You see them every day, gory pictures that depict Nairobi in the worst light possible.
The more you see them, the more you get the impression that there is nothing good about Nairobi, Kenya and Africa.
The only things frozen in time are images of malnourished children, slums, the dead or the dying, poor infrastructure and barefoot school children who could do with a good scrubbing from head to toe.
This is mostly a Western stereotype that has seeped into the minds of Kenyans who, either deliberately or not, motivated by donor money or a real cause to help save the city, only showcase Nairobi in bad light.
Yes, they are real images of the country, but there is more to the city than that.
One young Kenyan wants to change this image of Nairobi.
Armed with only a camera, Mutua Matheka is a man on a mission. Matheka, a 28-year-old photographer, says he is attracted to beautiful things.
He decided to go against the norm and take beautiful pictures of his city and was surprised when Kenyans and foreigners alike loved the pictures.
“You look at almost every other major city in the world and they have these amazing pictures, but we have nothing for Nairobi,” says Matheka.
“All we have are pictures that do not do the city any good and people, used to seeing them every day, start believing that that is all Nairobi has to offer.”
All it took for Matheka was a visit atop Nairobi’s landmark, the Kenyatta International Conference Centre, where he saw a different side of Nairobi that he wanted to capture for himself.
“I was still an amateur photographer then. I wasn’t on social media and did not even have a blog. I just took the pictures for myself, but later when I uploaded them, they went viral.
People have never seen the city looking like that, and they were pleasantly surprised,” he says.
He agrees that the city needs to do a lot more to improve its image.
“I did not take the pictures to change the perception of foreigners but for us as Kenyans. Everybody was pleasantly surprised. Online, the comments on the pictures range from ‘they are photoshopped’ to ‘that is not Nairobi,” says Matheka.
Matheka, who started taking pictures just four years ago, has a philosophical look at his work. “They offer hope and hope derives more strength than despair.”
The pictures have proved a hit with foreigners, who are shocked when they see a different Nairobi from what they have heard or seen in the pictures.
“They look at this city, which is in a third world country. You look at Paris, New York and Dubai and you just want to visit them, but when you get there, of course they are nowhere close to the pictures you saw.”
He discovered that when, as a student coming from an internship in Germany, he landed in Dubai and he could not relate it with the pictures he had seen of the city.
“I was actually stranded in Dubai for two days. I used all my money on accommodation. But I did not see any of the glamour I usually see in pictures of Dubai,” he recalls.
Back home, when he learnt that one could view the city from the KICC, he went up there for hours, waiting for sunset and darkness. He could not believe his eyes.
He decided that those were the pictures he would take of the city, and not traffic or other things that make it a nightmare.
“It is human nature. When all you see is the bad side of where you live, you start believing that that is all there is. Unfortunately for us, everybody out there, from the media to the people, only show negative pictures, so that whenever we talk about Nairobi or our country, it is based on such images. But I am happy Kenyans are starting to change that perception slowly,” he says.
Matheka wonders where the eye for beauty for the city went. Whenever he sees pictures of the city from the 1960s, he sees a clean, less crowded and beautiful Nairobi, but now all he sees are images of a city falling apart.
“I want that 30 years from now, my pictures will be used as a reference of what Nairobi used to be since no one is documenting this gorgeous part of our city today.
“My aim is to capture the beauty of the moment of any situation. You can see that in my pictures. I want to go round Africa documenting the beauty of our cities from Nairobi to Lagos to Cairo,” he adds.
His dream of capturing the beauty of the moment of every city in Africa may be close to reality.
He has teamed up with UN Habitat’s ‘I am a City Changer,’ a worldwide campaign with the aim of creating awareness among citizens on urban issues.
The World Urban Campaign, as it is called, aims at creating cities that are environmentally sound and are better places to work in.
“I want to change the mentality of those living in these cities because if people believe they live in this bad place, you cannot motivate them to make it better,” Matheka says.
He will have an exclusive showcase this coming week for some of his pictures of Nairobi.
“I am starting with this exclusive showcase, and then I can roll out the campaign beyond our borders,” he says. “I know it will be a success and Nairobi is about to get a better image of herself. She’s beautiful, I tell you.”
This is a long way for Matheka, who is a trained architect and was practising until he decided to quit his job at a design company to go into self-employment.
“I have always been an artiste since I was a baby. But photography was never in my sights until I joined Kenyatta University and I started experimenting with computers,” he recalls.
For a man who has always loved pictures but never thought he would be drawn into the process of making them, Matheka was always looking at different ways he could take a photo.
“One of my very good friends, Bupe, introduced me to a website by Jim Chuchu and I was blown away by the creativity. I realised he had the kind of pictures I had in mind, every angle was well thought out. He fused graphics and photography effortlessly,” he recalls.
In 2008, as a fifth year student, he went on attachment to Germany, and it was while there that he met photographers who were light years ahead.
On coming back to Kenya, the pressure to finish his course and get a job was so much that he put photography in the back burner.
“I started making some good money from creating architectural animations,” he says.
“One day I got this payment of Sh50,000 and I walked straight into Ebrahims Electronics and bought a Nikon D40 camera for Sh45,000. I didn’t know what to do with it and I just put it in the house. I would just take pictures on my own.”
That changed when a friend asked him to take pictures of his wedding.
Daunted by the magnitude, he enlisted the help of a friend to accompany him, and the results were amazing.
“The pictures were good, the couple loved them. That was when I realised this was not a hobby any more.”
He joined a daily photography blog where they would get assignments every day and one would take the pictures and upload them to compare with others.
“I got serious with it, I created a blog and a Twitter account. Three months later, I started getting jobs and there was no turning back for me,” Matheka says.
Photography allows him the option of doing whatever he wants.
Beauty is the biggest factor and through the lense, he can see a diamond in the rough and make sure it comes out shining.
“I am accused of adding to much colour, but I always ask people if they have ever seen in black and white.”
Matheka says Photoshop is like make-up on a woman.
“Make up cannot make an ugly person beautiful. A bad picture won’t become a masterpiece because of Photoshop. It only helps accentuate the picture,” he says.
With more and more photographers coming up, is Matheka worried that he is about to be upstaged?
“No. I like it when we are many in the field because for me, it is not about being the best. It is about being different. People will come to you if you are different and you will last longer since only you can do what you do.”
Most of his shots of Nairobi are panoramic, made to give the city a 200 angle view that he then uses Photoshop to complete.
“When you see the bright lights in my pictures, I don’t make them shine on Photoshop, no. I just open my shutter for 30 seconds or longer and they are captured in their natural setting. I also use filters to create effects,” he adds.
Does he have people who inspire him when it comes to capturing moments?
“Yes, there is Jeremy Cowart, a Hollywood celebrity photographer and Trey Ratcliff, a fine art photographer who deals in landscape photography.”
Matheka says he is just getting started and will continue to focus his eye and lens on anything beautiful that will help bring pride to Kenya and Africa.