Award-winning photojournalist Boniface Mwangi captured the 2007-2008 post-election violence in Kenya unflinchingly through the lens of his camera. But the horrors he witnessed propelled him into a new career as an activist and artist. Here, Mwangi talks to the TED Blog about the events that led him to stand up against injustice, literally, rather than simply document it.
Tell us about your experience on the front lines of the post-election violence in Kenya.
At the time, I was a photographer working for The Standard, one of the largest newspapers in Kenya. It was a routine election, though hotly contested. There were two contenders: Raila Odinga and Mwai Kibaki. Kibaki won — at least he claimed that he won — while Raila claimed that he was the rightful winner and that Kibaki had rigged the election. So the supporters of the two politicians erupted into fighting over the results. What followed was ugly, bloody, terrible violence. More than a thousand people were killed, and more than half a million displaced. My job was just to document this violence as a photographer.
Why do you think this particular event created such a violent response?
During the build-up of the election, there was a lot of terrible tribal rhetoric. The politicians were inciting people, slowly. Whatever the outcome was, the losing side would not be ready to accept the results. There were a lot of underlying, unresolved issues; a violent response was inevitable. It didn’t just happen. It was very deliberate.
Did you see it coming?
No. No one saw it coming. You see, we’d had elections before in 1992 and 1997 where people died — maybe 10, 20, 50, 100 — but it was a scattered number and relatively few. The sheer brutality of 2007’s events — this level of orchestrated violence — had never been seen before in Kenya.
Did other Kenyans try to stop it?
The violence was in low-income neighborhoods, and most Kenyans did not know the extent of what was going on. If you are extremely poor, you only get your news on the radio. All those communities heard about were numbers of the dead and displaced, and they couldn’t relate. If you’re middle class, you might get the paper or watch TV, but graphic pictures were not shown because TV content is classified for family audiences. Most Kenyans did not see what really happened.
What were the police doing while this was happening?
By and large, the monstrosity of the violence overwhelmed them. Unfortunately, the police were perpetrators as well. I took pictures of women who had been raped by the policemen who were meant to protect them. I saw innocent kids being killed by police. During the violence, I only broke down once — when a girl was killed. She was about 12 years old, and she looked like my younger sister. That made me wail like a baby.
How do you take pictures in the face of such violence? Are you concerned about your personal safety?
When I’m taking pictures, I’m not thinking about the person. I’m thinking about lighting, framing, composition. There is so much adrenaline in your body that you’re not thinking about death. You’re not careless — you’re careful while you’re doing your work — but at the same time you realize that you have to do a job. If you’re a news photographer, or any photographer, and you get a chance to cover hard news like war, it’s stimulating and also humbling. It’s every news photographer’s dream to cover war. So at that particular time, I wasn’t really thinking about safety.
To read the full interview, visit the TED Blog >>>
Watch this video of Boniface Mwangi’s story, which shows many more of his images. Warning: Some are hard to look at. But all are powerful.