Nairobi to Nearby

© Brendan Bannon/Daily Dispatches
© Brendan Bannon/Daily Dispatches
© Brendan Bannon/Daily Dispatches
© Brendan Bannon/Daily Dispatches
© Brendan Bannon/Daily Dispatches
© Brendan Bannon/Daily Dispatches
© Brendan Bannon/Daily Dispatches

Accurately presenting Africa has long been a challenge for Western news outlets. As there is anywhere else in the world, there is suffering. But in Africa's case, that suffering tends to blot out everything else, at least through the limited window we have on it half a world away. The continent's diversity of geography and politics, combined with the finite space of newspapers and television, can't help but tilt our perceptions. While it would be irresponsible not to cover its myriad stories of drought, starvation and political malfeasance, they are too often told at the expense of views of normal, non-miserable everyday life. Nairobi-based photographer Brendan Bannon, who has shot for the Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor and more, puts it simply: "When you're talking about Africa, you're talking about crises."

Bannon’s camera took him to Nairobi, Kenya, for the first time in 2005 as part of a project to teach photography basics to children orphaned by AIDS. Exploring on his own, however, he found rich photographic subjects, and over the next few years he built up a solid stable of Western news outlets that needed a dependable shooter on the ground. Five years in, however, a slight unease began to tug at him. “A lot of the work I’d been asked to do was covering drought, famine, HIV, refugee camps and so on. It’s really important work and the world needs to hear about it, but it’s also a very narrow band of what Africa is. While covering these stories on assignment, I often found surprising and interesting topics around me. But they weren’t stories I could sell.”

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Style Selector
© Brendan Bannon/Daily Dispatches

So he found a way to cover them without selling them. Bannon and Mike Pflanz, a writer who has worked the chaos beat throughout Africa and shares Bannon’s desire to show a more balanced view, came up with a novel way to frame and disseminate their work, one that combines journalism, fine art and education.

The result was Daily Dispatches: Nairobi, a project that documented normal, non-crisis life in Kenya's capital for one month. Each day in April, Bannon and Pflanz sent one to three panels to universities in the United States, where they were made into large gallery-quality prints and hung for students to see. Each panel featured photos by Bannon and words by Pflanz. For Pflanz, the most exciting thing was "having the freedom to report from bits of Nairobi where no newspaper is interested in sending me. When I call editors, they want to hear about pirates in Somalia or civil war in Ivory Coast, but if I tell them about a mobile-phone money transfer system that's changing the way people do business, or that most of the middle class are driving around in fancy cars, they don't know what to do with it."

The panels show the Kenya the two have come to know, one that has problems but is also full of passion, joy and connectedness. They did not shrink from tragedy, but also did not spike stories simply because they weren’t sad enough. The result is an honest document of 30 days spent in Nairobi.

In addition to the daily canvases, Bannon and Pflanz took students behind the scenes with a blog at dailydispatches.org. “There are interviews with people we’ve shot, scans from our reporters’ notebooks, as well as some of the shots that led up to or followed a photo we chose for that day,” Bannon says. “We wanted to use the web to surface our practices and decision making.” This, he says, is part of the appeal of housing the exhibition on college campuses. “You can learn a lot in school, but once you get out and have to do real assignments, there’s a whole other level of problem solving that comes into play. It’s helpful to see how working photographers get things done.”

And get things done they did. “Finding, shooting, writing, and filing some 30 stories in 30 days, complete with fact checking and editing, was no small task,” Pflanz admits. But, he adds with a chuckle, “it’s good to keep busy.”

Asked for advice to students embarking on a photography or journalism career, Bannon stresses that "there's no set course. This is a career where they're constantly going to be learning alternate ways of creating and presenting their work." This is nothing new, though, he says: "If you look at the history of photography, it's always been this way." AP

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