Papa Shabani: The healing power of photography

Ugandan photographer Papa Shabani’s project looks at the royal essence of Nubian women.

From the Series

Ugandan photographer Papa Shabani traces his fascination with pictures back to when he was just a boy. The images featured in the newspaper used as wallpaper in his grandmother’s home would send him into a trance. While deeply analysing these images, he found his calling as an artist but he wouldn’t be allowed to embrace his talent easily.

My mom was so much against it that she threatened to not give me tuition if I didn’t take up I.T, says Shabani. But I was sort of a rebel kid and this is what I loved to do and this is what I’m going to do.

Shabani created a mobile photo studio on a boda-boda, a motorcycle taxi usually used to transport passengers. Shabani would set up his mobile photography studio all over Uganda.

His award-winning idea won him a one month stay in Nairobi, Kenya. Here he worked on a project about the Nubians of poverty-stricken Kibera.

“My project was meant to show the world a side of Kibera that no one knows about, the Nubian fashion,” he says.

The project, called Queens in Essence, explored the role black women play in African societies that are governed by strict gender roles. These roles are often polarised towards men as the superior gender.

“These women are doing so much to raise their children in an upright, Nubian way,” says Shabani, adding that their essence could be felt during the photo shoots. “They look like queens, they are royal.”

Shabani plans to launch an open air exhibition in which he will place photographs of Nubian women in Nubian neighbourhoods to show other African women that there is a group of women in Kenya living a similar experience.

As for stigma around art as a career path, Shabani believes it can be challenged when artists prove their naysayers wrong.

“Your parents are going to respect you when they see you making things happen,” he says. “I believe artists are rebels that have not actually activated their activity.”