Shacks are among the things that define the deplorable conditions of Mathare valley. It is unlikely for you to miss littered garbage along the streets. At the very heart of this informal settlement, men and women- both young and old can be seen napping by the roadside from having one too many drinks. The smell of booze from almost every corner can choke you. This is not any kind of booze, but the cheapest one, chang’aa. The locals brew it by the riverbanks at night to hide from cops because it is illegal. Locals here are like free birds. Each one to his or her problems as poverty strikes them alike.
Antony Kariuki a.k.a Trivet is an award-winning photographer who grew up in one of the shacks in Mathare. As with any child, he too, had a dream, to become a football pro. But life had other plans for him.
Growing up, the only life he knew was football. He was the Messi of his hood back then. The things his feet could do with a football amazed those who knew him. A goalkeeper would see Antony run with the ball towards him, and he would be in trouble for the ball was more likely to land in the net than his grip.
“Do you still play football?” I ask Antony who is preparing for an afternoon shoot at his studio in Mellow Heights, Ngara Road, Nairobi.
“My knees can longer keep up. Hahaha… Ninazeeka (I am getting old). But I enjoy the game. My wife…I mean my camera is my life now.”
“Hahaha”, I laugh at his wit.
“How did you meet your wife? I mean your camera.”
“Hahaha… Well, I started my brand Antony Trivet Photography in 2013 while working as a trainee with Photo Magic under the hands of Stephen Nderitu. I had seen his work and I knew he was the guy to teach me. So, I looked him up on Facebook in 2012. I kept nagging him until he allowed me to join his photography school, and here I am today.”
If photography hadn’t worked out, Antony would probably be an accountant somewhere, as this is what he studied in college.
He looks back with fond memories at what life was like back in Mathare, a land of limited opportunities where few people made something out of themselves. If he was not in school or playing football, Antony would be at a photography and film training at Mwelu Foundation. The purpose of the foundation is to provide training in creative arts and life skills among children in the poorest communities. It is here that his passion for the camera started.
“Mwelu Foundation was home for most of us back then. We would assemble in the hall eager to learn. My hands itched to see just what I could do with a camera. I wanted to know what it took to take great photos. I fell in love with my wife… I mean the camera, the first day I held one with my hands.”
There are two types of photographers, shutterbugs and the pros. The only thing they have in common is manoeuvring the camera. But even for the pros, it’s the gusto with which they do their thing that separates them. If a photo can tell a thousand words, then it must be damn good. Antony is damn good. His work speaks for him.
A phone rings…
“Sorry, the client is here. I hope you don’t mind”, Antony tells me as he ushers in a lady who looks like a model, in the studio.
“By all means. Please go ahead”, I tell him.
The lady walks to the changing room, and after a few minutes of getting ready to be shot, comes back transformed. She is not in the pair of pencil jeans and a pink t-shirt she was wearing. She is now in a knee-length bareback red-velvet dress that touches her body in all the right places. Her makeup matches the dress with a touch of red lipstick to compliment her small eyes. She looks stunning.
He invites me to join them in the mysterious room or what he calls, ‘the Trivet room’ where all the magic happens. It’s beautiful.
The big lights overhead, some on either side of the room make me forget to breathe for a moment. How can a studio be this beautiful? You know how beautiful those five-star hotel rooms look like? This studio is close or even better than that. Flowers, different seats with different coloured pillows- orange, blue, pink, yellow, red. The only thing missing is a bed to match one of the rooms in a five-star hotel.
I watch as Antony makes the model yield to his passion. With every turn, gaze, focus, alignment, this seemed to be a killer shoot. Every few clicks on the camera, meant time to change position, facial expression and whatever else that comes with posing for the guy with the lens.
You’d think that taking photos is about making those clicks. I think I now appreciate the work that goes into this job. I watch in admiration as he moves his body towards his subject or sometimes a little further to get the perfect shot. Other times kneeling or moving his torso to capture the different angles.
“Put your right hand above your head. Smile. Look that other way. Now close your eyes. Lift your head. Smile with your eyes now”, he kept telling the model. That part of smiling with the eyes got my attention.
“That will be all for today”, he tells her after about forty minutes of shooting her. As the model heads to the changing room, we head back to the front office of his studio.
“When do you work on your photos?”
“I am nocturnal. My mind is alert and works best at night. Unless I have an early morning shoot, I try and sleep early otherwise, I am not a morning guy. So, I do most of the editing at night in the silence of darkness.”
When he is not doing photography, he is travelling which ultimately ends up being a photoshoot whether planned or not.
Photography has seen Antony rub shoulders with big names such as Caroline Mutoko, among others. He has also travelled widely within and without Kenya.
He was a photography tutor in the years 2016-2019, at Slum TV, Mwelu Foundation, Africa Film & TV Talent Training Institute Africa Digital Media Institute.
“Your mother must be very proud of you.”
“She is. As her firstborn son, she couldn’t be more proud. I hated how broke we were and how my family struggled. So, I am happy that Mathare birthed a photographer. And that I cheated poverty.”
“And when are you getting a real wife?”
Antony has grown to become a sought-after Wedding Fashion Portraiture professional photographer. And as he waits for that invitation to shoot you, let me go practice smiling with my eyes before he shoots me too.