'Mzee Wa Mapicha' – a name and a calling

At 70 years old, Kenyan professional photographer Mzee Omoyo has been behind his Canon camera for over fifty years and shows no sign of slowing down.
Some old photographs are spread out on a table, with a Canon camera sat on top. A hand reaches to touch the top of the camera.
Swetha Ramesh

Written by Swetha Ramesh

PR & Social Media Specialist, Canon Central & North Africa

All over the world there are ‘jobbing’ photographers. Men and women who pick up their cameras every day and head out to provide photographic services to individuals and businesses who want – indeed, need – high quality images. That might be the perfect family portrait. Or corporate headshots. Product pictures, events and weddings, even real estate. These are the people who are quietly shaping the way we see the world.

They hustle – mitigating the natural ebb and flow of demand with other jobs, moving in and out of industries as the seasons change. When the weddings tail off, the school term begins, for example. And so it is for hard working photographers everywhere. One such veteran of the industry is Mzee Omoyo. At seventy years old, his photography business, based in Elgeyo-Marakwet County, Kenya, is still going strong, photographing events at the weekend and supplementing this with other work as both a cobbler and a farmer during the week – investing in land using money he made from photography. When he picked up his first Canon camera as a teenager in the 1970s, he never looked back, despite some societal pushback. “The community did not see photography as useful and not a career option,” he says, speaking through an interpreter. “However, I would travel a lot around the Trans-Nzoia County and saw that those who pursued photography were really doing well.” As he had not attended school, this showed him that photography could be a viable alternative and being exposed to others in the field was just the encouragement he needed to leave any doubts behind.

On the left, a quote that read: “When you start training kids and they pursue the photography journey, they may also become a tutor or trainer for young photographers. It pays well and can help you out of poverty.” On the right, a photo of Mzee Omoyo, in a purple jacket and holding his Canon camera.

Of course, working as a professional anything is never as simple as just making the decision to do it. Skill comes with learning and experience, but this wasn’t something that was readily accessible to the young Omoyo. There were no local photography courses and certainly no internet for online resources. He was left with no choice but to experiment. But let us not forget that trial and error also came with a significant cost – all cameras at this time were film. “Developing and printing the photographs meant travelling some distance to the next town,” he recalls. “And sometimes they were closed.” Even today, prints are an issue. Inconsistent access to electricity means that services are unreliable. But deadlines are deadlines and Omoyo finds himself travelling some distances to access the print services that the needs.

And yet still he persisted, learning to use his camera, watching others, investing his time and limited resources in a skill that he had absolute faith would pay off. And pay off it did. Word spread that Omoyo was talented with a camera, and he was soon picking up work in the most unexpected of places. “I began to work with the community police in Eldoret Town, recording crimes scenes and photographing suspects under arrest,” he recalls. “The pictures meant that everyone in the police was familiar with the faces of repeat offenders, and this helped to reduce crime in the area.” As well as this, he also worked with the local government for over sixteen years, documenting events and activities, even photographing the current President of the Republic of Kenya while he was still a minister, in late 2002.

A selection of old photos

Mzee Omoyo has photographed his family and community for over fifty years.

Two men stand side by side. One is wearing a red Canon polo shirt and handing the other a selection of Canon products.

Somesh Adukia, MD of Canon Central & North Africa, surprises Omoyo with a gift.

But, at heart, Mzee Omoyo is a family man and a friendly face in his community. He and his wife are “blessed with two daughters and three grandchildren”. And like any doting grandfather, he frequently points his camera at his precious family, preserving his love for them in the way he knows best. His beautiful portraits and honest portrayals of life mean that even at 70 he is still regularly in-demand to cover weddings, engagement parties and other important family events. At each one, he and his faithful Canon EOS 600D seek out moments of happiness, moving among people who know and trust him. He uses his decades of experience to anticipate, spot and capture the perfect shot, each filled with the joy of his subject, yes, but also his own delight from the other side of the lens.

In the community, he is known as 'Mzee Wa Mapicha', meaning ‘old man who takes pictures’. It marks the respect people have for him and honours his long career as a photographer. More than one generation has sat in front of his camera, as he is regularly called into schools to take passport-style portraits of the children, so he has seen plenty of small children pass into adulthood, marrying and having children of their own. However, today Mzee Omoyo worries for the future of the young people of Trans-Nzoia County. Unemployment is high and with it comes alcohol and substance abuse. He knows from experience that it is not easy to work your way out of poverty but feels sure that photography and videography are solid options. “It isn’t something they should fear,” he reassures. “It pays well and can help you out of poverty.”

He already works with young people to reach this goal, such as Cosi, a young woman he both inspired and coached to become the professional photographer she is today. He hopes that this is a cycle that can continue. “When you start training kids and they pursue the photography journey,” he says. “They may also become a tutor or trainer for young photographers.” The word ‘journey’ over ‘career’ feels deliberate here, as being behind the camera is just how Mzee Omoyo lives. As he looks ahead, the idea of putting down the camera simply isn’t an option. There is always more to see, more to learn and so many stories left to tell.

Swetha Ramesh PR & Social Media Specialist, Canon Middle East & North Africa

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