Alumni Spotlight: Peter Ndung’u on living life through a lens
The click of a camera has taken him to dune 7, the highest dune in Namibia, the pyramids in Egypt, the skyscrapers in Hong Kong and to the hidden gems of nature in Kenya.
His photographs have been featured on National Geographic, Apple, Quartz and CNN. He’s had a solo exhibition that highlighted the potential effects of coal mining on the people of Lamu. He has worked with the Africa Development Bank, the World Bank, Canon, Shutterstock, Kenya Airways, Land Rover, Red Bull & Citizen Jones, Virgin Limited Edition, among others.
Peter Ndung’u was in the first cohort of the Bachelor of Laws programme that set foot in Strathmore University in 2012, and graduated in 2016. Five years later, we reconnect with him to discuss his unique experience of living life after Strathmore through a lens.
With a background in Law, how did you get into photography?
One day, I was by a paper stand just outside the Sangale Campus. I picked up a newspaper pullout that profiled local photographer Mutua Matheka and his iconic images of the Nairobi skyline. The beauty of the city in those images triggered something that pushed me to start taking photos of everything…insects, flowers, people, cars…
I began covering events as a side hustle. By then I was using a friend’s camera, and later, one that my aunt lent me. Within two years, I was able to save up money to get equipment of my own.
On campus, my practice came through covering events featuring prominent personalities.
Law School required heavy investment in time and studying, but Photography helped me breath and have a light side to life.
How did your parents take it?
At first, they didn’t take it too well because at some point it seemed as though I was more invested in photography than in my books. We then reached a consensus: I would put it in all the effort it took to complete my degree.
When I first won an award at the Kenya Photography Awards in 2016, my parents were present at the ceremony. Today, my father is my go to person when I need assistance with the accounting side of my business while my mother will not let go of the trophies I have won. I once joked with her that I would take them to my own house and she would have none of that: She displays them at home with great pride.
How do clients react when they discover you have done law? Does having a Law degree prepare a straight path for you?
It goes both ways. They are those who ask – why is he a photographer? Is it because things didn’t work out in Law School? While others look at it differently and say – if he has a degree in Law, he must know his stuff.
I chose a different path, one that is not easily appreciated in the society we live in.
Despite taking a different career path, how has Law come into play in your work?
One of the units I loved while I was a student was Intellectual Property (IP). Had I pursued a career in law, it would have been in this field. Now it’s practical for me: I went ahead to get a certificate in IP from WIPO Academy and a copyright law course certificate from the Berkman Centre for Internet and Society offered by Harvard Law School.
I prepare my contracts and agreements; I do this for my fellow creatives as well as advising them on legal matters they encounter in their work. I’ve used my knowledge to fight for my rights in situations where my work has been used commercially without my permission. And I know how to protect my work when it comes to competitions by reading the fine print.
Was it worth your while being at Strathmore?
The education I got from Strathmore allowed me to understand the legal side of business as well as how to run my own business. In addition, the ethics classes offered were essential as I’ve had to decide which work I take up and which work I decline based on the ethical implications of it. The knowledge acquired in Dr. Branya’s classes comes into play when I choose to document stories from an ethical perspective. Having an education is the best gift my parents gave me.
Creatives have been hard hit by the pandemic. How has this period been for you?
In a month, I would typically spend two weeks at home and two weeks on the road. The lockdowns meant these trips couldn’t take place and with this came one cancellation after the other.
The nature of my work somewhat prepared me. In this industry we get paid on a project to project basis so I have a culture of saving, and looking ahead in terms of finances.
This period though has had a positive effect. People are now appreciating creative work as that is how we kept each other connected through the lockdowns. On a personal level, I now focus on story driven work rather than just aesthetic beauty and showcase.
What memories of Strathmore are still with you?
While still a student, I remember rallying my class to vote for me in a competition where I won a phone with a powerful camera. This phone, known as “simu yetu” (the class phone), was what I used to perfect my skills. With the passing of the years, I’ve come to realise that the friendships you make in class and on campus, will later morph into professional contacts. We still keep in touch with my classmates through a WhatsApp group, an avenue that has ensured we are there for each other.
For more of his creations, log in to his website and Instagram page.
This article was written by Wambui Gachari.