Happening upon Polo

Driving around aimlessly in Nairobi, I happened upon an interesting looking wooden fence across a beautiful green field, and as the fence was backlit, I thought it would make for incredible silhouettes. Traffic in Nairobi is always a nightmare and on the field immediately next to this space was the sign of an impending disaster: a massive park with an equally massive parking area, filled to capacity with cars and as it was evening, the owners of these cars were making their way from the park to join the daily road battles that characterize driving in Nairobi. Not wanting to let such thoughts get the better of me, I forced myself to concentrate at the task at hand - beautiful lighting and composition.

Remember that lighting is everything. It was sunset and the weather wasn't favourable with signs of heavy downpours as the heavens above me roared from time to time. Yes, I would hate to be caught in the rain here. Rain in Kenya is less like the breezy (though terribly annoying) sprays that characterize rain in Montreal. They are massive droplets that make a sound that one might first think to be scary, but then, without so much of a warning, immediately follows fear with shock at how wet one has become in such a short amount of time. Each roar of the clouds brought with it a mixed bag of thoughts and emotions as I couldn't stop thinking about the traffic. Rain! Almost in every big city in the world, rain always means ridiculous traffic.  Visibility comes to nothing and there's always a silly accident to complicate matters; Someone tried to switch lanes but didn't see the car behind approaching. Those involved quickly get outside and have a quarell on whose fault it was. The cars behind, with a great deal sympathy, figure out how to get ahead. Everyone is waiting for the police but it's raining so if the police aren't already in the area, it will be a long time before they show up. The matatus (minivans used for public transportation) are adding to this frustration and are equally frustrated because rain and traffic always means less money for them and so they take their aggression to the next level: whereas before they were only causing panic on the road - to be experienced by their fellow motorists, they start exploring the side walks (where there are side-walks) as a way to get ahead of traffic. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a policeman shows up and catches hold of a few of them. Panic is now a different looking animal and whereas it was first experienced by the drivers of these matatus, it quickly spreads to the rest of the motorists as the matatus are quick to make their way back onto the road. Then somewhere else, cars are turning back from a certain road as the downpour had flooded the space and as is always is the case, there is evidence of danger ahead as an unsuspecting driver had overestimated his abilities as well as that of his car and is now stuck in the middle with water everywhere. As the cars turn, people behind aren't informed of this calamity and always have to experience a bit of it first hand before making the decision to turn back.

Focus - I tried not to think about all of this and instead concentrate on the task ahead and not just concentrate in a manner of getting a particular shot that I had framed in my mind. Yes, it always starts like this where one pictures a certain shot seen elsewhere - in magazines or on the internet. I marvelled at the light because in addition to being backlit and cloudy, there was enough direct sunlight to cast a warm tint to all that the light touched - pretty much the perfect conditions for photography.  


Cloudy days can be a mixed blessing depending on the time of day. At mid-day when the light is terrible to begin with, they do an excellent job at softening the light and allowing us to continue our adventures to photograph black and white portraits among other things. There can be some enhancements with the use of such things as reflectors of course, but as I mentioned, this was quite perfect as the stormy clouds gave the scene some character. 

 Why not have Sebastiao Salgado version of the photograph? 

Why not have Sebastiao Salgado version of the photograph? 

Moving. I was quite taken away by the trees in the far end and I wanted to explore the composition. Often times, people pursuing photography settle for one or two subjects or perspectives and later complain that they aren't getting what they'd like or the photographs they'd like. It's a point that I obsess over with my students and we even talk about the area of 'effort' exclusively in our composition classes. You have to become and explorer and allow the photography to open up events and opportunities for you; and perhaps in this sense, what makes a good photographer isn't so much in their eyes as is commonly perceived, but in their ability and willingness to go a little further and let their curiosity get the better of them.

 Crossing the fence to explore the trees in the distance

Crossing the fence to explore the trees in the distance

At first, it was the trees that drew me to closer to the space as from the distance, they looked of such an incredible shape. Upon approaching the space, I found that there was too much in the composition. If they were to be backlit, they would fall in the silhouette of one another and this would make for a very confusing and incomplete composition where as going to other way would mean bringing into the background buildings and the stormy clouds without any seduction from the warm sunlight. 

Finally, I happened upon on a particular tree that did make for an interesting composition - but upon later consideration, I was quite bothered by the telephone poll in the background. A suitable correction, of course, would be to remove the poll in the editing process. 

Some feet away, I happened upon a shack and right next to it was a space where charcoal was being made and the smoke making its way onto the field. 

The two photos above were taken with different lenses (again a proof of what a change in equipment can do to a certain situation or scenario). Both of these photographs have their own compositional traits and different people have already told me different things about them. The latter is a simpler composition and has an element of convergence about it. The former, to me at least, tells a story about the space without being too concentrated on the shack.


I explored other spaces and perspectives but without a great deal of editing, they would simply remain flat images that don't have much going for them. 

Not long after, as it started to rain, I decided to leave the space and head back to my car. I had found out that the space that I spent so much time on was the polo club, a game that had always fascinated me (possibly because I would never be able to play it in this lifetime). On my way back though, I decided to explore a little further and happened upon the stables, where some men were shielding themselves from the rain, clearly being interrupted from a very important task at hand. I raised my hand to greet them and they did likewise. They were the trainers and caretakers for the horses and introduced themselves. DJ was the man that reached forward and asked me how he could be of help. I wanted to know about the space and was curious to take some photos of the horses and perhaps even the game. He asked me to come back at 6.30 the next morning. I said I would, wished them all well and went back into the rain.

The morning after

I have to say that I slept very poorly as has been the consistent story of my time in Nairobi, but it was important to me to ensure that the story continues and so I forced myself out of bed and drove back to the stables. 

I was shocked at what Nairobi was like at 6AM. There was still an unpleasant amount of traffic but more shocking was how many people were making their way to work. Given the few pedestrian paths that existed, many of these people were made noticeable by their presence on the road, as cars and humans tried to negotiate through intent and in some cases, sheer numbers. 

 In almost ever shoot, there is that one photograph that could have made it but had focus issues. I'd say this one makes for such a shot. I thought about cropping it with the 4 horses at the back but then again, this would be a good illustrative photograph. 

In almost ever shoot, there is that one photograph that could have made it but had focus issues. I'd say this one makes for such a shot. I thought about cropping it with the 4 horses at the back but then again, this would be a good illustrative photograph. 

The day before, I would have been terribly shy and rude to photograph any of this. I needed permission and acceptance of these people whose work was in some ways being put under the light, but this morning, I felt as though I had that acceptance. Even here, it's important we are always respectful of people and their spaces and always gauge whether they are at all interested in being photographed.

The horses needed to be trained every morning and as I was told, sometimes when the weather permits and if some of the owners made their way to the ground then there would be 'stick and ball'.


I followed the crop of riders with their many horses as they ran around the fields in the park close to the stables. I was il-prepared though as it had rained heavily the night before and my very fashionable canvas boat shoes showed no resistance to the cold muddy waters. I thought about the scene and the composition that would provide the best perspective. I figured a silhouette was one of the only options that had to pursue and provided also that I had the right perspective. 

It's important to remember the angle in a silhouette as not paying attention to it can often lead to the subject being lost in the shadows.

The photograph immediately above is one that I quite like, as it's a silhouette but also with a reasonable amount of detail in the shadows, much to do, I'm sure, with the fact that it was a white horse and reflected more light towards the camera - something of pure chance. 

As the scene was getting a bit repetitive, I decided to head back and make my way for my 8.30 breakfast meeting.

Initially, I had parked my little car outside the stable and upon DJ's insistence that it was fine to park it inside, I eventually did so. In hindsight, had I not given into the pressures, I would not have happened upon the photographs and compositions below - something for the story but also an opportunity to showcase an interesting lighting attribute - a point that I will go into greater detail below. 

As is only a matter of courtesy, I wanted to say goodbye to some of the people at the stable and thanked them for being so kind and accommodating. A man asked me if I was from the media and I said that I wasn't but was simply pursuing a project upon chance. He introduced himself as Martin and for some reason, wonderfully fit the profile of a polo player. Added to this was the 'Peroni' sign which reminded me of some of the designs I had seen in Cuba and immediately thought about the broader interaction of horses in Latin America - a sort of conquistadores. Something about the setting seemed timeless as nowhere could be seen the remarkable advances in technology that characterize our present world. 

I asked him if I could take some photos of him and asked him which horse was his favourite. He pointed to the one on his left with an innocent smile that showcased a deeper understanding of their personalities.

The photograph above, which I do believe was the best that I could do given my equipment constraints could have definitely been massively improved by the presence of greater fill-light. 

The above photos represent different angles but the latter (the second of the two photos) represents a typical case of high key light - essentially characterized by the exact same conditions that are well suited for a silhouette.