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Take 5 with Khadija Farah

Friday September 28 2018

Khadija Farah uses photography to show the beauty of East Africa through the daily lives of her people.

Khadija Farah uses photography to show the beauty of East Africa through the daily lives of her people. PHOTO| COURTESY 

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Khadija Farah is a travel and documentary photographer based in Nairobi. Her work focuses on showing the beauty of East Africa through the daily lives of her people; and how various social issues affect them. You may know her from her Instagram handle, @farahkhad. She is also an avid masala chai and coffee drinker and a die-hard supporter of Liverpool FC.

1. Describe yourself, personally and professionally?

My Instagram bio reads ‘Female agitator, sentient marshmallow.’ This is because I’m equal parts hot tempered and sometimes too chilled out. I tend to call out injustice when I see it, especially in the photography world. But I’m also an extreme pacifist.

Professionally, I’m probably one of the lowest maintenance documentary and travel photographers out there. As time goes by, I carry less gear and almost never use artificial light or fancy techniques to make images.

2. Walk us through your photography journey.

A couple of things led me to photography but I would say my father is the main reason I got into this field. When I was younger, he would buy us the Nat-Geo documentaries on VHS tapes and I would watch them over and over again, thinking about how these people got so close to these animals.


Beyond nurturing a love for the natural world, my dad also gave me the gift of storytelling. Our culture is largely oral and he is the greatest storyteller I know. However, because I am not a great orator, I seek to tell stories through pictures.

I started in high school when I took a short photography class. It taught me basic techniques on how to shoot film. At the university, I bought my first DSLR, a Canon 7D which I still occasionally use to shoot wildlife.

My professional career began in Dadaab while working for Kenya Red Cross as a social worker. I would take photos of the daily lives of refugees with their stories and post them on Instagram. Eventually people took notice and I decided to freelance full time after that.

I switched to Fujifilm mirrorless cameras because I needed something that was both a mechanical beast and light; because some of the places I travel to require me to pack up and move easily.

Having a smaller camera is also less intimidating, especially when I don’t have time to properly get to know a subject before I photograph them. It also doesn’t draw attention to me and I can easily do my work- there have been significantly less crowds that surround me since I made the switch.

3. Speaking of what you use; do you think it's ironic that everyone thinks it is the camera you use that gets you good pictures?

Photography is one of the few fields where people put emphasis on the machine and not the person operating it. You wouldn’t ask a painter what canvas they used or a chef what sufuria they cooked in. You’d ask how they executed a painting or a dish.

But I think people are gear obsessed because the technicality of photography is under appreciated. So I love it when people ask me how I shot a particular image or what settings I used instead of what camera or lens. I strongly believe that without vision or creativity, it doesn’t matter how good your equipment is.

4. Have you done any high profile shoots? And which shoots have you done that are your favourite (seeing as that isn't always the same thing)?

Honestly, I can’t say I’ve done any ‘high-profile’ shoots. I’m grateful to be published in various international publications like the New York Times and The Guardian but no front page type shoots yet.

My favourite so far has been for the German newspaper Die Zeit. It was the first newspaper gig I booked and I got to go to Tanzania and photograph at the most amazing locations near Mount Kilimanjaro. I was in awe of the natural beauty that East Africa possesses but most importantly it was the first time I thought maybe I could pursue photography full time.

5. What would be the next level for you in your career? Lottery winning? A photo book? A dramatic career shift?

I’m hoping to focus on more personal or long term projects instead of regular assignments. I always wanted to get more imaginative and do collaborations with fellow Kenyan creatives.

As far as lottery winning goes, there is so much I wish to accomplish- maybe shooting for National Geographic (despite their problematic and racist past) would help me come full circle as it’s what inspired me in the first place.

The most dramatic career shift would be to switch from photography to film or perhaps making my dream of becoming a game warden a reality.