Let's Talk: John Kenny

I remember last summer when I first came across the work of British photographer John Kenny, I was basically speechless. Months and months later, I still have the same feeling of awe when I look at his most recent collection of photos taken near
the end of 2009. He has an amazing ability to capture something so unique and beauty in all his subjects whether they are members of various tribes or animals or even the landscape of the various countries that he visits. One of the thoughts that also come to mind when I look at Kenny's work is just how passionate he must be about the continent.

Well, earlier today I was talking about how wonderful it is to get a "behind-the-scenes" look at great works of art and, in this case, getting a little inside take on the people behind those works, so you can only imagine how excited I am to share this brief interview I recently had with John....

What are the first five words that come to mind when you think about Africa?

Friends, optimism, hope, beauty, hardship.

What is one of your favorite memories from time spent on the continent?

Watching an emerging red sun pierce the darkness of a cold Northern Kenyan morning and seeing a beautiful Rendille warrior walking towards me, alone, and many miles from the source and end of his journey. We were both in the middle of nowhere miles from any settlements, and for a brief moment in time we were brought together. We shared a few smiles and underwent a brief inspection of what each other was wearing, shortly after the warrior exchanged a few words with my guide and disappeared; striding purposefully into the featureless Kaisut desert. This is one of the many special moments in Africa that stands out in my memory.

What first led you to visit Africa and how did you know that it would become a major focus of your work?

By 2006 I felt that I needed to see the continent through my own eyes. I could have been forgiven for feeling that I knew the place already, but in reality I was only familiar with the media’s representation of it: a continuing stream of news focusing primarily on stories of despair. At the time I had no idea how significant an impact this visit would have on me. It was the start of many more trips and Africa has been my sole professional focus since 2007.

You have had the chance to explore many countries in Africa over the years, what country on the continent do you want to explore next?

It’s a tough question as there are many places that I want to go to. I have always imagined my next trip to be visiting the neighbouring states of Northern Nigeria, Southern Chad and North Eastern Cameroon. There are some security issues at present that may make this journey tricky, but I am determined to give it a go. I’m also very keen on organising a trip to the South Sudan after traveling in the North at the very end of 2009.

When you are not traveling and doing photography, what do you like to do?

I end up doing some day to day activities which are probably quite familiar to others. At the moment I have just headed back into my other career as an IT architect to help balance the books financially. When I’m not working I like looking at other art, in particular graphic design, and listening to music. I love meeting up with my friends and going to the pub, and when I get chance I also love to get into the outdoors. My other real passion, aside from photography, is snowboarding, but trips to Africa over the last 2 winters has deprived me of that joy for now.

Where is your favorite hang out spot?

Addis Ababa. I have a lot of friends there and it really feels like a second home.

What is your personal soundtrack of the moment?

A band from my hometown in the UK, Elbow, recorded a beautiful album with the BBC Orchestra ‘Seldom Seen Kid at Abbey Road’. I’m listening to that a lot right now and its beauty grows and grows over time.

Who or what has been your greatest inspiration?

My friend Mario Gerth who lives in Germany. I first met him in the Baro Hotel in Addis Ababa on my first trip to Africa in 2006 whilst he was cycling across the world. He has since come out to visit me on trips across West and East Africa and it’s like travelling with an old friend. He has a great feeling and a passion for Africa, more so than any other person I’ve ever met.

What has been your proudest achievement?

Meeting some of the most intense, vibrant people on earth and hearing from others, months or years after the picture was taken, that they feel this same piercing intensity of the person when looking at my art in exhibitions. That’s a wonderful feeling and keeps the memories of my interactions in the forefront of my mind.

What is the best lesson you've learned so far?

That you don’t need to use flash to create beautiful portraits, just an imagination with light.

What dream do you still want to fulfill?

To write a book about my time in Africa where I have been privileged to spend time with many of the most remote groups on the continent. I have gathered most of the imagery for the book, but there’s always the temptation to add to it. I can foresee one more trip at the end of this year.

What book and/or magazine are your reading right now?

Richard Dowden's "Africa: Altered states, Ordinary miracles". It’s a really balanced view of Africa’s hopes and her complexities, written by someone who truly understands how the place ticks. I bought it almost a year ago but I deliberately haven’t finished it; I’m dipping into chapters about countries after I have visited them.

{I'm so in love with how much her smile just illuminates her face}

If you are wondering how to get a little more of John Kenny works you can start off with his website. If you are like me, you love to see things up close and personal so if you are in London on between March 11-14th you can see his works at the Affordable Art Fair. You can also catch his work at the same show but in Paris between May 27th-30th. Oh, but "I'm in the U.S." you say? Well, no worries, there is an exhibition coming this very spring/Summer which I will of course tell you all about as soon as the details are finalized.

So tell me, what are some of your favorite shots? It would be near impossible for me to choose, but I will say that I have very nice visions of what the first image would look like framed and hanging on my wall!

:: Thanks a lot John ::

{Photos: John Kenny}

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