A dark room, a wedding, a retired photographer and a magazine editor changed 35-year-old Sudanese Emmanuel Jambo’s life. In another life, Jambo would have been a basketball player like his childhood friend, Luol Deng, an NBA Chicago Bulls basketball player, also from Sudan.
Jambo’s first interaction with photography was courtesy of his older sister who was studying journalism in high school. “I remember we were still living in Sudan and my sister was in elementary school. We had a dark room at home where she would process her films and I was amazed by how you would wash photographic paper with chemicals and see images,” says Jambo at his studio in Nairobi, Kenya. Born to a diplomat father, Jambo’s family moved to Egypt, then to the United States where they settled in Chicago. After the move, Jambo got busy with his passion—basketball.
Basketball was his thing for a few years but one day, an incident at an Atlanta studio marked the turning point. “My friend and I had gone to pose for a photo shoot. Throughout, I criticized the photographer and gave suggestions on how she should take photos. After that, my friend said that it seemed I knew more than the woman and suggested I try photography.” A week later, Jambo bought a $300 film camera that was on sale for $150 and started taking photos.
The story could have ended there, but Jambo’s friend was getting married and she asked him to take photos. “Since she was my friend, I agreed and asked for $10 to buy film. I shot the four-hour wedding and delivered the photos.” The family was so impressed, the groom pulled him aside and slipped him $800. “He said he had seen wedding photos of his friends by professional photographers, but my work was amazing.” That recognition gave Jambo confidence. He quit basketball. “It wasn’t an overnight decision. It was about injury—when I walk in a quiet place, you can hear my ankles popping all the way.”
Jambo invested the $800 in buying used equipment and in the process, met a retired photographer who had been diagnosed with cancer and was selling his equipment.
“The photographer, who had 30 years of experience, had taken photos of people like Martin Luther King.”
When he got to his studio, the equipment had been sold. “We got talking, connected and he liked me because it happened that we had gone to the same school in Chicago.”
The veteran decided to mentor the rookie photographer. “He said he would look at my work and advise me. One day, I took a portrait of a model and when I showed him, he stood up and saluted me. He told me my framing was perfect, my lighting was good and I had captured her features and expressions well. I thought, ‘Wow! This is really working!’”
From then, Jambo knew he was doing the right thing. He set up a website and a studio at his parents’ home. Word spread and business picked up. “The American rapper, Bone Crusher, asked me to design his CD cover and I got projects with agencies dealing with models.”
After two years, Jambo decided to visit his sister in Kenya, where he ran into the fashion editor of True Love, published by East African Magazines (EAM), a joint venture with South African publisher Media24. “I met the general manager, who loved my work and told me about ADAM, a men’s magazine about to launch in Kenya.” The editor of the magazine, Oyunga Pala, told him eight words: “Dude, go get your stuff and come back!” He moved to Kenya.
He took up assignments at EAM and soon he got a call from State House in Zambia—President Rupia Banda wanted Jambo to do some work for him. “That was one of the moments that really made me think I made the right decision to follow photography.” Jambo called his mom from the State House in Zambia while having dinner with the president. “That was one of the highlights of my career.”
Jambo was part of the 2011 London Fashion Week, an experience he describes as amazing, but one he said came a little late in his career. “Covering a major fashion event was one of my dreams when I was starting out. But it’s chaotic, unlike a photo shoot, where they cater for you.” He says at big events like the Oscars, photographers push and shove looking for space. “You reach a point in your career when you want to shoot for Calvin Klein exclusively. Dreams change as you progress in your career.”
Jambo loves shooting weddings because of the art behind it and the challenge. “A bride could be standing here one minute, and the next, you look at the window and you have to change the aperture, shutter, focus… the timing has to be perfect. Every moment that unfolds you have to be clicking away—it’s very challenging. The stakes are high; there can be a lot of disappointment. For a magazine, you can retake or change the photographer, but a wedding happens once—you get it or you don’t.”
Jambo has photographed high-profile weddings like that of the first daughter of the South Sudanese president, Salva Kiir Mayardit; a family wedding of President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda; and a $6 million royal wedding in India that took place over three days and was attended by the King of Jaipur, Indian ministers and cricket legends. “That was one of the most expensive weddings I have shot.”
But the road has not always been smooth. When he moved to Kenya, he had doubts. “I was dealing with a lot of people back in Atlanta and business was good.” He was frustrated by small things like getting his paper work straight and delayed payments from clients. He admits doing business in Kenya has taught him valuable lessons. When he started out, he would accept verbal agreements. “I would work but they wouldn’t pay me on time. I have had to stop doing shoots for a publication that didn’t pay me at all.”
Despite fraternizing with celebrities, Jambo says his greatest satisfaction is when ordinary people walk up to him and acknowledge his work. In retrospect, he is glad to have returned to Africa at a time when the market was ripe for talent. “I was among the first black photographers that started doing big stuff. This market is easier than the United States, where you have hundreds of photographers who have been doing photography for many years…
“People would ask me why I moved from America and scrutinize the equipment I had, but over time, they respect you.”
For a long time, people thought “Jambo” (Swahili for hello) was a nickname. “A woman at a wedding (who had seen my photographs) told me, ‘Oh my God! I thought you were white!’” She was studying law, but quit her studies and became a photographer.
Jambo has inspired people. “They tell me now that one of us is doing it, we can do it. My biggest pride is having changed perspectives. Photography as a career is now acceptable among the African middle-class, who conventionally encourage their children to pursue traditional careers like law, engineering or medicine. It is humbling when a mother brings her child to learn from me.” The granddaughter of Mwai Kibaki and the daughter of Raila Odinga, Kenya’s prime minister, have both been interns at Jambo’s studio.
Now Jambo has bigger things up his sleeve. He has dabbled in cinematography and hopes to document South Sudan’s history. He was there during the referendum and the independence celebrations. “I see a lot of potential in Sudan. The next move for me is opening a branch of my studio in South Sudan.”
As for his photography, Jambo says he would love to take photos of people who have made a difference in the world. “Before, I wanted to shoot the cover of a magazine, but now, I am looking at taking photos of people like Nelson Mandela, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Kofi Annan for book or magazine covers.”
His other project is teaching photography. “I intend to start a fine art school and make available professional, modern photographic equipment. Photography requires very expensive equipment. I can remember one person telling me I picked one of the most expensive hobbies in the world.”
So what makes a great photographer? “Passion is what sets people apart. You need that drive that separates you from the rest. It makes you push the bar higher!”
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