In the world of photography, the rise to the top is not easy. Just like many before him,in various careers and commercial sectors, the unassuming 35-year old David Macharia Mwangi,the Founder and C.E.O of Versatile Photography sits in his own lane. Startinng small, gradually rose,with zeal and vision,to launch his own photography studio and with it,make his company synonymous with photography in Kenya.
Growing up in the potato farms of Kinangop,David took up his father’s business as a bag creator and seller and did it for couple of years. David’s dad,who was also a pastor,was in the business of stitching up bags and selling them ; school bags,rucksacks,gunny bags,duffle bags. David,still young and with no prospects or clear direction of what he wanted to do after high school,plunged himself into his dad’s bag business. And he would occasionally travel to Nairobi’s River Road to buy raw materials to make bags and then bring the same bags back to Nairobi for sale.
He’d make quite a tidy sum. So would his family at large.
But at some point,his dad passed away. And that meant that David had to restructure his life… And look elsewhere for survival.
And that’s how he met an old friend of his dad’s who took him in in Nairobi and gave him a job as a hawker… To hawk Valentines Day cards.
‘It was crazy… ‘ David says.’ It was around the Valentines Day week… And I had all these cards with me… Colorful cards,flowery cards, red cards… I would go door to door… Shop to shop… Street to street… Hawking the cards… But really, the sales were somewhat disappointing. I didn’t make good sales… ‘
Undaunted,David’s resolve to stick in the city was unbroken. He’d come to the City and he was determined to stay in the City. To learn and to experience and to,thankfully,earn.
‘After the Valentine’s Day season was over,my dad’s friend who had took me in in Nairobi,asked me whether I’d like a job as an office errands boy at his friend’s photography studio. I said an emphatic Yes! ‘
And just like that,David,fresh from school and with little or no knowledge on photography,was introduced to the proprietor of MWANGAZA STUDIOS as an errands boy for the office.
‘Mwangaza was a wonderful place. I really liked it there… My job entailed handling clients,organizing shoots,delivering stuff… You know… And that’s when I initially fell in love with photography. And started learning the ropes… ‘
Slowly,the inquisitive David started learning a few photography basics; How to handle a camera,how to use a camera,lighting,the works.
”It was a pleasurable experience. I was starting to like this whole photography thing…’
And in the course of his work,he met a gentleman called Kanini and a man he calls one of the finest wedding photographers there ever was.
‘I struck up a friendship with Kanini almost immediately. He was a photographer extraordinaire. And a super pro. I would accompany him for shoots over the weekend… Watch his cover hundreds of weddings. I started learning even more from him.’
By then,David was staying in Kangemi and,occasionally,using a borrowed camera,started taking photos of his neighbors. And they couldn’t be more thrilled.
‘I would occasionally photograph my neighbors from the Kangemi slums. And they all fell in love with my work. And surprisingly,I started getting calls from allover Kangemi… People wanting me photograph them. It was crazy!”
So crazy that David decided to resign from Mwangaza Studios. And focus on his own clients who were not starting to jam his door.
‘It was a risky move. But a bold one,too. And true,I resigned from Mwangaza. And decided to go it alone. And now enter photography head-on’
And enter he did. David now started researching for photography lessons on the Internet. And to browse through hundreds of professional Internet photos… Just to learn a trick or two. And learn he did. A lot in fact.
‘I even got connections to some wealthy guys in Westlands and the likes of Hurlingam and Lavingtom too. I’d visit high-end massage parlors to take photos of wealthy clients and their maids and tasteful exotic girls… It was really fun. And I was starting to get a good pay… ‘
And somehow,David met Boniface Mwangi,the Founder of PAWA 254 and also an ex-media photographer. Boniface was highly impressed by David’s work… And even started getting him small gigs as a newspaper photographer. But the pay was either not good or even existent.
‘I couldn’t do press photography for too long… I wanted money and that’s how I also ventured into Wedding Photography’
And while covering one wedding,David met a Mathew,who is the founder of Valentine Cake House. And Matthew changed his life.
‘He asked me to take a photo of a cake at some wedding. It was a huge,grandiose cake. He wanted only one photo. In only one angle. But I took five photos… In five different angles,and when I finally presented it to him. He was floored. And dumbstruck. He totally loved my work. And them my life changed. Forever’.
David now started getting all these calls from tens of couples. ‘We want you to cover our wedding…’ was all he could hear.
He did his work with zeal and passion until he was,by a stroke of luck,suggested by Caroline Mutoko to be the photographer who would cover the much-publicized Victorian Wedding sponsored by KISS FM that went down in 2007.
‘It was an honor. I sat down with Miss Caroline Mutoko. And akina Patrick Quarcoo. And pretty much anyone else who mattered at Radio Africa. And I got the contract. And again,my life changed… ‘
With the money he got from covering the Victorian wedding,David bought himself a camera. And later,an even better and more updated camera. He was now getting too busy and getting too many calls.
‘And that same year,2007,I set up my photography studio. I called it Versatile photographers. And had a little office at some corner on the 7th Floor of Hazina Towers. ‘
Determined and busy as a bee,David even hired a small team of nascent photographers and assistants. And kicked off what would now be known as the biggest professional photography studio in Kenya.
David would visit homes to take photos as his studio wasn’t big and adequate enough. ‘Or sometimes,I’d even use the corridors in the building to photograph a client.’
‘I got deep into family photography. And even learnt how to mount photos online. And in 2010,I even moved to a better office on the 9th floor of the same building… With much space and room to set up a virtual studio. Also,in 2011,I attended a photography seminar in South Africa. And I can’t replace what I learnt there with anything…. ‘
And after covering hundreds and hundreds of weddings,post and pre-weddings,pregnancy shoots and family shoots,with clients from the lowest to the highest,some paying as much as 600,000 for a single shoot,David got the shock of his life when he got an email from the U.S EMBASSY IN KENYA.
‘I got this little mail that said that I had been chosen to be the official professional photographer for the Obama Homecoming Event. I thought it was a prank. But no,it was true ; I had been picked to be the Official Obama photographer in Kenya. I was speechless… ‘
And that’s how David ended up at the GES summit… Just a couple meters away from Barack Obama,taking the best shots of the Leader of the Free World. Unshaken…And also mingling freely,and also taking photos,with US RnB star Akon and other distinguished dignitaries.
‘I was wearing close to 7 different badges and passes,just to make it through security and prove that I was the authorized photographer. It was daunting but fun. Crazy but eye-opening… ‘
And if you visit David’s office at Hazina Towers on the 9th Floor,you will see all the classic Obama photos hanging from his executive office lounge. Or running on the huge plasma TV placed in the lounge too.
David also pioneers a School of Photography which offers a two month course program for any Photography and Videography Enthusiasts.
And is also working on a shutter-stock version of Africa… Called AfricanStockImages, where he stocks images of professional models and children for use by corporates and other clients for a free.
‘Photography is a lucrative business. The biggest challenge is how to acquire the equipments which can be damn expensive. But once you’re through with that,and you’re a pretty damn good photographer,then you can rest assured that you’re real your fruits… Infact many of the big photography names you see around have been here… Ben Kiruthi, Thompson Ncube,William Muturi… ‘
‘Discover what you want in life. And then get up and go do it. Simple. ‘
Well…. Wise words from the Boss of the Camera himself.
David and Akon at the GES summit.
Interview Credits to Cabu Gah of Ghafla Entertainment.