Heath's work has been primarily based around editorial assignments for newspapers, magazines and wire agencies for many years. He is currently in Nairobi, Kenya and has been for the past 3 months working to develop some documentary photography skills for longer projects. He has held a few staff positions throughout his career in various countries, Singapore 2009-2011 and most recently in 2018 in Doha, Qatar. He has always been a very curious person so whether it’s human interest, adventure-based or wildlife/nature conservation he’ll go for it. From here he will spend his time between Africa and the Middle East, working to build a base with access to interesting opportunities.
Words and images by Heath Holden
In early November I traveled to the small island of Lamu on Kenya’s northern coast. I had been told about Lamu many times since arriving in Kenya late in August but didn’t pay too much notice as my attention was directed at some conservation trips into the Samburu in Northern Kenya with the Grevy’s Zebra Trust. When I left Australia I intentionally packed two specific issues of National Geographic magazine, one with a story on the coast of East Africa which I had skimmed through earlier but had not finished, and one with a story on Sicily… One afternoon I found myself looking for the magazine to finish the article, it was called “Swahili Coast, East Africa’s Ancient Crossroads” and is in the October 2001 issue, it was very interesting and became the final catalyst for my ticket purchase. Lamu “old town” is still very authentic and has been listed as a UNESCO heritage site.
After spending over 12 months in the Arabian Gulf working in Qatar, I have found myself becoming more interested in photographing the Arabic influence on regions outside of the Middle East. Lamu is a historical trading post between the African people and the seafaring Arabs and Indians, so there are clear Arabic and Indian influences on the island, especially food, language, and faith. The trade included but is probably not limited to timber, animal skins, ivory, spices, cotton, silk, gold and... slaves. During my stay the Maulid Festival was scheduled so I extended my time on the island from 10 to 16 days, the festival is an Islamic celebration for the birth of Prophet Mohammed and is a week of music, dance and prayers.
Traveling solo, I was looking forward to wandering the endless alleyways in search of life’s daily moments, going light with two small cameras - a Leica Q which is a 28mm Summilux and a Leica M262 with a 50mm Summarit, and at times a flash, but rarely, all packed into an f-stop Gear Base Camp 100. I walked for hours observing, taking mental notes, early mornings turned into evenings which turned into night as locals commuted to work, hustled along the seafront, unloaded the fish and took shelter as the storms rolled in.
The trip was tiring and overwhelming as I wanted to be everywhere, and damn I tried, this is my story of Lamu and the people who call it home.
Lamu, and most of the Kenyan coast for that matter is an Islamic region and cultural beliefs are very conservative and opposed to being photographed without some kind of consent, this definitely causes challenges and makes it quite difficult to photograph the authentic street scenes I was after. You will never go unnoticed, I would often hear “No photos” even when I was nowhere near holding a camera. However, this is not absolute and there was a small percentage who were ok with it, and also those who would comfortably pass through a scene knowing I was likely taking a photograph. One other challenge I continuously encountered was meeting street sellers, I would have one guy who could sell me everything, a town tour, a sunset dhow cruise, an oil painting which he hand-painted at his studio and a turtle to take back to Ireland, the list goes on…
After more than 2 weeks walking around a small African island town, locals know you, they might begin to ever so slightly accept your presence, not completely, but slightly, this is where your tolerance and patience will be essential.
During my time in Lamu, there were some heavy rains, it was a nice change to the constant hot sun and it brought a different mood to town. The kids were out running through floods and racing donkeys through the alleyways when the downpours ceased and the sun shone through the clouds again the light was magical, champagne as William Albert Allard would describe it. The palette would become extremely vibrant and I would move to some known locations which would work for an observe and wait technique. Food, when is food not good? Island life means seafood, big meaty crabs, lobster and fish, also a few good pizzas and lots of fruit!
From my experience over the past decade working as a photographer, I would simply say to approach such locations with an extremely open mind, you might have some visual ideas and maybe even a shot list if you’re trying to please someone, but really just get out and hit the streets early, work late, get tired discover in real-time. Be respectful to the culture and if you are ever unsure, ask someone at your hotel. I know, very general but it works.