You know those old, black and white or sepia pictures of the ancient Nairobi in 1930s and 40s showing buildings and streets that once existed but are now replaced by newer ones? Do they make you giddy with nostalgia? Do these photos make you pause and ask yourself “Who took these photos? What were they thinking about while they clicked away?”

I met with Jerry Riley, 64, an architectural and interiors photographer based in Kenya, who talked passionately about his love for the camera, buildings, history and Kenya. 

OBM: Tell us a bit about yourself.

Jerry Riley: I was born in the US before I moved to Toronto, Canada, where I spent most of my adult life. It’s here where I ran a commercial photo-finishing lab for 25 years. Those are the days when the film was the backbone of photography and there was demand for back-end processing. We didn’t have inkjet printers to process the colour films, black and white films and commercial advertising prints.

OBM: Why have you chosen to be in Kenya?

JR: My wife is Kenyan. She was a professor back in Toronto. When she wanted to come home to Kenya, I came along and I stayed. I like it here.

OBM: What do you like about Kenya so far?

JR: Kenya has different cultures and diverse people and a young smart population and is poised for big development since Nairobi is the springboard for many multinationals setting up office in the region. This comes with many opportunities for the young people in Kenya today.

OBM: Then how did you get into photography?

JR: I got started when I was in my 20s. That’s about 1976. Some of my friends were buying cameras. I thought it was a cool thing so I bought a camera. It was Pentax Spotmatic, a film camera. Before I knew it I got hooked to it.

So between 1977 and 1979 I was taking pictures before I got a job in a photo lab. In 1980, I started a small photo finishing lab. It’s here I became interested in high-end photography – fashion, advertising and big prints.

OBM: Have you ever done anything else besides photography?

JR: I was a once banker. Actually, I have been a banker, a musician and a taxi driver. I tried all those careers. I was also a student. I studied nuclear engineering for a while. Then I dropped out. I have tried a few times to quit photography. I haven’t. I can’t think of anything else I’d rather be doing.

OBM: Why did you drop out?

JR: I got side-tracked by a revolution in America that started in the 1960’s – the hippie movement. I left my nuclear science course and I became interested in music.

OBM: Back to photography, how did you get into architectural photography?

JR: Back in Canada, I had visited the studios of some architectural photographers who frequented my studio lab. I knew about architectural photography, but I had not done much in that direction.

Most of the architectural photography started when I came to Kenya in 2005. There weren’t many people doing it. So I decided to start shooting hotels and buildings. I had to teach myself.

OBM: What makes architectural photography different?

JR: When it comes to architectural photography, like in architecture, the vertical lines have to be aligned properly. Horizontal lines can move depending on the point of view but vertical lines have to remain vertical.

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OBM: What do you enjoy about being an architectural photographer?

JR: The job is always different. You never know what’s going to happen until you go to a job. You have to be a problem-solver.

OBM: What goes on in your mind when taking photos of buildings? I mean, why buildings?

JR: Buildings are the new monuments, identifiers and landmarks. Buildings are interesting. Buildings are, in their nature, art. And the construction process is interesting.

If you think about it, when buildings are put up in Nairobi, look at how quickly it becomes a landmark and a point of reference especially in a big city like Nairobi.

If a building has a unique character, people will refer to it and remember it. It becomes a new reference point. This shows the importance of architecture – making a building iconic. Architects understand this that’s why they try to make their buildings unique.

OBM: What are some of the buildings that can best demonstrate that? How?

JR: If you’re going to meet someone in town, a building becomes the place where you will most likely meet a person – Nation Centre, Hilton, Kencom or Safaricom House.

When you look at I&M Building, Nyayo House and Teleposta Towers, for example, their context in Nairobi changes as Nairobi changes. They are still established landmarks but in a newly forming landscape.

OBM: And how have you seen Nairobi change over the last ten years?

JR: Upper Hill, for instance, is a very nice place. If you look at some of the buildings in Upper Hill you will see some very unique architecture – not so much in the rest of Nairobi. There’s a lot of development and change in use of land in areas like Westlands, Parklands and Upper Hill.

OBM: What part of Nairobi do you like to shoot? Why?

JR: Gikomba and Ngara. Because of the density and types of activities taking place here. There is something visually stimulating about a place with a high population density like Gikomba and Ngara. It says a lot about Nairobi and Kenya. These areas give a difference sense of how Kenya is working.

It’s not just architecture – it’s more about Kenya as a whole.

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OBM: From an architectural photographer’s perspective, what is the relationship between photography, buildings and history especially in Nairobi?

JR: Photography in its essence is documentation. Photos do have value – historical, present and future value. Photography has helped me see how much Nairobi has changed.

It’s only after some time that we truly appreciate the work of architectural photographers. For example, when we look at photos of Nairobi during the 1930’s and 40’s, we appreciate what those people taking photos were doing. Those photos serve as a point of reference historically. The pictures we are taking now will be a point of reference 30 to 50 years from now.

Imagine 50 years from now, your grandchildren looking at Nairobi photos from 2015, they will be going like, “Grandpa, did Nairobi really look like that?”

We are lucky that we have these young photographers going around and photographing buildings, construction, the streets, the people – it is all part of the documentation process.

But sadly, it is viewed as “surveillance” by authorities and members of the public.

OBM: Now that you have mentioned it, tell us about security and photography in Nairobi these days.

JR: There’s a whole new area of security when it comes to taking photos of buildings and streets in Nairobi. The public and authorities are increasingly becoming paranoid. You will always be approached by people asking, “Why are you taking pictures of that building?” Few people would seriously take an answer such as “Because I like it”.

There’s a young photographer, Msingi Sasis, who is always being arrested (laughs). He’s a very good photographer doing a lot of nice street photography. A few days ago he was arrested – again!

But again, with time, the general public and governments are slowly appreciating the importance of photography of streets and buildings.

OBM: How is technology changing photography of buildings and cityscapes?

JR: Drones have changed how aerial photography is done. Before drones, you had to hire a helicopter or small plane – and this came with restrictions of flying levels. Drones are affordable and they offer great flexibility when it comes to getting good aerial views in urban areas.

When it comes to the use of drones, governments have raised new security concerns and they have regulations governing their use. As an architectural photographer, you have to be careful.

OBM: So what do you do when taking photos from the top of buildings?

JR: In a number of projects, I have had to negotiate to get permission to shoot from the top of buildings. In one of my projects in Kisumu, for example, I had to get security clearance by obtaining letters to prove that I was representing the owners of the hotel I was shooting.

OBM: Are you involved in any projects involving your work, history and projects?

JR: I am associated with the Architectural Heritage Committee whose concern is how to integrate Kenya’s architectural history with modern development. How does a new building integrate in the neighbourhood? Developers should try to preserve the old even while putting up the new. It’s a big challenge. Some parts of our urban areas require to be preserved. We are trying to work with the National Museums of Kenya to start documenting some of these older buildings – not just snapshots but details. But this activity will require complex logistical arrangements.

OBM: Do you usually intend to evoke thoughts and emotions from the photos you take?

JR: Every picture conveys a feeling – not so much in emotion but a feeling you are trying to get across the idea of space, form and design. As an architectural and interiors photographer, selecting your angle or point of view and post-production processing bring out the important elements of space.

I used to shoot a lot of sculptures. A building is a big sculpture. When you photograph a building it becomes very delicate because you want people to look at the picture and have a feel of the object visually.

OBM: Could you explain further?

JR: When people look at a nice photo they will look at my good output but in the real sense, they are looking at the work of an architect or an interior designer. If they can see that, they can get the connection: they may want to move into that building, they will want the architect to design their building or visit that hotel – all through a photo. I am working on a project with Acacia Premier Hotel in Kisumu. And just from that, you can appreciate why hotels, splash their photos to the public before they open.

Sometimes clients want the photos of their buildings taken so that they can become recognizable to people way before they see it. On a billboard or in a magazine.

OBM: What was the most difficult building you had to photograph?

JR: That must be Fedha Plaza because of its location. There wasn’t enough room to best capture and shoot the building.

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OBM: What are your clients most concerned about?

JR: My clients are concerned about budget. That’s the only real question I get. When someone asks for my work, I send them to my website. Then they know I can do the job.

The only things that remain are my availability and the budget. I try to save time with my clients by avoiding many meetings. A few texts, an email or a call can settle most of these plans.

OBM: What defines success as an architectural photographer?

JR: Satisfaction doesn’t come from winning an award. The idea of fame and fortune is vain. It is fine to want those things, but I can’t mentor someone seeking those things.

I earn a living doing what I like. For any creative, if you sustain yourself on what you enjoy, then that is the pinnacle of life. I am grateful that I have a job that gives me a lot of freedom.

OBM: What are some of the important lessons you have learnt as an architectural and interiors photographer?

JR: I like being self-employed. I have been self-employed since I was in my 20s. There’s a lot of freedom that comes with it, but you must be responsible. I have been responsible for finding jobs and earning a living. It has taught me that you have to take responsibility: take credit when it’s all good and take the blame when things don’t go right, and giving credit where it is due.

Whenever I shoot a hotel, I always have to thank the staff of the hotel for making my shoots successful. They get the rooms ready, they carry my gear around and ensure I am well-fed.

Giving credit empowers people and reflects on your brand when it comes to your image as an architectural photographer.

OBM: What about professionalism?

JR: You have to be professional. All my work since I was 27 has come from referrals. As an architectural photographer, you should always showcase your client’s work as best as you can. An interior design company should be happy with the pictures I produce that is showcasing their work. When they appreciate the good work, I thank them for their good work. If they didn’t do a good job, it wouldn’t be possible for me to give them a good job.

A creative architect or interior, especially one who thinks through his design and work, makes my work easier. I mirror their work in the pictures I produce.

You also need a good website to show your best work. When they look at your work, they should see your abilities – they can see places and people that they know in your portfolio. They can see a building they use or can visit.

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OBM: What’s your best city you have been to as far as photography is concerned?

JR: Mumbai. It’s big and it’s got a lot. It has 24 million people. Remember how I like dense places

OBM: What do you enjoy about being an architectural photographer?

JR: The job is always different. You never know what’s going to happen until you go to a job. You have to be a problem-solver.

OBM: What do you dislike about being an architectural photographer?

JR: Carrying my gear around. It’s so much. Cameras, lenses, tripods, light stands and so on. It’s the hardest part of being a photographer. But I wouldn’t be able to walk without carrying my camera.

OBM: If you were an architect or interior designer for a day, what would you do differently?

JR: I would think about designing buildings for long-term, historical integrity. Most buildings in Nairobi are put up very fast, and there is a similarity in most. More time should be invested in making the buildings more unique without losing function. It will slow down a bit the process, but that’s the price of creativity.

OBM: How big is your collection of photos?

JR: It’s a lot. From the very beginning, I think about 600,000, but you only end up using about 10% of all that. Mostly because with digital you shoot a lot. Then you later select.

OBM: If you were not an architectural and interiors photographer, you would be a…?

JR: A musician. Music is the ultimate art form. It has motion. There’s nothing like live music.

OBM: What’s your philosophy?

JR: My way of doing things is: You don’t have to know something before you start doing it. You start then you teach yourself.

OBM: Parting shot?

JR: You have to be flexible. There are many levels of economies in Kenya where you can join as a photographer – from small start-up companies to large, established hotels. For young Kenyans, there are many places for you to start from.

Contact Jerry

Jerry Riley can be reached on email at: mail@jerryriley.com.