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Student Spotlight; Behind the Lenses with Philip a.k.a Phylo of Kibera ni Kwetu

20 year old Philip Ogonda Odhiambo, joined Strathmore University in 2015, after being awarded a Strathmore University Scholarship to study an Actuarial Science course. Fondly known as Phylo, Philip is an alumni of Mbita High School, and attained a mean grade of A- in his KCSE National Examination in 2014.

He runs a page Kibera ni Kwetu on Instagram, inspired by his passion for photography and his desire to change the perception of non-kibera residents, who have a negative perception of the area.

Philip also recently won in the Strathmore University Founders Day competition, competing against a select group of students who showed such great talent through their photography entries.

How did it feel to win in the photography competition for the Founders Week?

When I took the winning picture, I did not even know I would enter the shot for the competition, I was not sure I was participating in the competition to begin with. The picture of the soldier tying the shoelace of a student just depicted the love and family feeling experienced at Strathmore. I had to ask the soldier for permission to use the photo for the competition and he agreed and that propelled my entry to the competition.

I felt so happy when I heard I won. That was the first picture that got so many likes in just a span of two hours on instagram.

I gave my winning gift of a Tecno Spark phone to my mother, who is now learning to use a smart phone.

How did you end up getting a Scholarship?

I did not think I could join Strathmore initially, especially when I received the letter of admission, I was passing time when I applied to the University. My parents would not have been able to afford to pay for the course, especially considering I had younger siblings still in school. So when I was called to apply for a scholarship and I was awarded one, I felt much honored.

Where did you get the passion for photography?

When I finished highschool, I went to meet some friends of mine at a university within Nairobi, and those who did not know I came from Kibera upon learning of this got worried I would steal from them. That was awkward for me, but they explained where their notion came from and I could not blame them. That is what the media portrays to the non-residents.

I therefore thought I needed to find a way of showing the different side of Kibera, because people do a lot more. There is a mother selling food stuff to fend for her children, there are children who enjoy playing outside with other neighbors, the environment is not as crowded or as dirty as is portrayed. That is why I thought to start Kibera ni Kwetu, through photography because a picture tells a thousand stories.

The pictures have worked for me, because people are changing their perception of Kibera. Through my page, people have been requesting to come to Kibera for shoots and when they come they get a different script of the area. Which encourages them to shoot more and support us more.

How did you learn the photography skills?

I did not attend a photography school, though now I wish I went to one.

I started taking pictures for my page through my phone. People suggested that the pictures from my phone were good, which picked my interest to use it.

I learnt to use basic edits with the photos, ensuring that I do not tamper with the real image. I enjoy documentary photography, which means I do not choose what I want to show, I prefer showing the story as is.

How did you come up with the name Kibera ni Kwetu?

From an insider’s point of view, I felt I needed to tell the story of my people. I have lived there, I have seen the life there, and I know what happens where and when. This is my community and my home. That is why I came up with that name, to show people this area is someone’s home.

I started the page in 2016.

When did you have your first camera experience?

I used my phone to take the pictures for quite a while, then one day I posted a picture of a mkokoteni being rained on and a photographer saw the picture and inboxed me on Instagram. Brian Otieno, who is also from Kibera, followed me from the Kibera hashtags and requested to meet me. Upon our first meeting, he encouraged me to keep at it, but now taught me the basics of using a camera. Brian also runs a Kibera stories page, so learning from him felt easier and more comfortable.

We started with shootings basics, from campaigns, to the when a plane crashed in Kibera, to fire outbreaks, teacher’s strikes etc.

I would take so many pictures during these events, and out of all of them he only picks two or sometimes one as the best. It was not disheartening to see this because I was passionate so I kept pushing on.

He started hiring out his camera to me for weekend shoots, at a very cheap cost. That has taught me responsibility and has still grown my passion. I get money from savings through the small activities I do, e.g. when I sell my pictures to organizations, or when I cut on lunch to save more money etc.

Do you have a favorite picture?

I once took pictures of some children who were fetching water with their mother, from a bust water pipe in Kibera. It is one of my best photos because it tells a story of a deep everyday experience for my community.

How did you start Strathmore Diaries?

Brian once asked me what people say about Strathmore, and I shared the negatives that people stated. He then asked me if I felt the negatives were true and I responded no. So he encouraged me to take pictures that tell a different story of Strathmore. I therefore started a Strathmore Diaries page.

Many people did not know who started the page, infact I would sit in on conversations where students would share on how beautiful the pictures were and the perspectives shown that are different from the negatives shared out there and I would just comment my views. One day one of the students, inboxed me on instagram asking me how I take the pictures. I told him I use my phone and he advised me to get a pass and how to go about the process. So I did. He then met me and we did a couple of photos together and through that, he gave me his camera to take more pictures for the page.

The pictures help students see the “cool” side of Strathmore, especially outsiders.

Winning the competition this year exposed my identity and now students know who is behind the page

How do you balance photography and studies?

When I got to realize I enjoy photography but as a hobby, I had to plan a timetable that ensured I studied for my course a lot more. I therefore resulted to studying and working on my assignments during the week, and undertake photography on weekends. I have strictly adhered to this, even for the Strathmore Diaries page and this has worked. I only change this system when a major event is happening that is random and I would be keen on photographing.

Where do you see yourself in the next 5-10 years?

Having lived my whole life in Kibera, I see myself as a solution provider in the area, although I wish to have moved from there. I hope that my actuarial science course will provide a path to this change.

I also hope to be known as Philip the photographer and a good man and not Philip from Kibera who can do bad things.

What motivates you to keep going?

My parents encourage me to keep pushing through the challenges.

My desire to move my family from Kibera is also a motivation. I do not think Kibera is a bad place to live, but I hope to give my parents a decent life after all the hard work they put into helping my siblings and I to grow into the people we are today.