Media houses said I was hopeless; the world thinks I am a hero

BY LYDIA WERE

On September 21, 2013, Joseph Mathenge was driving past the Dedan Kimathi statue in Nairobi’s CBD and, being a Saturday, was lucky to get parking not far from the Stanley Hotel. Time was of the essence as he prepared to shoot a video and take still photos for a friend’s wedding later that afternoon.

Mr Mathenge, the former mainstream newspaper photographer who won the 2014 “CNN Multichoice Journalist of the Year Award”, desperately needed the Sh10,000 he would get from that job. 

“My son had been diagnosed with bone cancer and the day before, we had had a fundraiser which had fallen short of the targeted Sh800,000 needed for treatment in India. We had just days to go,” says Mathenge, a 41-year-old single father.

At about 10.30am as he waited for his son, Geoff Kihato, who doubles as his assistant, to head to Kabete for the wedding, Mathenge received a desperate call from a friend appealing for rescue from the Westgate Mall. “I was in a dilemma,” he recalls. “My son was sick, and I had work that would give me money for his treatment, and here was someone sending me a distress call.” 

He decided to go to the mall. In a dozen or so minutes, they arrived at Westgate, and thus begun a day that would change the life of a photographer who had been sacked for “non-performance.”

A group of terrorists had attacked Westgate Mall, then a melting pot of Nairobi’s middle-class and home to all manner of classy shops, from supermarkets, clothes, eateries and banks. When Mr Mathenge arrived at the scene, he says, he saw people stampeding out of the mall, some drenched in blood. He could hear shots inside where a number of shoppers had been taken hostage. His journalistic instinct alive, they started clicking away.

Geoff, 21, an IT student at St Paul’s University in Nairobi, is a trainee photographer. He grabbed the opportunity.  “I told Geoff to stay back but he refused, so I asked him to follow my instructions as this was a risky matter,” he says. “We passed someone who had been shot and run over by a car and a dead security guard. Our cameras could take both still photos and video.”

Inside the mall, with the help of police officers, they got their way to the top floor where a local radio station was holding a children’s cooking competition. Here they found more dead bodies in what appeared like a scene from a horror movie. “The photos helped the police to study the building as they didn’t have the blueprints,” says Mathenge.

Eventually, they found the lady who had called him earlier and helped her out. He also encountered Ms Faith Mulee Wambua-Lüdeling with her two children, whose photos would turn out to be some of the most powerful and heart-rending. “I told her in Swahili to play dead until they were rescued and they did it quite well,” says Mathenge.

 

In the end, Mathenge had exclusive footage. No other cameraman had moved beyond a few metres of the building as it was cordoned off to facilitate rescue efforts. “It took me a day to release the photos and footage. I had nowhere to publish the photos since I am a freelance journalist, but I knew the images would be useful for the country. Memories fade but pictures don’t,” he says.

Indeed, for the next few days, the exclusive footage would be featured on both local and international television and his images in newspapers globally. “The money I got from selling the photos and footage was sufficient to take my son to India for treatment,” he says.

Mathenge was declared winner of the CNN Multichoice African Journalist of the Year Awards for 2014, essentially because of his daring and outstanding work, alongside his son, of course, in covering the attack on West Gate Mall on September 21, 2013. It was a significant but tragic event and Mr Mathenge, through the lenses of his cameras, brought Kenya’s misery to the world’s attention. He photographed the young woman and her two children lying flat on the floor, feigning death.

“Fearing that we could be the attackers, she didn’t get up when we told her to run to safety,” he recalls. “My video clip of her was replayed around the world for days, as well as many other photographs of people being rescued, some bleeding from gunshot wounds, of security personnel and the dead.”

Mathenge says the images of dead bodies did not disturb him very much psychologically. Working for mainstream media, he had covered massacres and violent scenes in which people were either injured or dead, including the Marsabit Massacre in 2005, when he had to hide among dead bodies to escape bandit fire. He was also among the first photographers to arrive at the 1998 bomb blast in Nairobi. “But Westgate was the mother of them all,” he says. “Young Geoff was meeting such a scene for the first time but his father says he coped well.” 

Mr Mathenge became, in fact, the first photographer to win the overall journalism award globally. “I had never participated in any competition during my career, but a friend who works as a journalist with AP (Associated Press) advised me to enter the photos in the competition. He was positive they would win me the award,” he says.

For Mathenge, the award was a culmination of hard work and endurance as a journalist. From Nation, he had got a job with The Standard but had been again laid off after two months. It was then that he decided to work for himself.  “Everything I do with my camera I take seriously. Whatever I do with it, however small, I focus on it because you just never know what it will turn out to be,” he says.

As CNN Multichoice Journalist of the Year, Mathenge has started a programme to mentor young journalists. He says one can have a bigger impact as a freelance photographer as opposed to when one works for a media house. 

“In the newsroom you are tied; you cannot go out to do ‘real’ journalistic work. At times you will be reprimanded for covering what are considered offbeat events. For example, I was denied permission to cover the Marsabit Massacre but jumped onto the helicopter transporting journalists anyway. My images were outstanding,” he says. “I cannot be tamed, and perhaps that is why I could not survive in the newsroom.”

After leaving the newsroom, Mathenge tried his hand at training photographers, shooting documentaries and doing general photography. “There’s no media without a camera. Press conferences cannot proceed if there are no cameras. Prominent people like Mother Teresa and Wangari Maathai wouldn’t be known without the camera,” he observes. “Through the lens, we get to know people.”

He says media houses should recognise and nurture talented journalists instead of trying to tame them. Many journalists can do a great job with good mentorship, he says, noting how top managers and editors in newsrooms often stifle talent. 

 

“The day Kibaki and Raila were signing the national accord,” he says, breaking into laughter, “I was sent to cover the flagging off of a pick-up at Afya House. That event set in motion my quest for meaningful journalism.”  

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