“Fear will kill your dreams.”

Born in Uganda, Sarah Waiswa’s family fled Idi Amin’s brutal regime shortly after her birth, making Kenya home in both place and spirit. Studying higher education in the U.S., Waiswa’s transition from sociology- and psychology-graduate to award-winning art photographer was little short of meteoric – a rise fuelled by her loathe to let fear seep into her mindset.

Packing in a corporate career in late-2015, it was less than a year until Waiswa picked up the prestigious Rencontres d’Arles 2016 Discovery Award, Ethiopian photographer Aida Muluneh having nominated the up-and-coming talent. Not bad for somebody who had taken up photography as a hobby six years earlier – auto-mode on a budget DSLR and a fixation with Tumblr and Instagram all she had to realise a life-long dream of being an artist.

Sarah Waiswa, Stranger in a Familiar Land
Sarah Waiswa, Stranger in a Familiar Land

Sarah Waiswa is now that artist. A fact the Nairobi-based photographer might pinch herself over, should she not be so forceful of mind. “There wasn’t a moment where I was sitting still”, she recounts of the time she made that transition from day job to dream job – establishing a website, printing business cards, networking, collaborating, learning – “If I can’t create a sustainable career as a photographer in six months”, she told herself, “I have my masters to fall back on, and will get another job.” We now know that fallback was never called upon; her award-winning series Stranger in a Familiar Land has won plaudits the world over. Raw yet beautiful, soaked in whimsy yet rooted in harsh realities. It is a body of work that, on paper, shouldn’t be nearly as exceptional as it is.

For it is not merely Waiswa’s limited experience that belies the excellence of her art, but how she earned the interest in her work during that short rise.

Call me a culture snob. Call me out-dated. But there is a title I dread. When I hear it I see grey curtains and contrived bedding — meticulously creased sheets that want to say they’ve just been slept in but scream “I’ve been poked and prodded for an hour solid to look this untidy.” I see a thousand different hues of navy, and off-white coffee cups filled with expertly-crafted swans drawn with milk. ‘Influencer’. It’s a title I dread, but one Sarah Waiswa wears with pride. She talks of blue chip clients and algorithms; opportunities; reach; and campaigns where artists might’ve once talked about Ginsberg or Kerouac, acid experiences or sexual liberation. Waiswa deals in followers and content, yet somehow it never feels forced.

Naturally, the Ugandan photographer is a very different influencer to the one I fear — her Instagram, upon which she bills herself as a “Afrohemian Nomad”, finds fashion-mag sensibilities in the jarring realities of her continent in the 21st century; it is a riot of brilliant colours and intense positivity, an embodiment of the culturally-rich Africa those harbouring preconceptions need tattooed to their foreheads. Her account portrays Africa devoid of all its harmful stereotypes. It is not hard to see why brands want to be associated with this vision of the continent and its people; it is not hard to see how Sarah Waiswa’s experience as an influencer has informed her art practice.

Indeed, Stranger in a Familiar Land would not be out of place in a fashion magazine – examining the persecution of albinos in Sub-Saharan Africa, the series follows extrovert albino Florence Kisombe through the Kibera slums in Nairobi. It is dreamlike and fanciful, an influencer-informed departure from traditional documentary photography, and a case in point of the Kenyan’s singular appeal. “When people look at my photos”, explains Waiswa, “I want them to have the same effect as reading a poem. I want people to look, reflect, interpret, and be moved.”

And to not be moved by her work is nigh on impossible; its brazen positivity is infectious. After much trawling, I find a flat white. It had to be there. But it is not before my senses have been rattled, and the noises and smells, stories and emotions felt. Sarah Waiswa has a way of distilling so much into a single image. “Fear will kill your dreams”, she says. I’m no longer afraid of the influencer.

John Segar

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