Sarah Waiswa

Photographer, 1/2 of African Cityzens

Portrait by Osborne Macharia.

In 2015, Sarah Waiswa held a comfortable corporate position, shooting photos on her weekends as a hobbyist. Today, she’s an award winning artist with quickly establishing works and a full time career as a documentary and portrait photographer.

Beyond her freelance efforts, Sarah’s also 1/2 of African Cityzens—traveling through Africa by road and committed to sharing as many African stories as possible within a 5-10 year span.

While only just two years into her full time endeavor, Sarah has already become an enormous inspiration to myself and many photographers around the world. It was a pleasure catching up with her over a quick chat about her work and her experiences as a freelancer.

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Firstly, can you describe your path to becoming a photographer and storyteller? I believe you were working a corporate position prior—I’d love to know about that transition. I studied Sociology and Industrial and Organisational Psychology. I worked in Affirmative Action as well as Human Resources for a number of years before I decided to follow my passion. I had always been creative, but a career in the arts was not looked upon as lucrative on the continent in the past. I started shooting (mostly on weekends) while I was still working, and people began noticing my work. When I started getting paid for the photography work, I decided that I could possibly survive on it.

Let’s talk about your work. I understand you have a keen interest in exploring identity on the African continent. Can you explain why you’ve gravitated toward these stories? I think it comes from me exploring my own identity as an African Woman and the journey towards that. Naturally this led me to be interested in others, particularly the youth and how they deal with and/or express their own identity.

Portrait work by Sarah. Explore her portfolio here.

And what have you learned from your own work since setting out to explore this interest? I have learned that although the youth are much more open to expressing themselves, the concept of true self is still stifled by social and cultural expectations and norms. I think identity is constantly shifting, in response to global and local trends and life experiences.

What are some of the biggest challenges you’re currently facing in your work? What’s helping? I went from working a 9-5 with a steady paycheck to not knowing when the next paycheck is coming. The challenges have been in having to wait for months sometimes to get payment from a client. Or even not knowing exactly when you will secure your next gig. I guess in a nutshell: the uncertainty that surrounds being freelance.

From Sarah’s award-winning project, “Stranger in Familiar Land”. In Sarah’s words: “Stranger in Familiar Land” is a series that looks at the persecution of albinos in Sub-Saharan Africa. In Tanzania, for example, they are hunted for their body parts, which are believed to possess magical powers. People fear what they do not understand and, because of this fear, people with albinism continue to be at the receiving end of ridicule and persecution. This project groups together various portraits of an albino woman set against the backdrop of the Kibera slums, which are a metaphor for my turbulent vision of the outside world. The series illustrates the life of an albino who is forced to face challenges emanating from both the sun and society. The series also explores how the sense of non-belonging has led her to wander and exist in a dreamlike state.

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“I’ve learned that although the youth are much more open to expressing themselves, the concept of true self is still stifled by social and cultural expectations and norms.

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I’m sure that can be daunting, especially for freelancers early in their journey. How are you doing your best to ensure you’re getting enough client work? It is quite daunting not knowing when you are going to get your next job or paycheck. So you have to out yourself out there, share your work and continue to work on personal projects which help you to grow and build.

I know this is a bit trite, but can you explain your creative process? I’m really interested in where you derive inspiration, how you envision a story, and how you actually go about telling that story through photography. I try to read as much as possible, go to galleries and exhibitions. I believe inspiration can come from anywhere. I believe in being attuned to my surroundings, to what people are saying and doing, to the spaces I am in, etc. Once I find the inspiration, or an issue I would like to give commentary on, I will try to figure out exactly what it is I want to say, and then how to visually express what I am trying to say.

When I travel or shoot in the streets, I watch and observe and try to capture a feeling.

You seem very well-rounded as an artist. Beyond photography, do you have any future plans to explore other mediums? You have “closet poet” listed in your Twitter bio, so perhaps finally sharing some of your writing? I have always written, since I was a young girl, but have always kept my writing to myself. Maybe one day I will find the courage to share it. I am attending a Virtual Reality workshop at the end of the month. For me I believe that I would explore any medium if it allowed me to better communicate and express myself. 

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“I believe in being attuned to my surroundings, to what people are saying and doing, to the spaces I am in, etc. … When I travel or shoot in the streets, I watch and observe and try to capture a feeling.

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Outside of your personal freelance career, you’re also 1/2 of African Cityzens. Where are you currently in your journey? What have been some memorable moments or learnings since you’ve set out on the endeavor? We are in the process of planning a trip, but that is a challenge in itself. When we set out to see the continent we were aware that we would face some challenges, but the project has helped to confirm how inaccessible Africa is to other Africans. On the bright side, when we do get to travel, we have met such amazing people and have continued to explore the themes of space and movement.

African Cityzens: Two visual artists traveling through Africa by road, from one city to another.

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