Slum, noun, a densely populated usually urban area marked by crowding, run-down housing, poverty, and social disorganization. This definition by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary depicts slums, like Kibera, as a place with an overwhelming air of despair and hopelessness. In reality, this is not the case. Living in such poor conditions and facing monotonous challenges daily has produced innovative residents who are focused on creating a better Kibera and highlighting the hope and joy of the slum.
Brian Otieno, who was brought up in Kibera, saw the difference between outsiders' understanding of Kibera and the beauty that Kiberan residents find in their homes. He turned to photography, realizing that others didn’t see the beauty that he found in his home, and hoped to share Kibera’s beauty, joy, and celebration with the world. When looking on his phone, he saw that all photos of Kibera showed destruction, poverty, and desperation, which didn’t match his feelings of his home, “They were pictures from Kibera, but only showing the deep, deep poverty,” Mr. Otieno said. “And I was seeing all these other sides that were not like that. So I decided to do stories from home. Here, I can do different stories every day. And they will leave a lasting impression on people’s minds. Home is like my studio.”
Having no experience with photography, but aspiring to be a photojournalist, Otieno had his vision of his project in mind, but not much else. Little by little, with each photo he took, his skills improved, and his project began to take shape on his Facebook page, eventually expanding into other social media platforms and a website named “Kibera Stories”.
Kibera Stories doesn’t only spread images of joy in Kibera, he gives a sense of what it’s like to be a resident of Kenya’s largest slum and doesn’t shy away from sharing the grimmer aspects of life in Kibera. He supplements joyful photos of a family celebrating Prince Adrain’s first birthday with photos of destruction after the end of Kenya’s rainy season. He highlights others like him, who are ready to break the stereotypes and misconceptions of what it means to live in Kibera.
One of his most famous photos is of a 16 year-old ballerina, Elsie Ayoo. She dances in a pink tutu, with well-worn pointe shoes, on the dirt road next to an outdoor apple stand. This photo within itself provides a stark contrast, the joyfulness of her dancing is contrasted with the makeshift houses that surround her, and the darkening sky. In other photos, Otieno highlights a 24 year-old poet, named Chiif Kadiif, who hopes to use his poetry to address the issues that plague his community, and a 25 year-old Stephen Okoth who is a filmmaker and model known throughout Kibera for his colorful style.
Otieno's photography that displays all aspects of life in Kibera is a welcome change from the stereotypical news that we receive about the struggle in poverty-stricken places. Otieno highlights Kiberans, who much like him, and working to address the challenges their community faces and break barriers that society places before them. By re-writing the story of Kibera, outsiders are able to understand that Kiberans do not let struggle define their lives, instead, they turn to joy, hope, and innovation to create better futures for themselves and their communities.