James Gikonyo : “I shoot things as they are and create my own trends.”
Published Thursday , 16 July 2020 | James Gikonyo by theSystem *
Talk to us a bit about how and when you became interested in photography?
I became a photographer in 2014 at a friend’s modeling agency after a plan to launch a magazine failed.
I borrowed my dad’s compact camera and started creating portfolio for models.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a farm in Ruiru. It is one of the most beautiful places in my life. It is full of nature, my dad is a big fan of trees. It is full of Agricultural produce, birds and soil. It influenced a great impact of me being an artist.
How does growing up in a farm full of nature inform your work today as a photographer?
It makes me appreciate things authentically. I don’t get too stuck up on fashion trends and pop culture. I shoot things as they are and create my own trends. In a farm, you plant what you want. In my work, I create what I want too.
Is photography your main practice?
Yes. 80% of my income comes from photography though due to lots of competition; I combine it with writing, content creation and video to manage other’s social media.
What is your take on competition?
Competition is necessary for any serious business. It helps you adapt and grow as a brand. It helps you appreciate that we are competing in a global economy plus consumers of your product are not permanent. The only thing constant in life is change.
Six months ago the entire world changed and everyone has being in a state of flux for quite some time , everyone is trying to adapt , what are your feelings of the current state of the world and how has it affected you?
I think these are interesting times to live in. In a way, we are going to have a very tough time adjusting. What is certain is that artists need to tap into new media and platforms for income. These include Patreon and Onlyfans which allows creatives to be in charge of their content and earn per view. This will also make a lot of photographers do consider being vloggers so that they can use all the free time either sharing skills or teaching.
For me, the first days were rather tough. I had one year contracts that were canceled and projects I had to put on hold. After taking care of my mental health, I have been doing a lot of learning about business and branding.
Talk to us about mental health…. you are one of the most vocal creatives of our times esp. on social media , do you use social media a tool for therapy ?
Social media is a great tool of healing for me. Especially as a person whose dealt with depression and anxiety for a big part of life. One of my copying mechanisms has been writing and since social media is like a journal, I feel better when I express myself. I am also vocal about rape and GBV because I want to live for something bigger than me. A course that goes beyond my work. This further helps with my healing since when I help others by sharing their problems, I feel better.
Do you get flak for speaking up on issues sensitive issues like rape and how do you deal with that?
Yes of course. I get insulted, ridiculed and even reported to Facebook for being offensive for discussing the facts about rape. I deal with it by ignoring the naysayers. I have learnt to focus on positive energy while using negative energy as a building block for my strength.
Are you out of depression and anxiety and how have you been dealing with it besides ventilating on social media?
You are never really out of depression and anxiety. Mental health is interesting because it is not like other diseases which can be cured permanently. The episodes come and go. I am also dealing with it through therapy, meditation, opening up to friends and living positively.
Is this therapeutic to you?
Yes. They are therapeutic to me in a very big way.
We are living in a very contentious world today , are you concerned that being vocal will have a negative effect to your business and how do you separate your brand from your individual if you do?
I don’t really limit my opinion because my business is not based on me. My business is based on the skills I have, the products I provide and the solutions I create for my clients. I have not really lost business due to being controversial since I have been an open activist for a while when I worked from PAWA 254.
Talking about controversy, is it controversy by intent or by chance?
I cannot say that I have not consciously thought about controversy in my destiny. It would also be a lie if I said that I am a feminist or activist due to controversy. What I do know for certain is that I am not going to change the world by being average or by accepting the status quo. Revolutions are based on crazy ideas.
Fair enough , what is your understanding on feminism, you are quite vocal about women rights and equality, what is your comprehensive ideal of an equal society?
Without complicating things, I’ll say that it’s a man’s world. The biggest structures of society favor men be it politics, religion, class, economic empowerment, business and even pop culture. Feminism for me is men trying to help level the playing field for women. An equal society is where the standards that we use for men be used for women as well. I don’t think women are the fairer sex or weaker.
So you think that men are fundamentally responsible all the problems women are facing today? And do you think feminism is going to help in any significant way in the long run?
Yes. We men are responsible for most of the atrocities of women today. I think the future is for the women so feminism will blow up and change the world as we see it today.
Lets see how that goes , lets talk about your work , you practice nude photography….and we find ourselves in a very conservative society , do you think Kenyans are receptive of your work and do you even care?
For one, I do my work for the world and not just for Kenyans. I won’t be the best photographer if I think locally and boudoir photography is one of the fastest growing genres in our industry. Creators are earning millions from corporate endorsements, print and even content online. I have always felt that if I’m an artist, my responsibility is to show how ridiculous we are as human beings. In a sense, humanity is naked but not aware of how vulnerable we are to the world.
“I don’t get too stuck up on fashion trends and pop culture. I shoot things as they are and create my own trends.” – James Gikonyo
What is it you find fascinating about the human body?
The female form is a labyrinth of shapes and lines that when captured honestly create such striking art. I like how complex the muscles and different body parts can be; more so the fact that there are many types of bodies. I also find the dark skin so powerful especially in a world that worships white skin. It isn’t a competition but it’s time to share more dark skin photography.
How do you scout your muses for your personal projects , whats that process and what do you look for in them?
I am a very social person so I talk and network with as many people as possible. I am always noticing striking features in people like eyes, hands and body shape. This is when I approach them and show them ideas I want to execute. After this, we then put together a team. The most important thing I look for a muse is PASSION. If they have the body but no passion, I just drop the project.
Are you aware of the erotic photographer Nobuyoshi Araki?
Yes I am. I study nude photography more than any other genre,
I literally study every single day for more than an hour.
I actually study the genre more than I shoot.
Well one of his main muses came out criticizing him about how he presented her nudes , with this age of consent gimmicks does that raise concern in you , not to be a victim of such criticism?
For starters, nude photography has sub genres. The work I do is very different from erotica at the moment. I am aware that critics will always be there so it’s part of the process. I’m not afraid of what anyone thinks because that is their opinion. I am the artist.
What is challenging about nude photography?
Finding new models in Kenya. I actually get more private clients than models for my personal projects. But I’m glad I make money from it.
What is your philosophy?
Dreams come true. And I have very big dreams. They scare me sometimes.
Do you consider yourself successful at this point , have you achieved any of your wildest dreams and how do you define success?
Yes I do.
My wildest dreams though, not yet.
Success is when you are able to impact people’s lives through your work.
Tell us a bit about the Kenya photography association and what your role entails?
PAK – (Photographer’s Association of Kenya) is an umbrella organization of hobbyists, students, semi-professionals and professionals.
As the Vice-chairperson, I help with partnerships and administrative roles to help improve the photography landscape in Kenya.
What do you make of the current creative scene in Kenya?
It’s growing and the government is even supporting us.
A good example is the 100m government artist stimulus program that saw photographers get 10k from the government. This was to shield creatives against the Covid-19 pandemic.
What is changing that makes you think that its growing besides the government support?
We are having more corporates work with creatives more than before. We are having more collaborations. We are having more bargaining power in terms of price. We are even having Kenyans’ work being showcased more internationally. This is the renaissance of our creative economy. Let us not forget that funding is even more available for creatives.
What inspires you James?
The fact that I am not the best yet.
And who do you measure your success against, who are the masters who inspire your motivation ?
Kanye West for me does. He is not a photographer but he is an entrepreneur and an artist who has gone against all odds.
What is your take on the current global political climate and how is it affecting your work?
It’s what I expected and I think it is affecting everyone. One day at a time.
What impact do you want to make with your career, whats the point of these ?
I simply want my work to make the world a better place in any way it can.
What advice do you have for emerging artists?
Collaborate. Collaborate. Collaborate