Obama’s photographer shaping Kenya’s creative industry

David Macharia, founder and CEO of Versatile Photographers

If Africa is the cradle of civilization, it is also the birthplace of creative exploration. Africa’s creative and cultural industries are an increasingly important piece of its transformation. These industries-photography, fashion, film, television, music, design and much more-have all too often been overlooked as legitimate avenues for job creation. But that is starting to change.

In the world of photography, David Macharia ­­name reigns supreme. He is a celebrated creative credited for transforming Kenya’s photography industry with his impeccable work.

However, his rise to the top did not come by fluke, he says. It was gradual and organic.

“Photography to me is inborn. I like taking pictures,” says David during an interview with StartUp team.

He began his career in early 2000s as a receptionist for Mwangaza Studio.

“I was young and ambitious and I really liked the place. As a receptionist my job entailed handling client’s issues, organizing for shoots and collections of photos among many other errands,” he says.

Different photographers would come to the studio to process their photos and actually marveled at their work. Along the way, he felt in love photography and started to learn the ropes.

He envisioned he could make a great photographer.

Motivated by his immense love for the craft and the desire to make it big, he resigned, borrowed a camera and started taking photos of his neighbours at Kangemi and they were thrilled. He then me a gentleman called Kanini mentored him and introduced him to wedding photography. “Kanini was one of the best photographers I have ever met. I would accompany him for shoots over the weekends and learned from him” he says.

At the time, he charged KShs 50 for a photo.  “House helps were my main clients since I was seeking to secure a business relationship with their bosses.”

His good work quickly spread through the township and became an instant hit.

David then started researching for photography lessons on the internet.

He also studied the industry and realized that most photographers would take ages to deliver work to a client. He vowed to do it differently and deliver work on record time.

“I would take photos, process them and deliver to clients within a short period. It earned me a lot of trust and connections to individuals in up market areas like Narobi’s Westlands, Kileleshwa and Hurlingham among others,” he says.

David then started getting small gigs and assignments from newspapers. However, he says he did not do press photography for long as the pay was either not good or even nonexistent.

He continued his work with zeal and passion and narrowed down to fashion and wedding photography.

His work soon started to attract bigger clientele and realized that he needed to set up a studio but lacked enough money.

So he devised a way in which he could accommodate his increasingly demanding shoots and identified a corridor at Hazina Towers in Nairobi’s CBD. “I stroke a deal with the guards at the building and they became my friends. So on Sunday, I would organize for client shoots at the corridors of the tower. I would then edit and process the photos and they would come out well, as if taken in a professional studio. Most small time clients were okay with the arrangement as my work spoke volumes,” he recalls.

Back then, he did not envision that he would own a professional photo studio in the same building where his current studio stands at the 9th floor.

Caroline Mutoko of Radio Africa Group soon got wind of his good work.  “I was requested to send some of my work portfolio and they were impressed. Patrick Quarcoo and pretty nearly everyone at Radio Africa were awed and got me a contract to cover a much publicized Victorian Wedding that was sponsored by Kiss FM in 2007,” he explains.

The pay was handsome and opened doors to many opportunities. With some of the money he got from covering the Victorian Wedding, David bought a more advanced professional camera and given a desk at his friend’s office at 7th Floor in Hazina Towers.

It was a little office where my desk doubled up as a reception. He named thecompany Versatile Photographers and hired a few assistants to help him with the work in production as it started becoming demanding.

When the studio wasn’t big enough for shoots, he would visit homes or do shoots at the site. “Sometimes I would take clients to Uhuru Park for shoots that involved bigger audiences and it worked,” notes the entrepreneur.

He got deep into photography, did a lot of research and started learning new tricks and skills. He further learned to mount photos online and even moved into a bigger studio on the 9th floor of same building in 2011.

David did his work diligently.

Fast forward a few years later he got the shock of his life when he got an email from US Embassy in Nairobi asking him to be the official photographer of the then US President Barrack Obama at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in 2015.

“They saw my work online and told me that my professionalism they were looking for. It was surreal and unbelievable.”

“Interacting with Obama at the GE Summit was great, fun and eye opening. Did I mention the payment was great?”

After the summit, David started thinking of how he could package photography as a curriculum and inspire young photography enthusiasts into the career.

That informed the birth of Versatile School of Photography in 2015. The initiative runs a mentorship and training courses for people to learn photography and how to started a sustainable photography business.

“If you have a camera at home and you don’t know photography hit us and we will teach you. And if you have an interest and skill in photography, we can guide you on how you can turn them into a professional business venture.”

The school also has new innovation Versatile Creative Hub which offer mentorship in Creative Economy. The hub Is looking for partnership to visit all the counties to mentor more people since the job market changed and there is so many ideas out there that will offer solutions which will transform lives of our people.

“Our training is hands-on and aligned to the market needs, and even enrolled students from across the region,” he says.

The practical courses are both based in studio and outdoors.

“For instance every week we have an all day event where we teach photography at Lukenya in Machakos County. We have our own equipment which means we have the capacity to teach and handle bigger classes,” he explains.

Along the way he set up Versatile Adventures, an arm of photography that focuses on wildlife, culture, tourism and environmental conservation. He has compiled images of the resources we have in our country to educate people about the potential we have as a country.

The venture also aims to create awareness about the importance of environmental conservation and tourism to our economy.

 Major clients he has worked with

  • President Barrack Obama and US Embassy in Kenya
  • Kenyan government
  • Fairtrade Kenya.
  • Corporate such as GE, Radisson Blue, Kenya Wildlife Service among others.
  • A lot of SMEs
  • Celebrities

Advice

  • Look for a mentor to guide you.
  • Start with what you have.
  • Look for something which adds value to people.
  • Learn how to scale your business into profitability.
  • Go global or go home

 

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