Interview with Esther Mbabazi

In addition to our English version, we were thrilled to announce our latest interview series of photographers and PicDrop users from across the globe. Say hello to our first featured photographer in this ongoing series, Esther Mbabazi.

At only 23 years old, photographer Esther Mbabazi has not only left a mark on the photography scene in Uganda where she is based, but her work has also been published internationally. With a specialty in documentary photography, Esther’s work has been featured in TIME Magazine, The New York Times, and El Pais . We got to ask her some questions about her work.

Hi Esther! I’d like to start by know why you’re a professional photographer? What was your path like getting here?

I am a photographer because I care about specific stories that I feel are less documented. Most of the work I create comes from issues that I am questioning or that I feel are given less attention.

I knew I wanted to be a journalist, I wanted to tell stories, so after high school, I joined a journalism school but I did not graduate. After a couple of years, I felt I wasn’t getting what I wanted out of school, so I decided to quit and start practicing and learn from people.

I saw this photo and it was as if it was frozen in time

Who inspires/inspired you?

One time I was walking through Kampala and I came across a public exhibition. It was showing work from different African artists, specifically photographers. There was a particular photo of an old taxi park in Kampala, which I usually pass by without any notice. But I saw this photo and it was as if it was frozen in time, it was black and white, by Oscar Kibuuka. I was really, really touched by the photo and after that, I reached out to Oscar and he started giving me lessons on and off. I never looked back.

Oscar taught me and we are friends now. But I have been mentored by different people and I’m currently on a mentorship with  Nichole Sobecki from VII Photo Agency. This is and has been a very good mentorship process for me.

What was your last project? What is your next project?

For the past 4-5 months, I’ve been working on a story about a mysterious disease in Northern Uganda called Nodding Syndrome. It affects children and stops their brains from growth and their bodies deform. I felt like it was then that there was a need to tell this story more so than what was covered. So I’ve been documenting this these past few months and I’m hoping to get it published. Other than that, I keep working on my story “The Youth” project. It’s a long-term project. Which I will keep photographing in different regions and places whenever I get time.

Can you tell us more about the “The Youth” project?

The youth project is a continuation of ‘This Time We Are Young’. However, I’m doing it in different countries. The newer chapter is on South Sudan but I haven’t uploaded it on my website yet since I will want to publish it first.

Can you describe the photography culture/scene in Kampala, Uganda or places you frequently travel to?

Photography in Kampala or Uganda is like almost everywhere else, a male dominant industry. You find very few women in the field. There has been some shift that has started to happen. Young girls starting to show interest in photography and documenting things. I think that will change the dynamic of the industry from what it is now in a couple of years.

I want people to acknowledge they knew about it

I learned a lot going through your photos, such as 70% of Uganda’s population is under the age of 30… do you feel a sense of responsibility to educate the “outside” world? Do you feel your photos exemplify this purpose?

So in my photography most of the time I really want to document an issue that I feel like isn’t very well talked about. The reason for that is because I want people to acknowledge they knew about it and know the issue itself, and not say they weren’t aware. So I kind of try to advocate or share as much information I come across that I feel like would be nice for someone out there to know about this. I sort of just share the stories, the stories of the people I photograph. Sometimes it’s basically like that, and then a person that views the image gets drawn into a particular image for different reasons.

What message do you want your photographs to communicate/portray and how do you actually get your photographs to do that?

I think for me to be able to communicate with photographs; one needs to be present in the images, you need to create work you care about, you can’t just be photographing things you don’t care about and expect other people to relate to them. For me having empathy and connection to the issues that you are documenting is key for the story to have the same impact as you envision them having or for the people to resonate with them as you liked them to.

So I think that’s good for business because things are starting to shift.

How would you describe what it’s like working in Kampala, Uganda to someone doing the same job on the other side of the world?

Actually, I mostly photograph in rural areas. I don’t photograph much in Kampala, but I would say it’s challenging sometimes, but at the same time, it’s starting to be better work-wise. Now clients are starting to hire local talent. From before they were flying in photographers from Europe and the US, to come and document for 3 days in a particular area in Uganda. But now most clients are realizing there is a lot of local talent that can actually do the work too. So I think that’s good for business because things are starting to shift.

And who are your clients?

Most of my clients are humanitarian organizations with a keen interest in storytelling.

From your interaction with other styles of photography from different countries, how do you think photography differs?

From what I’ve seen, let’s say in the US, it’s quite different. If you’re doing digital photography, it’s fine, it doesn’t differ very much. However, there’s a limitation in the way you can access technology and the advanced levels of technology, and there’s a lot to differ.

In Uganda, it’s very hard to work with film because of the cost to buy it and where to get it, you know it’s actually quite hard. There aren’t many that shoot on a medium format or large format camera because it’s just not available. So you take all these technological things and they differ, but the art of photography itself doesn’t really differ much. To make photos you need light, you need subjects, you need to know what you want to photograph. If you have that then, of course, it’s going to be different in a way that you photograph something and someone else photographs something else, but the process itself doesn’t differ much.

I loved when you said “I document to share the realities of life that the people and communities I photograph live – with dignity”… in response to your photography being sad. What’s your reaction to that?

For my personal stories where people were saying that the work was sad, I keep mixing it up and balancing it out. Like I have this story I’m working on about the children with Nodding Syndrome. It’s a pretty sad story, it’s horrible, the situation they’re going through. If I show the work they say it’s really sad I then mix it up with vibrant photos from South Sudan documenting young people. The youth are bright, cool and fun, so I learned that I need to balance it out. Because they’re both stories that I care about. But I know I don’t need to focus on one side more than the other.

How are you feeling now nearly a year later and with more assignments under your belt?

It feels good when work is coming up and you’re getting assigned to different jobs and countries, city and towns, and I think that’s really, really good.  

If you could be your own client, what would your dream assignment look like? Any places/people/things you are dreaming of photographing?

If I was my own client, I think I would send myself on an assignment to a country in Asia, to document a part of culture or tradition that would be cool to see and experience. To go through and be able to learn about the people. Those ancient, ancient cultures and traditions.

I have never worked in a studio

How do you edit your work?

I edit my work myself on a computer in Lightroom. I have never worked in a studio, most of my work is on the computer, and if I need to lay down some work, I make some small prints and make a sequence like that.

Which 3 tools could you not be able to work without?

Camera, computer, and hard drives, because this work is so, so much, you need plenty of hard drives. I also could not work without a notebook and some strong shoes.

Where do you currently find good photography?

Instagram. It’s quite a place of its own. You get to see different photographers work, the work they use to do a long time ago and what they do now. I like Instagram.

So, what are your favorite accounts you’re currently following?

I like The Everyday Africa account, I also follow most Magnum Photo photographers and VII Photo Agency photographers as well as Sarah Waiswa’s account.

Women are finally getting assigned jobs

Thoughts around the photo industry in general?

I think it’s been huge, hugely male dominant. Especially white male photographers. However, there’s been a lot of initiative, organizations, and groups that are coming together to make sure there is a lot more diversity in the industry. Women are finally getting assigned jobs. To see that women are starting to get more opportunities in the industry and locals in their own countries to get hired, and things like that, it’s not a bad start. It’s hopeful.

How much longer do you want to do this for?

As long as I can still hold a camera, think of stories and interact with people.

As long as I have the capacity to feel moved by something

So we can look forward to plenty of work coming from you! Tell me what motivates you to continue taking pictures – whether it be economically, politically, intellectually or emotionally?

The stories. I feel like as long as I keep coming across something I question or I wonder why it’s not talked about enough, or that I would like to explore. I feel as long as I have the capacity to feel moved by something, I will be motivated to photograph it. I like to have things that I wonder about, things that I’m interested in, things that I can photograph and still look back on in a couple of years and feel like this is still me, these are the stories I care about, and these are the things I would like to document.

Is there something you would call the best picture of your career so far?

(Laughs) The best picture of my career, I don’t know, but I’ll tell you about the photo I really, really love the most and feel so drawn to it. A photo I took in 2015, it was for my first photo essay. It’s a photo of this young boy Kiza, he was 10 years old then, it was about rural education in Uganda and this particular photo, he was carrying a jerry can of water on his bike with his sister pushing, and there was a dog following them from the water point. I like that photo.

Do you have any advice for other photographers?

I would like to advise young women who are interested in photography to keep going and take all the opportunities that are out there. I advise the emerging photographers to never give up. To actually push their work out there. Attend workshops, network as much as possible because it’s from all these efforts that it starts paying off. To keep going. 

What a great pleasure it is to interview you and thanks for the candid responses, Esther!

Check out Esther’s website and Instagram!