Stories of Kenyan women told through photographs

Looking at photos of women from Africa, we can often conclude that the photographer’s goal is to arouse sympathy. Renata’s project is distinctive: she has decided to photograph girls as well as she can, style the sessions, and do everything to turn things that are often considered disadvantages in society and the canons of beauty into advantages. Her photos emphasize the strength, charm, and uniqueness of these women. Not only that, she writes down their stories, so people can get to know more about the perspective with which they look at the world.

Photography has been knocking on Renata’s door for a long time. Since she can remember, she has always photographed a lot, but it never crossed her mind to take it more seriously. For a while, she worked for a travel agency. During one summer in Turkey, she met people who inspired her to choose Kenya as the winter destination. Renata was supposed to go to the south coast of Mombasa to look after tourists and run safaris. It turned out that during the flight from Europe to Africa, her company forgot to buy additional luggage, which forced her to buy a seat in the higher class. “On the plane next to me sat a girl who, as it turned out later, was a famous African singer. We liked each other and exchanged telephone numbers. Thanks to it, an avalanche of various events started, which finally led to my understanding that photography is what I want to do in my life. I just thought that you only live once and that I have to find out for myself if it is for me.” she explains. At the beginning of 2019, after six months on the Kenyan coast, she quit a job in tourism. With her savings, she bought photographic equipment and returned to Kenya, to Nairobi, and worked as a freelance photographer for a year and a half.

Taking photos has become a significant part of Renata’s life. She explicates: “This is a tool for me to be close to people. I am quite an extroverted person who likes to be surrounded by people very much. I like talking to them, getting to know them, listening to stories, and photography helps me with that. It has always been the most important thing for me, and it is what fascinates me the most, not only the creation of sessions and taking photos, photography in itself, but the relation with other humans.” 

The project sprouted in her head from the beginning of her stay in Kenya. Her biggest inspiration was, of course, women who she met on her way and their amazing stories. While working in tourism, she has also become involved in charity, which allowed her to get to know local people better in villages away from tourist resorts. “At first, I was thinking about the project in writing, which is just writing stories and sharing them via social media. However, I was drawn to photography. Back then, I looked at many photos from Africa and concluded that often their goal, apart from arousing curiosity, is to arouse compassion. I decided that I didn’t want to do this. I wanted my photos to emphasize the strength, charm, and uniqueness of these women”, she says. 

She carries out her project on Instagram because, so far, she has not been able to find another better place. It wasn’t easy to start the whole undertaking. The most difficult thing for her in Kenya was usually finding a place to do a photoshoot. In Nairobi, you can’t just go out on the streets with your camera and take pictures because it’s dangerous. Photographs cannot be taken in many places and may result in police intervention. “In general, the difficult thing about this project is that you have to do a lot of steps that are very time-consuming to get the final effect. I have to find a woman from whom I will feel some specific energy, feel that we will be able to do something together; I listen to my inner voice (I never know before what story a girl has in her, I follow my intuition), then I have to convince her to participate in the session (many women refused me, especially at the beginning when I did not have a portfolio, or because of difficult and traumatic life events that they did not want to talk about in public). Then arrange an interview, write a story, come up with a concept of a session that will suit the girl, find a place, clothes, make a session, and create an atmosphere in which the woman will feel comfortable and safe. And finally, photo processing. It is a lot of work, but I feel that it is worth it, and it gives me a lot of satisfaction and joy.” she describes the process. 

The attention of many people and the unique photos also attracted the amazing stories of the chosen women. As you read them, you may be surprised at how much they have been through. At the same time, it is from these stories that the power of women flows from leading them to places they maybe did not expect to go. Beulah was the first person Renata ever talked to about her photography project. Beulah’s parents moved to Kenya at a very young age from South India. She has lived in three different countries: Kenya, India, and England. She explains: “The three are completely different and required different shifts in mindset for me to adapt. I guess this helps me see the world completely differently from a wide range of perspectives but also leaves me feeling like I’ve never really had a sense of belonging anywhere. It’s not like we’re required to truly belong anywhere or be a certain type anyway. I want to be me.”

Getting to know the protagonists of the project sometimes takes place in a very surprising and random way. This was the case with Naitiemu, whom Renata met through a friend from Poland. That friend has lived in Africa for five years, and he organized a creative event in one of the clubs in Nairobi. It turned out he was Naitiemu’s boyfriend. The girl does workshops about art for children from poor communities and teaches them how to recycle, creating art through waste. She paints murals and prints ethnic masks in 3D printers creating original patterns reflected on paper. “All these experiences have been impactful to the children and the community in giving hope, confidence, happiness and opening doors for a future full of possibilities. I have also grown immensely through such programs. My spirit feels free and fulfilled every time I embark on such a project,” she shares. 

The photo session, which had a massive impact, on the whole project was the one with Ross. “Do you have times when you see someone for the first time, there is some specific energy emanating from that person, and you immediately know that you need to get to know them better? You feel that it is no accident that you have met,” it is written in the caption of Ross’s photos. Her life story is very tragic. She has four younger siblings whom she helps and has to feed. Her father cannot find a job. She lost two brothers and two sisters, and her mother died shortly after the death of her fourth child. Ross earns about KES 13,000 from her job – the equivalent of $130. The main meal of the Kenyans is ugali or cornmeal, and it has to be enough to support her siblings. She eats one meal at work that she is entitled to in the canteen. At home, she usually eats nothing because there is no money left for it. “After returning from a meeting with Ross, I wondered how I could help her. How to give her this proverbial fishing rod and not a fish. Ross can sew a machine, but she doesn’t have one. For some time, she sewed for another seamstress, but for sewing a dress on which she could earn 15 dollars, she had to give as much as 10 dollars to the owner of the sewing room.” Renata adds.

She decided to create a donation, encouraging her friends and followers on Instagram to donate. The required amount of money was collected, and Ross got a new sewing machine. But mostly, it was the session that had the most significant impact on Renata’s life. “It was a special session for me. I can even say that it’s a breakthrough. That day I realized that this is exactly what I wanted to do. I had the impression that this session was also important for Ross. Despite all the hard experiences she went through, she looked delighted. Her joy was something amazing for me. I have never felt anything so intense when taking pictures. At times I had the impression she was not listening to me at all, as if I were taking pictures of a child in the body of an adult woman. She was constantly laughing, dancing, waving her dress in all directions. I could see that she felt feminine in it.” Renata wrote on her Instagram. Sessions like this made her realize how important it is to listen and write down stories. She explains: “I want to photograph women. Before the session, I always meet them to get to know them better and listen to them. But this is the most beautiful thing about photography for me. Thanks to it, I can be close to people.”

Women often share how vital were the lessons they’ve learned because of difficult situations in life. It’s not easy to gain something from struggles. As Agnes, one of the women, told Renata: “I think we all need to struggle sometimes, to find out who we are and what we want. Things that seem strange will become familiar, questions will be answered, and one day in a particular moment, you will understand why this all happened to you. With time you will grow, heal and gather wisdom. It all comes with time. Like the butterfly – you also will awaken in your moment. Just give yourself time.” 

Another story that caught a lot of attention was the one about Julia. Her mum discovered little spots on her skin when she was a year and a half old. It turned out it was vitiligo, which meant an incurable disease. Because of the wrong prescriptions of medications, the condition aggravated. Being a child was one of the most difficult times in her life. “I was a very closed child. I was depressed, although I was not fully aware of it. There is very little awareness of mental disorders here. You tell your mom that you feel bad, you don’t want to live, you can’t get out of bed, and you hear the answer: “pray or start working, you will feel better” – this is the thinking that is common here.” she shares. Julia tried to commit suicide several times. Also, this disease affected her family. People tended to ask her mother: “What’s up with your daughter? Has someone cast a spell on her?” It’s difficult to live with a disease and be accepted and try to have a normal life. It is strenuous for people with vitiligo to get a job, especially in sectors where they have contact with clients. As a single mother, Julia caught up with any job she could to earn a living. She was washing people’s clothes, washing dishes in a restaurant, working in a club in the evenings, and washing glasses. Despite the baggage of complex experiences, Julie is a very positive person. “I stopped treating vitiligo as a disease and started it as an art. The spots change. I can say I look different every few months. They create various shapes, and sometimes they take very interesting forms. I like this. When we accept ourselves 100%, life becomes much easier. I have the impression that everyone wants to be someone else, but not themselves. And I want to be myself.”, she adds. 

These and other stories seem to appeal to many people. Lessons people can learn from reading these stories and looking at photos is a great sum of what one of the project participants, Danielle, said: “Everyone deserves to wake up and feel good about themselves.” The reception of this project gets only positive opinions. Renata shares: “I am so pleased that I have never received any negative or racist comment on any woman or the project in general! Usually, I get many positive words that the story touched someone’s heart, drew attention to an important problem, or the woman in the photos aroused someone’s admiration. This is probably the biggest sign for me that it is worth doing it, despite the adversities or a lot of additional work that needs to be put into these sessions.”

A crucial moment is when she shows final photos to women. Especially when they like them because it gives her a lot of energy. This project also makes stories visible and no longer anonymous. They reach a wider audience, inspire, cause reflection, change views, encourage other women, or draw attention to an important social topic or problem. It seems that the sentence uttered by the author of the project perfectly reflects the thing she created from scratch: “I feel that this project is just needed.”

Anna Marek

Renata’s project on Instagram: @thesaintroses

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