s long career as a photographer. However, the story behind the project to publish this book is worth noting and mulling over questions raised and, perhaps, in the end, offering answers. This book was published for the people of Tanzania, first and foremost. On one hand, surprisingly, Kiyaya’s work was unknown in Tanzania including in the media and photography world of Tanzania. On the other hand, Kiyaya’s work is was known internationally where he has held exhibitions for many years and won awards.
As a photographer from East Africa, I can echo some of the sentiments of the photography world, where ‘to be recognised’ as a well-known successful photographer, you have to be internationally recognised, in this case in the global North. There are many reasons for such outcomes, one which this book and project poignantly address, is the lack of appreciation for the art and creative industry in some parts of Africa. It is still a work in progress, especially in the field of photography, to be recognised as a valid career. Many strides have been made in parts of Africa and the mindsets are shifting. This is due to the advancement of technology and the connections of the globe, especially through the internet and social media.
His photographs document the vast community of the Lake Tanganyika shores. With a mixture of candid and staged portraits, the documentary-style images show the breadth of a professional photographer gifted in storytelling, capturing moments and mostly documenting the history of the people and its region. In this fast-paced changing world and especially the global South, it is vital to have documents of everyday life as well as the changes that come with globalisation. The colourful, well-composed photographs are aesthetically pleasing but they are also charged with emotions, be it a portrait of a family taken at their home, or a young couple photographed by the Lake. His use of his surroundings and nature in his village and region shows love, respect, and appreciation for his home. The ease the participants ooze in the images depicts willing collaborators, whether they were aware or unaware of being photographed.
The photographs show everyday life, people working, at events, resting, and dealing with life events such as fires and collapsed bridges. The images transport me to my life growing up in Kenya. The smiles, the photos in home albums and the joy of ‘the village photographer’ coming to take photographs, and the long wait of a few weeks to get the pictures back!
We have seen photographs of Africa in the global North that are degrading and outright racist. Photographs of the ‘Dark continent’ that feed the hungry ‘white gaze’. The photographs of Kiyaya document the Black African with a gaze of respect and collaboration. It is my hope that this book is appreciated more in Africa and especially in Tanzania.
And it is my hope that African photographers will be recognised for their talent and appreciated both at home and abroad. So that photobooks such as this will be easily available, especially to the willing participants of these projects. It is also my hope, that Kiyaya’s career is financially sustainable. And that his hard work that has been sold, exhibited, and collected will set up his legacy for his family and future generations.
Book sourced from African Books Collective