Art, Culture, Books and Travel

UGANDAN PHOTOGRAPHERS – MEET ANDY KRISTIAN

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By Jane Musoke-Nteyafas
“We enjoy capturing fleeting moments on your wedding day into classic and timeless memories.”

He’s definitely not your average photographer. Based in Lancaster, Central Pennsylvania, Ugandan-born, Andy Kristian brings the elements of grace, excellence, taste, beauty, fun and loveliness into his work. He specializes in capturing the sweetest, most precious moments of life, mostly weddings. And in a world where there is a plethora of photographers, Kristian takes it to another level. From the exquisite splash of colours in his photos, carefully chosen out, and from the romantic essence that he captures so expertly, one can see that it is a passion.

Together with his producer-wife, Sonya, he has formed a company – Lancaster Wedding photographers and Social Entrepreneurs, where they are spreading their wings into the lucrative industry of wedding cinematographers and wedding videographers. His photography is not just limited to weddings as he dabbles in taking classic photos of African people and scenery as well as other projects. He has won the following awards and fellowships 2010 Winner – Documentary Photography Award, Open Society International; 2011 Winner – Photo Challenge, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; 2010 Fellow – George Soros, 2006 Fellow – UNESCO and the United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organization. He is becoming a well-sought at photographer.
 
Jane: Andy Kristian in your own words is…?
Andy: A photographer of the poor, the rich, and those in between.

At what point in your life did you decide that art/photography was your dream career?
Two or three years ago. (Laughs) That's a very confusing question to me. This is why; I am still trying to find my feet or break through as a full time photographer.
But if your question is when did I first discover the photographer in me, that goes way back when I was still very young, in the nineties. That's why I like to see myself as Andy Kristian, since 1996!

What inspires you as an artist/photographer?
When God created, he looked at all He had made and it was very good. I take a lot of inspiration from what already is; the beauty that lies in every creation. I am inspired by other artists, by music and songs, by motion pictures, by people, by so much.
 
What medium do you use?
A camera (Laughs).

(Smiling,) What kind of camera though?
I am a Nikon Pro shooter, and personally use three different Nikon bodies, an assortment of lenses, lighting gear, and all that I must use is invariably related to the nature of the shoot and its requirements. I process all my work in my “digital darkroom” using several advanced photo editing software, but my fave is Lightroom.
 
Take us through one day of your life as a photographer….
Again, this depends on what I am going to be shooting. First of all, I am a wedding photographer here in Lancaster, Central Pennsylvania, even though I also travel out of state, and I also do other family related shoots.
As a general rule of thumb, the day before the shoot, I need to check and double-check that all my necessary equipment and back-ups are available, that everything that needs charging is charged, that cards are formated, equipment is cleaned and checked for running, and that I have notes on my PDA of how I want things to run. This doesn't mean you don't allow for spontaneity; it simply means being prepared for the job. Also, I go to bed early.
 
You are extremely talented. Where did you learn your skill?
Extremely talented? Thank you, thank you!
I did not have the opportunity of going to school of Art. Over time however, I have had immense opportunities of learning from many people, including friends and peers. When I was growing up, one of my childhood best friends' dad used to run a side job as a photog. He also operated a black & white dark room in which we would sneak while he went away. My buddy learned from his dad, and he taught me darkroom processing, operating both 35mm and complex manual lenses, etc. That was the beginning of my education. The irony is that my buddy is now into banking!
 
Why photography. It is one of the hardest mediums artistically to find success and there is a lot of competition?
You are right. It is extremely competitive. I enjoy the competition, it brings the best out of people. But going back to your question; photography is one thing that I ever felt so passionate about doing. My academic background is kinda diametrically opposed; political science, peace and security, psychology, etc. But I gave up many years of education and a corporate type career path to pursue the dream.
 
You currently live in the Diaspora – in the USA. How does this help as far as your photography career?
The networking is great. USA has the world's most incredible photographers. And to be here and compete with them is nothing short of awesomeness. I thank God for the opportunity, for real.

Do you think that if you’d lived in Uganda you’d be as successful artistically?
Yes and uuumm No. Yes, because art is a gift, and therefore, if one is doing the right things, there is absolutely no reason they should not be successful artists.
But if success has a financial dimension to it, that's where the “No” comes in. Even though I believe this is changing, and people are beginning to appreciate art, which is good for the budding visual arts industry.
But things will change; we will start seeing true celebrities ditch studios for celebrity type photography, the kind we do here with bands, sports, etc. We will start seeing photographers niche out specialties for themselves for which they will be sought as people get more economically empowered to afford these services. So, I see a Uganda/East Africa with celebrity photographers, advertising and commercial photographers, food and beverages photographers, documentary photographers, etc.
 
Have you been in any exhibits and if yes, which ones?
I did work for USAID and this is exhibited at USAID Washington, DC, the US Embassy, and was also locally exhibited at the Uganda Museum. At the beginning of the year, I held an exhibition at National Theater called Voices of Uganda/Honor Your Vote. This is by far my biggest solo effort and went national. It was featured in European newspapers and online blogs and news wires. I am still waiting for an opportunity to exhibit in major galleries in Europe, Asia, and North America and that time will come as well. Currently, I am working on organizing my local arts community in Lancaster to exhibit and sell our work to raise money for Somalia. Details will be on my blog soon at www.andykristian.com and also follow me on twitter here http://bit.ly/nYTRnk

I hear you, because I am like that too. More so now with experience under my belt.
My first solo exhibition is coming before the end of this year, and believe me, it will show case some great stuff under one theme. I hate jumbled up themes. I am hoping that this will get me some invitations to New York and European Galleries for exhibition. Plus, I am hoping that the work I am going to exhibit will find a permanent home in a museum, gallery or otherwise.
But before that, I have an opportunity for some of my work to be exhibited by USAID in Uganda. I completed this work with a bunch of other extremely talented photographers.
 
Do you get dry spells when you just cannot create and what do you do when that happens?
Yes, that happens a lot. (Laughs) I pray! I ask God. I ask my wife. I ask people that inspire me. I wait it out.
Tell us about your values in life. What drives you?
First of all, I am a believing Christian, so I strive to be Christ-like, even though I stumble and fall many times, and He picks me and does that again all the time! I am driven by the hunger for excellence. I feel like we all have an opportunity to do some things that will outlive us, change the places we live in, for the benefit of others and future generations. I want to be part of that. We all should be part of that.

Which are your three favorite pieces?
Man, that is a hard one. I love brides! Every bride is absolutely beautiful. And since I do a lot of documentary photography and commercial stuff, I guess I will just stick to one category and just chose three photographs.
So, I love the pic of Jena in a vintage 1930s Ford Roadster, her hand is through the window of the vehicle as she throws out her hand in high abandon. You can't beat the candid, spontaneity of the moment, and that is what wedding photojournalism is about.
I also love the pic of Susanna and Jonathan in the deep inches of snow during one of them crazy snow storms.
I love Jen's pic, looking rugged on a Harley Davidson motorcycle. I tend to like things that are so out of the ordinary, and this pic truly embodies what I love.

How can the Ugandan government help the arts/photography industry in your opinion?
There is so much to be done. But let us just begin with a simple issue of a museum. We need a serious museum of art and contemporary photography, and I am going to make it my mission to see that this happens.
Also, I am tired of Ugandan agencies and firms hiring Bazungu for projects that Ugandans too can do. This is not hating. But this is gotta stop. We can shoot anything, and where we don't have gear, we can hire and insure it. I have heard of people coming to shoot USD 200,000 dollar projects in the parks and all, and I am like, what happened to promoting our own people? The only time we should bring mzungu on projects is when they are volunteering. Africa by Africans please!
Valid arguments. And this is why we showcase African talent on UGPULSE. I also got tired of having Africa always profiled in the most negative light and our talent being ignored, so we’ve created a platform to showcase as much African talent as possible.

What is your greatest success story?
Winning the Audience Engagement Documentary Photography Award with Open Society International.I have really had a share of my successes, but when you compete with the very best an emerge to stand counted, that is such an awesome feeling.
I was also the mind behind last years communications and messaging campaign on elections in Uganda, and that is a major breakthrough for me as a photojournalist. My work was published in a coffee table book, and I am so stoked about this as any Ugandan photographer or any serious photographer anywhere would be. I am working on a major publication with a humanitarian agency here in the USA and we will see how that works out. I might be traveling to a bunch of countries early next year to shoot for this project. This is something I am so hopeful and excited about and the major impact it will bring.

How is the general reception of your artwork in Uganda? 

To be honest, I do not know. All I know is I have a following of about 3,100 people on Facebook who like my photography page. I am also connected to almost 5,000 people on Facebook, and occasionally, if I can chat with a stranger on Facebook, I will hear someone say, “dude, I love your work.” And I am like, how come you never commented on any of my photographs? I just don't get it…Ugandans are not good with praise maybe, I guess.

I guess they do not realize how much artists need it. But its been said here. So it’s out there readers. Artists need your feedback. What about the general reception internationally?    
I have been awarded, by competing with the world's best documentary photographers and for me that's incredible. I have had award winning photographers such as Stephen Shames give humbling raves about my photography. To understand what that means to me, Stephen Shames is permanently exhibited at tens of top museums in the USA, universities, and published by many major newspapers and photography magazines that you can think of.
The President of Hope International, one of the world's leading micro credit agencies, after buying my photograph at an event, looked for me so I could autograph it. Yes, it feels good. I am getting good reception abroad, but I also need it at home.
 
Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years?
I see myself based entirely in East Africa, living either in Kampala, Kigali or Arusha, and doing photography and other work/projects across East Africa. I am excited about the federation that is going to make borders obsolete. But for now, if you like, you can call me a Ugandan photographer, Rwandan photographer, Kenyan photographer, Tanzanian photographer, Burundian photographer, whatever.

East African.
Yes. Being one country changes everything though, and it is totally exciting. I am an East African photographer, period. That's how I like it In the meantime, before the five years, I would like you to know that I am a destination wedding photographer and Documentary Photographer to East Africa. So, being in the Diaspora has not meant that I cannot do projects in East Africa. In fact, this year alone I have been to East Africa on photography trips 5 times! It is always exciting.

Any tips for people who may be looking to be where you are? 

Man, to get to where I am is not that difficult. But you gotta be ready to hustle, tussle, deal positively with rejection, strive to improve yourself, seek feedback from people that are better than you, and all that good stuff…

Would you say you are living your childhood dream?
I had a very difficult childhood. I am not even sure I had a chance to dream! Am I living the dream right now? May be, but we got a lot to offer this world…To be honest, I ain't even started dreaming!
 
Who are your role models?
Jeremy Cowart – He is one of the greatest living photographers of our time. He is a photographer with a conscience.
Norbert Mao – BBC named Norbert him among the top 10 African politicians to watch. He is very young, charismatic, patriotic and a man of integrity.
Jacob Zikusooka – He is a local enterprenuer in Uganda. He is a mentor but also a very close friend. I know no other who loves God like he does.
 
What is your spiritual life like?
Jesus Christ is my Lord and savior. He died for my sins, and yours as well. That's my spiritual life…a daily walk with Jesus; a walk of struggles, successes, disappointments, appointments, sorrow, laughter…with my eyes fixed to the prize…
 
How do you spend your time when you are not doing photography?
Sonya and I are movie addicts. I am glad I don't own any video games, not even on my iPad.
 
Any parting words?
For the artist, be patient, be diligent, be resilient, be uncompromising with your work, be creative, be enterprising, be the best you can be.
For the client; you have seen what the artist needs to do to become worthy of doing your creative work. Now, you need to reciprocate this by being respectful and generous.

To find out more about Andy Kristian and to contact himself, please go to www.andykristian.com

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