Mutua Matheka is one of Africa’s most prominent young photographers. Although he is originally an architect, he no longer practices. However, his love for buildings is reflective in his photography. He speaks to Daily Trust on Sunday about his love for capturing architectural structures and other images across Africa and beyond.
Why did you abandon architecture for photography?
Many people would consider architecture a more profitable sector to be involved in, than photography. Honestly, I just wanted more control of my time and photography was a lot more exciting than practicing architecture. At a time, it was also a bit chance of myself and also a little bit of a stupid move.
At what point did you decide you wanted to go into photography?
You know, it wasn’t something I looked or planned my life around. I have always been an artist from when I was a child in different formats, whether it was painting, drawing or modeling. Even architecture is something I was interested in as an art form. I got into photography as an art form. When I started doing it, I realized that I was good at it. It came more naturally to me than architecture but it just came naturally, even architecture came naturally. Art forms would be easier for me to grasp than I saw in most people. So, as long as it came naturally, I simply went ahead and did it. Then it hit me that it could actually be profitable. I could support myself [with it]. So, I went on and did it. Art has been making me money since I was in high school. You know the way different people have different odd jobs, like for you, you wash cars and make money, for me I’d paint and make money. I paint backdrops for high schools because my mum was head teacher in a high school. I’d paint backdrops for music festivals and make money. From early on, I always knew that art is probably the way I’m going to make money and become rich.
What was your first photograph that made you money? Do you remember it?
I cannot remember because even before I decided on photography like I was making not a lot of money but I was shooting some portraits for people at my house and they paid me 5000 Kenyan shillings which is about $50 (N17, 811).
I have seen a lot of things you’ve shot from landscapes to still life and all of that, which are your favorite images or sceneries to shoot?
I absolutely love shooting architecture in different countries I go. I love inanimate objects.
Why is that?
I don’t know. I feel like with inanimate objects like architecture, there is so much to learn about humanity from architecture. The way people build from the way the blocks fall on each other. The way the shadows fall, the way the textures blend, depending on what it looks like or the material. I find it extremely fascinating and the most the thing that makes it interesting for me is that the buildings don’t have roots. They don’t change. They stay the same. It’s only the circumstances around them that change.
If I’m going to shoot a building, what I think about is not whether the building is feeling like a shoot today or not. I’m thinking about the light, I’m thinking about the weather, about where I’m going to stand in relation to these things. So, for me that’s what I think about. Everything else is changing makes the building feel different. I find that exciting. It is like just sitting in the house and I am looking outside I’m looking at weather reports, at where the sun is rising from a certain angle, what kind of shadows it casts. I find that a very exciting part of the process and experience. I feel like there is no pressure to the buildings.
What are three things you do routinely before going to shoot?
I don’t really have a routine but I definitely like to check the weather because that’s important to me. If it’s in the morning, like I’m going to shoot a sunrise I definitely have to have my coffee on the way to the shoot.
What does coffee do for you? Stimulate you?
I feel like it gives me a start when I have coffee. I feel like my day has started after my coffee. If I go to shoot without it, it feels like I’m doing something before my day starts. I don’t know why it is so. I don’t like to eat especially if it’s in the morning. Before every shoot, I like to get there early enough so that I can sit and observe the environment. If I can do that for an hour that’s great. But even if I don’t have an hour, I would like at least a minimum of 15 minutes to just have my camera set and just look at the place. You know, just think about it and stuff like that. I prefer to take it slow. I feel like if I just get there pull out my camera and start shooting. I don’t really feel what I want to do or capture.
Now I saw one of my favorite pictures of your works is of a sand dune and how you played around the waves, curves, shadows and textures against the blue of the sky. The details were distinct and the rhythm. Please tell us about it.
It must be in Namibia. I look at sand dunes the same way I look at buildings, because I they are natural architecture. The most interesting thing to me about them is how they lighten one side and are shady on the other side. If there is a series of sand dunes up to the horizon, I like how each of them is hit by the light in a different way from the same direction but because they are shaped differently, there will always be the side where the sand meets and the side where the shadow falls. For me, this distinction is what makes the sand dune appealing or not.
More so, in Namibia the sand and sky are like two contrasting colors which make them stand out so much like orange and blue are opposite sides. That’s why you see that it looks so amazing.
That’s the story that I am trying to tell. It’s the form of the sand dune, the story of contrast, texture, the texture of the sand dune as of the sky, the story of colour, contrasting colour. There is so much contrast of the sand dune against the sky that it is just amazing. Contrast of color, texture, tone, they all come together and I think they form something amazing.
You photograph a lot Masai and everyday people. You portray them quite strongly.
The thing is for me, shooting people that are culturally significant to Kenya, is a sense of responsibility that I have. In addition, I really also enjoy shooting people like the Masai because they have character. That for me is not something that I see every single day. I don’t meet people who live like the Masai, dress or look like them everyday. So, when I get a chance to, I love doing it in my own way to pay homage to what they do and at the same time tell their story in a way that only the eye can.
Do you do photography for the sake of exhibitions?
I’ve made pictures specifically for certain exhibition in the past and I’ve also had some exhibitions where people will say they want to show pictures on something and I’m like okay I have something that could fit in that. You know it depends. Doing exhibitions, myself, like my own exhibition, I like to be very specific about what I’m showing. I would have work that is specifically for that exhibition.
In your view, does photoshopping take away from the image?
I personally don’t and this is, because I think photography has many things it could be. Photography as an art doesn’t have to obey the rules of anyone or anything. At the same time, if I photograph, share a picture that is supposed to be to me, a picture about a place or a person, as with journalism and documentary photography, I don’t think that should be doctored or altered because the images are specifically supposed to tell us about a certain place and the certain time. So, if you doctor journalism then what will people believe in, but when I do my art work in photography, I make it clear to you that I am not here as a documentary photographer. I don’t like documentary photography because I find it to be rigid. I don’t like it for myself, I’d rather that my pictures are artistic than they are realistic.
Who’s had the most time impression or impact on you in terms of photographers?
I’ll say Jim Chuhu a Kenyan photographer, filmmaker and many things. He is an overall fantastic creative person. He is the one who actually inspired me to getting into photography when I saw his work and even now, he doesn’t shoot as often as he used to but his works still resonate highly with me. Every time he puts out a project, it’s well-thought. It’s visually stunning and it just makes me feel extremely jealous of his skill and Osborn Macharia is Kenyan photographer also doing amazing work. His work inspires me but not in the same way as Chuchu’s. Chuchu’s work makes me want to be the one who photographed it. Osborn’s makes me want to get out and go shoot. It doesn’t make me feel like I want to go and photograph but makes me want to get out and shoot something exciting for myself. These two people inspire me.
What other forms of art are you engaged?
I make films, not serious ones yet. It’s just for myself. I’ve always kind of painted but I like more graphic more solid colour-painting. The thing is, what happened all through my life, is my art forms change. So, when I’m doing one, I rarely do the others unless they are working together. Film is the only thing that I’ve done together and because of film it got me back into a lot of text and lettering because I do a lot of that for my videos. So, I got back into painting, texting and all that. Other than that, usually it is one art form at a time and then move to another.
How do you relax?
I mean, what do I do? I watch films on TV, I love cooking. Cooking makes me very happy and actually makes me relax. I think right now those are the things that I do. This is the year I’m working on getting a new hobby that is not related to creativity, so wish me luck.
I am wishing a lot of it.
(Laughter) I’m thinking very rapidly what that could be. I wonder what it could be I have no idea but all I know is that someone spoke about it and I’ve been feeling that for a while that is important to have a hobby that has nothing to do with your regular routine.
You mean tasking your mental state as with work?
Yes, or your area of income. Like if you are a mathematician it would be nice to have a hobby that has nothing to do with Maths. I took out a hobby that was film but that also has to do with cameras. So, it’s a hobby but it’s kind of the same thing. Apart from food, I need another hobby that has nothing to do with cameras.