An interview with The Art of Resilience’s Migwa Nthiga
Lewa Next Gen’s The Art of Resilience will premiere in New York City from September 1–11, 2021 at the High Line Nine in partnership with Montague Contemporary. The exhibition captures the stories and faces of individuals living and working around Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in northern Kenya.
Photographer Migwa Nthiga documents the daily life of everyday Kenyans and tells stories through his documentary portraits. His work has been previously recognized by National Geographic and the Sony World Photography Awards.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background. What techniques and subject matters do you work with? How did you come to enter the contemporary art world?
My name is Migwa Nthiga and I am a Kenya-based documentary portrait and commercial photographer. I graduated from Daystar University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Public Relations and Marketing. During my time at university, I picked up film photography, where I found my passion in taking and developing my own photos in a dark room. It was loads of fun.
Before graduation, I did my internship in East and Central Africa’s largest advertising agency, Scanad, where I put to practice my marketing degree and sharpened my photography skills when I was off the clock. After two and half years, I resigned and formed my own visual communications company, and have never looked back since.
I enjoy photographing people and using their images to tell their stories. My favourite subject is daily life, because I find it to be the most authentic type of storytelling — you get to peep into the lives of “regular” human beings doing their day-to-day activities. I also really appreciate this genre because I learn more about myself as a human being and as an artist in the process of creating these images. When I photograph in this category and others, I like to give my portraits a little spice by using strobe lighting as a second or third light source in addition to the sun or natural light.
I entered the contemporary art world as a by-product of my internship in advertising. During my time at Scanad, I interacted with commercial photographers, stylists, make-up artists, set designers, graphic designers… the whole lot and their magic rubbed off on me. I was fascinated by how shoots were put together, executed, edited, and delivered to the client. I knew I belonged to this world the moment I took my first assistant photographer gig. Naturally being an ex ad-man, the first jobs I did as a photographer were commercials — so lots of high fashion shoots, product shoots and the lot. They all looked and felt perfect… a little too perfect, in fact, so I started exploring the documentary portrait photography genre where I found my true love. Today I shoot both genres to make a living, but my favorite is documentary portrait photography (Don’t tell my commercial clients.)
Do you have a particular process you go through when beginning a new piece? Where do you draw inspiration from?
When I have decided what subject matter to focus on, I begin by doing some research on the matter to ensure that I am photographing from an informed point of view. I do this out of respect for the subject and people involved.
I then get to know the people I photograph before I take any photo of them. It helps to break any barriers and builds rapport. I do this in the form of a casual conversation with them, usually about what they are interested in, what they do for a living, what they do for fun, etc. I then switch up the conversation and steer it towards the reason I want to photograph them and talk about the relevant subject matter. After I have gained their trust, I begin to take their portraits. There are times I don’t have that much time and may need to photograph them quickly. In such cases, I would try and build the rapport as quickly as I can even as I am shooting. Being pleasant and friendly goes a long way in hastening that process.
I draw my inspiration from the natural world; forests, the ocean, wildlife, human beings, the forces of nature all inspire me to create. How all these things come into existence, nobody knows exactly how and why and that fascinates me. It makes me wonder what else we don’t know about life here on earth…about ourselves as human beings, consciousness, spirit and how it all ties together.
What role do you feel the artist plays in society?
I feel like an artist has many roles in society, one of them being like that of a mirror that reflects back all the stuff that happens in society that we either ignore or are oblivious to. Artists shed light on issues that may be affecting marginalized people and open an opportunity to give them a voice that is acceptable to laws of the land. An artist should also be able to entertain his/her audience and make light of things in society. If you are a renowned artist with lots of followers, I feel like it’s your responsibility to inspire positive change in the world and try to do good with your art and influence your audience to do the same through their own means.
What inspired you to get involved with Next Gen’s art exhibition for Lewa Wildlife Conservancy? Why is this project meaningful to you?
My inspiration to get involved with Next Gen’s art exhibition for Lewa Wildlife Conservancy was to contribute towards the global efforts of spreading messages of hope and resilience during the tough times Covid brought.
This project is meaningful to me because I get to be a part of the psychosocial solution to Covid through art. The hope is for as many people as possible to see this project so that someone somewhere doesn’t feel alone in these tough economic and social times. By showing the resilience of our heroes and heroines, our audience may be encouraged to keep pushing on.
Tell us about your pieces that will be exhibited by Next Gen. What inspired them? What do you hope viewers will take away from them?
I took portraits of three different people who rely on the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy for their livelihood. The idea was to go back in time (pre-COVID) and recreate scenes from those productive business days and then take another portrait showing what life looks like for them now. Using Adobe Photoshop, I would then put those two scenarios together forming one mirror-like image showing a before and after, and how Covid flipped our heroes and heroines’ lives upside down.
When people view these pieces, I hope they can sympathize with our heroes and heroines and feel their loss, while at the same time — when they see the portrait representing the good old days — I hope they feel encouraged and hopeful that life can return to that or better.
How has COVID impacted your work and have you seen your work shift in the past year?
COVID came with a lot of loss, one of them being economic loss. The commercial photography industry was hard hit because companies weren’t making enough money to advertise as they would normally. During an economic crisis, the marketing department is often the department that bears the brunt of budget cuts, which trickles down to suppliers such as myself. I had to adapt, and so I reopened one of my offerings that I hadn’t engaged with in a while, which is to shoot easy portraits that were cheap to produce and affordable to my clients in order to make ends meet. The pandemic made me uncomfortable again and made me think on my feet for new ideas to keep the business going.
It also affected how shoots were conducted, especially because we were all being told to keep distance and not to touch each other, which is a tall order for the hair and make-up departments.
My work has definitely shifted in the past year. I am more keen than ever before to create more projects around anthropology and other human-centred genres in the natural realm as opposed to fictional tales. I want to create bodies of work that people can relate to and that speak to real life situations, to inspire and inform.
What is the latest series you are working on?
I have recently developed an interest in virtual reality and 360 video production as a means to tell impactful and immersive stories as well as an educational tool. The topics of these immersive experiences are around climate change, waste disposal, refugee assimilation, and wildlife education.
In relation to my photography, I am working on a project called ‘The Turkana Artist Xchange’. It’s a collaborative project among artists from Turkana, a county in Northern Kenya, and artists from the cities of Kenya and beyond. Turkana hasn’t had much airtime in the creative scene in Kenya — in fact, people don’t think of art when they think of Turkana. This country and its region is hot and dry and receives a lot of bad press. This project aims to change that by unearthing the hidden gems that are the undiscovered Turkanan Artists.
Through a range of mediums, art can inform and inspire viewers to explore new ideas. How does art — particularly African art — connect viewers with conservation?
Wildlife tourism comprises about 14% of Kenya’s Gross Domestic Product. Kenyans recognize this value with no exception to artists. We are lucky to be surrounded by beautiful landscapes with breathtaking views and lots and lots of wildlife. As artists we are inspired by our environment; it’s no wonder why at some point the main subject of an artist’s work could be directly or indirectly related to our landscapes and wildlife. Artists then become wildlife ambassadors, ever reminding people of our diverse array of wildlife. This becomes a very effective channel in raising awareness when a species is endangered or any other wildlife crisis occurs.