Profile

Sarah Waiswa

A male albino model holds a dove in front of a clear blue sky.
This image, called Birds of a Feather, is from Canon Ambassador Sarah Waiswa's Still a Stranger series. The project explores the experiences of people with albinism living in Sub-Saharan Africa, and is a continuation of Sarah's first series, Stranger in a Familiar Land. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM) at 88mm, 1/640 sec, f/5 and ISO100. © Sarah Waiswa

Born in Uganda and based in Kenya, Sarah Waiswa is a documentary and portrait photographer with a passion for exploring modern identity on the African continent.

Sarah's photography is bold in every respect: stripped-back compositions are displayed with vivid colours, a powerful sense of design, and are married to subjects that challenge common preconceptions of life on her native African continent.

"Over the past few years, interest in African art, music and culture has been on the rise in the West," says Sarah. "I am interested by what it means to be African at a time when the spotlight is seemingly on Africa – and how this interest has encouraged African youth to embrace their culture, relearn their history and express themselves in various ways, combining past and present and imagining their futures alongside that of the continent."

Canon Ambassador Sarah Waiswa.

Location: Kenya and Uganda 

Specialist areas: Documentary, portrait 

Favourite kit

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV 

Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM

Ugandan by birth, Sarah grew up in Kenya and then spent a decade studying and working in the United States. On her return to Kenya in 2010 she worked in human resources, but photography became an increasingly compelling presence in her life. "When I found photography – or when it found me – it became the one thing in my life that I was certain about," she says. "I don't think there is anything else in my life I have ever been more certain about."

After learning her craft by forging connections on social media and taking on photography commissions in her spare time, Sarah took the plunge and turned professional in 2015. One of the projects she developed around this time was Stranger in a Familiar Land, depicting model Florence Kisombe and others, and society's response to their albinism. Sarah's striking staging found an ideal partner in Kisombe's strong visual identity, yielding a stimulating and revealing series of portraits.

Albino model Florence Kisombe, with her hair dyed purple hair, poses against a brick wall holding a large conch shell. Taken by Canon Ambassador Sarah Waiswa on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III.
Model Florence Kisombe set against the backdrop of Kibera, Nairobi's largest slum, for Sarah's Stranger in a Familiar Land series. In parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, albinos are shunned due to lack of understanding about the condition. "In Tanzania they are hunted for body parts because people think they possess magical powers," explains Sarah. "People fear what they do not understand." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens at 1/400 sec, f/3.2 and ISO100. © Sarah Waiswa

"For me, the person is the most important element of the story, and I want to encourage the viewer to connect with them before anything else," says Sarah. "I am also strongly drawn to colour and the role it plays in the African aesthetic.

" Photographer, artist and Canon Ambassador Aïda Muleneh presented Sarah as a new artist at The Rencontres d'Arles photography festival in 2016. As a result, Stranger in a Familiar Land received that year's Discovery Award, which seeks to raise the profile of photographers whose work deserves to be discovered.

A black-and-white image of two young girls in ballet skirts with their arms raised as if dancing. Taken by Canon Ambassador Sarah Waiswa on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III.
Ballet is an expensive hobby in Kenya, out of the reach of many, and this image from Sarah's Ballet in Kibera series, symbolises the possibility of the children in the slums transcending those social barriers. "I wanted to capture the in-between state of imagination and reality in the absence of social barriers, offering an alternative to the monolithic stereotype of the poor African child from the slum," says Sarah. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 70mm, 1/60 sec, f/2.8 and ISO800. © Sarah Waiswa

Sarah has worked with Joel Lukhovi on long-term project African Cityzens, recording daily life for residents in a range of African cities. Other projects explore topics including the effect of industry on a Congolese community and mental health in Uganda, all filtered through Sarah's distinctive sensibilities. 

"I am interested in the perceptions one has about one's self in relation to the continent and one's place in it," says Sarah. "When I look at African identity, particularly youth culture, I look at what it means to them to be African and how they express their 'African-ness'."

Albino model Florence Kisombe poses in an alleyway in a slum wearing a pale green dress and long white sleeves. Taken by Canon Ambassador Sarah Waiswa on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III.
This shot, Finding Solace, is also from Sarah's Stranger in a Familiar Land series. "It illustrates the life of an albino who is forced to face challenges emanating from both the sun and society, and how the sense of not belonging causes her to wander and exist in a dreamlike state," explains Sarah. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM lens at 1/250 sec, f/3.5 and ISO100. © Sarah Waiswa

How do you discover the stories you cover?

"I read a lot, and have been fortunate to travel quite a bit. I try to engage as much as possible with the people in the communities I visit. I try to be attentive to what they are talking about, and the issues affecting their communities."

What is your process for getting to know your subjects before you photograph them?

"I try to spend as much time as possible with the subjects in the stories. I think, as a storyteller, you can only tell a version of a people's story as opposed to the story of the people."

What was the biggest challenge you faced when you started professional photography?

"Pricing work and photographic services, and thereafter the administration that comes with any business. I wouldn't say I have completely overcome it, although I have got better at managing it. I think it takes time."

Who have been your biggest photographic influences, and why?

"Many of the great African photographers, such as Malick Sidibé and Samuel Fosso, and the historical significance of their portraits and work, as well as Diane Arbus and her work on marginalised people. I have always wanted to use my work to generate conversations about social issues."

What projects are you working on now, and what would you like to achieve in the next part of your career?

"I recently completed a project in Kipushi, a small mining town in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, investigating the social and environmental impact of the dumping of acidic waste. I am also in the process of working on a story about mental health in Uganda." 


Facebook: Sarah Waiswa

Twitter: @LAfrohemien

Instagram: @lafrohemien

Website: www.sarahwaiswa.com

One thing I know
Sarah Waiswa

"The only way to improve is to keep shooting. No one camera or lens will make your pictures better."

Sarah Waiswa's kitbag

The key kit that the pros use to take their photographs

Canon Ambassador Sarah Waiswa's kitbag, containing Canon cameras, lenses and accessories.

Cameras

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

No matter what you're shooting, be assured of uncompromising image quality and a thoroughly professional performance. "It's trustworthy and robust. It produces amazing image quality on long exposures or high ISO settings, and it has a super-fast and flexible AF," says Sarah.

Canon AE-1

The discontinued classic 35mm SLR camera. "I've been trying to get into film photography to challenge myself, and I find this quite straight forward to use. I use it for street photography, which is a great love of mine!" says Sarah.

Lenses

Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM

With its fast maximum aperture and rapid focusing system, this lens can be relied on for superb performance in any field of photography. "I like the 50mm because I can use it in a number of scenarios and still get great images," Sarah says.

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