Interview with President Uhuru Kenyatta's photographer -Emmanuel Jambo

A dark room, a wedding, a retired photographer, and a magazine Editor. These words summarize the life of Sudanese photographer Emmanuel Jambo.

In another life, Jambo who stands at 6 feet would have been a basketball player like his childhood friend Luol Deng – an LA Lakers basketball player – also from Sudan.

Jambo’s first interaction with photography was courtesy of his elder sister who was studying journalism in high school.“I remember we were still living in Sudan and my sister was Elementary school. We had a dark room at home where she would process her films and I was so amazed by how you would wash photographic paper with chemicals and see images. That just amazed me!” says Jambo at his studio in Nairobi, Kenya. Born to a diplomat father, Jambo’s family moved to Egypt, then to the States where they settled in Chicago. After the move, Jambo got busy with his passion – basketball. He studied Computer Information Systems.

A Sudanese basket baller in Chicago

Basketball was his thing for a few years but one day, an incident at a photo studio in Atlanta marked the turning point. “My friend and I had gone to take photos at a studio. Throughout I criticised and gave suggestions on how she should take photos. After that, my friend commented, ‘it seems you know more than this lady. Why don’t you try photography?’ But I brushed away the idea.”  Unknown to him, a seed that was planted in a home darkroom in Sudan was germinating. A week later, Jambo bought a $300 film camera that was on sale for $150 and started taking photos.

The story could have ended there but his friend’s brother was getting married and she asked him to take photos. Jambo had read and found out that the most difficult photography is wedding photography. “If you get it wrong, you are done,” says Jambo of wedding photography.

Emmanuel and Sauti Sol

Jambo agreed to take up the challenge and asked for $10 to buy films. “I shot the four-hour wedding and delivered the photos.” The family was so impressed that the groom pulled him aside and gave him $800. “The groom said he had seen wedding photos of his friends by professional photographers but my work was amazing.” That recognition gave Jambo confidence. He quit basketball in favour of his new love – photography.  “Quitting basketball was not an overnight decision. It was about injuries and when I walk in a quiet place, you can hear my ankles popping all the way.”

A career in photography

Jambo invested the $800 in buying used photography equipment and in the process, met a retired photographer who had been diagnosed with cancer and was selling his equipment.

“The photographer who had 30 years experience had taken photos of people like Martin Luther King.”When he got to his studio, all the equipment had sold out. “We got talking, connected and he liked me because it happened that we had gone to the same school in Chicago.”

The veteran decided to mentor the rookie photographer. “He said he would look at my work and advice me. One day I took a portrait of a lady model and when I showed him, he stood up and saluted me. He told me my framing was perfect, my lighting was good and I had captured her features and expressions well. I thought, wow! this is really working! ”

From then, Jambo knew he was doing the right thing. He set up a website to display his work and constructed a studio at his parent’s home. Word went round and business was picking. “Bone Crusher, an American rapper asked me to design his CD cover and I got projects with agencies that were dealing with models.”

A visit to Kenya that turned around his life

After two years, Jambo decided to visit his sister in Kenya where he ran into the Fashion Editor of True Love, published by East African Magazines (EAM), a joint venture with South African publisher Media 24. “I met the General Manager who loved my work and told me about ADAM, a new men’s magazine that they were about to launch in Kenya.”The Editor of the magazine (Oyunga Pala) told him eight words; “Dude, go get your shi% and come back!” For Jambo, those words stung like a bee. He went to the US, packed his bags and moved to Kenya.

He took up assignments at EAM (publishers of True Love and Drum in Kenya) and soon word went round. People would see his photos in the magazines and call him. One day, he got a call from State House in Zambia and President Rupia Banda wanted Jambo to do some work for him. “That was one of the moments that really made me think I made the right decision to follow photography.” While having dinner with President Banda, Jambo called his mum and told her he was calling her from the State House in Zambia. “That was one of the highlights of my career.”

Jambo has also been part of the 2011 London Fashion Week, an experience he describes as amazing but came a little too late in his career. “Covering a major fashion event was one of my dreams when I was starting out. As you progress you notice that when you are asked to cover an event, it is very chaotic. When you are a new photographer it will be one of your dreams but once you establish yourself, people work based on your programme – they cater for you when you are doing a photo shoot.” He says at big events like the Oscars, photographers push and shove looking for space. “You reach a point in your career when you want to shoot for Calvin Klein exclusive shoots for a magazine. Dreams change as you progress in your career.”

Wedding photography

Shooting weddings is something that Jambo loves. He says he shoots weddings because of the art behind it and the challenge. “A bride could be standing here one minute and the next you look at the window and you have to change the aperture, shutter, focus…the timing has to be perfect. Every moment that unfolds you have to be clicking away it is very challenging. At the end the stakes are high – the disappointment is bigger. For a magazine, you can retake or change the photographer but a wedding is once – you get it or don’t. I love that challenge and every time I do it, I strive for better.” Jambo describes his photography style as journalistic something that was influenced by his sister in Sudan. “I like the journalistic type of shooting. Every woman and man want to see themselves one day as a model and when you get them to pose, they will love it.”

Jambo has photographed high profile weddings like the daughter of the South Sudanese president’s daughter, a family wedding of President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, and a $6 million royal wedding in India that took three days and was attended by King of Jaipur, Indian ministers and cricket legends. “That was one of the most expensive weddings I have shot.”

But the road has not always been smooth for Jambo. When he moved to Kenya, he had doubts. “I doubted if I had made the right move. I was dealing with a lot of people back in Atlanta and business was good.” He was frustrated by small things like getting his paperwork straight and delayed payments from clients. He admits doing business in Kenya has taught him valuable lessons. In the beginning, since he was starting out, he would get into word of mouth agreements since he would get into long-term contracts with publishers. “I would work but they would not pay on time. I have had to stop doing shoots for a publication that they didn't pay me at all.”

Comparing Kenya and the US

Despite rubbing shoulders with the high and mighty, Jambo says his greatest satisfaction is when people walk up to him and acknowledge his work. In retrospect, Jambo says he returned to Africa at a time when the market was ripe for talent. “This market is easier than the States where you have hundreds of photographers who have been doing photography for many years that would never want to leave that position!”

When the history of photography is written, Jambo wants to be credited for creating a path for African photographers. When he came to Kenya seven years ago, the photos for the big publications were done by none Africans. “I was among the first black photographers that started doing big stuff. People would ask me why I moved from America and scrutinize the equipment I had but over time people respect you.”

For a long time, people thought that “Jambo” – a Swahili word for hello – was a nickname. “One lady ran to me during a wedding and told me, ‘oh my God! I thought you were white!’” The lady was studying Law quit her studies and became a photographer. Jambo has inspired people. “They tell me now that one of us is doing it, we can do it. My biggest pride is having changed perspectives.”  Photography as a career is now being accepted by the African middle class who encourage their children to pursue traditional careers like law, engineering, medicine etc. “It is humbling when a mother brings her child to learn from me.” The granddaughter of Mwai Kibaki, Kenya’s President and the daughter of Raila Odinga, Kenyan Prime Minister have interned at Jambo’s studio.

The many faces of Emmanuel Jambo.

Jambo has bigger things under his sleeve. He has tried his hand on cinematography and is looking at documenting South Sudan’s history. He was present during the referendum and the independence celebrations. “I see a lot of potential in Sudan. The next move for me is opening a branch of my studio in South Sudan.” As for his photography, Jambo says he would love to take photos of people who have made a difference in the world. “Before I wanted to shoot the cover of a magazine but now, I am looking at taking photos of people like Nelson Mandela, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Kofi Annan for book or magazine covers.”

His other project is teaching photography. “I also intend to start a Fine Art school and make available professional modern photography equipment. Photography requires very expensive equipment. I can remember one person telling me I picked one of the most expensive hobbies in the world.” 

So what makes a great photographer? “Passion is what sets people apart. You need that drive that separates you from the rest. It makes you push the bar higher!

This interview was first published by Forbes Africa in May 2012.