Beyond Cameraman Nairobi's work inside Pittsburgh sports and music culture, the photographer notes how his images share the truth about the city's urban environment, especially, coming from his black male perspective.
One Christmas day Nairobi received his current Nikon D7100 digital single-lens reflex camera and wanted to give it a test run. He took to a local Pittsburgh neighborhood, headphones in, camera in hand and began to walk the gentrified, predominantly white areas. He snapped pictures of houses and any details that caught his eye. Nairobi stopped at a particular house to photograph and his presence worried nearby neighbors. A woman came from her house to ask what the cameraman was doing. Nairobi had his headphones in so the woman's curiosity went unnoticed, but he felt he was being watched. Moments later a police car rolled up alongside the photographer. The officer asked, "What are you doing on this side of town?" Irritated, Nairobi politely answered the policemen's questions so he could acknowledge Nairobi had done nothing wrong. After the policemen realized it was Nairobi's appearance that led the neighbor to call 9-1-1 and not his actions, the officer said, "The neighbors called because they were nervous, this house has been robbed lately."
Events such as the one that happened to Nairobi sometimes lead to unfortunate events where the subject in question is brutalized, abused or worse, murdered by the police. While these situations speak to the disgust of racial profiling, they also shed light on the daily experiences urban dwellers face.
Cameraman Nairobi's Instagram, @iamseton, premieres photo movies, consecutive images with captions telling a specific narrative. His first two photo movies, "Bank Robbery" and "#BlackLivesMatter," are direct reflections of the desperation and prejudices weighing on some Pittsburghers.
People are capable of crazy things when they have no money to eat or when they base judgments off fallacies. "I don't put anything past anybody," said Nairobi.
Interview contributions by Alex Young and Nairobi Jones - photos are original work of Cameraman Nairobi
Alex: Now, there are a lot of police undertones in your photo movies, and even pictures in “Straight Outta St. Croix” the subject is literally flipping off a police car. Has there ever been an instance where you are taking a picture of the police and they say something to you or, who knows, they mistake your camera for a gun?
Nairobi: Never. That hasn’t happened yet. It’s not me down talking the police; it’s me speaking on reality. Sometimes my camera speaks as my voice. I feel as if the truth isn’t told and whenever it is told they try to hide it from us. You can’t hide what is right in front of you. A picture of somebody flipping off the police is really how some people feel. “Straight Outta St. Croix,” it was inspired by “Straight Outta Compton,” and NWA. It is my interpretation on police relations.
Alex: People can take your work and say it paints a picture of rebellion, going against the norm and being different. You expressed to me when we talked earlier how you see yourself as “Other,” somebody who catches something other people may not. Do you think this rebellion is honesty?
Nairobi: It is. We walk outside everyday and face the truth whether it’s dealing with the police or our peers.
Alex: When people see your images what do you want them to take away? Your images have a very urban setting, and when some people use the word urban they really mean black. What is city life like for a black person, a person of color?
Nairobi: Don’t lose sight of what you are going through. Somebody always has it worse than you do and if you look at your situation and somebody else’s situation is worse than yours you win at the end of the day. In an urban situation and a black situation always make sure you are positive because whenever you are negative, negative things happen. There are a lot of things out there that can distract you from positive activity.
Alex: In keeping positive, do you work with charities, do you work with organizations that have a positive footprint in Pittsburgh?
Nairobi: I have, for about two years I volunteered at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill. I volunteered there on Sundays for about three hours.
Alex: Do you think you are misinterpreted? Do you think people take your work and see you as somebody you are not?
Nairobi: I do feel misunderstood a lot of the times. But I also realize there are people who do understand where I come from. As far as the people that don’t know where I come from, you have to understand that my environment reflects how I am. I feel the way I do and I am the way I am because of my experiences.
Alex: Have you found yourself through your camera?
Nairobi: Yeah, I started taking pictures when I was six-years-old, with my mom’s little purple film camera. I remember people telling me how good they were for my age and I’m thinking, “They’re just pictures, that’s all they are [I could be good at this].” After the film stage I moved on to taking pictures with a phone. In ninth grade I got my first digital camera. Then I started using Photoshop, I would edit my photos in Photoshop, before I knew what Lightroom was. After I got good I remember charging people $25 for a photo-shoot. Once I understood the process and respected the process I realized I had to up my prices again. I went to $50. After I mastered my little [Nikon] Coolpix camera I got a Nikon D3200 digital single-lens reflex camera. Then I increased my price to $100 and when I got better I bumped up to $150 and that was my set price until I understood the editing. Now, I am at my third camera, a Nikon D7100, and I charge $200. I remember somebody asking me how I arrived at my prices and it’s based off research and the quality of my work. I have to pay myself back for the equipment I have bought. I don’t think I charge too much because you’re getting unlimited shots, location changes, outfit changes, I do all the editing and you get the pictures within 24-hours. I appreciate the process and I like editing because you can fix your mistakes. That’s the only time you can go back in life and fix your mistakes.
Alex: How has your editing process come along so your pictures are what you want them to be?
Nairobi: Before I take pictures I usually know what the photo will look like. If I don’t know how they look when I take it, the editing process will help develop the photos to look as I see them in my head. I use a lot of black and white in some shoots, either because there is too much color in the picture or to help you feel it better. Whenever I take pictures it feels like I just captured something unique. You will never see the subjects in my photos this way again.
Alex: How do you think you have grown as an artist?
Nairobi: I think I have grown a lot. I remember taking pictures on my phone and I wouldn’t realize what I got. They were good pictures but one, I was using my phone and not a camera and two, my mind was not as open as it is now. A couple years ago I would only photograph sunsets and corny stuff.
Nairobi: Yeah, so cliché. Now, it’s from sunsets to rocks, details. It definitely is more of a personal growth. I grew inside more than I did with my camera and that shows in my pictures.
Alex: If somebody told you your photographs and creativity influences the Pittsburgh environment would you agree? If so, how can you push your viewers and the public to live a positive life and see their experience as an honest one?
Nairobi: I agree and do consider myself an influencer. I come from a negative place being from McKeesport. I’ve seen a lot and I know where that leads. I can’t be a part of that, that’s not who I am, but it is a reality of my surroundings. You can’t live the way you see the world, we live in a negative world, not just where I am from. Being from a negative place brings out the positive in us because it forces us to recognize what happens in society. See the positive where there is negative.
Alex: How did seeing a new place like Los Angeles influence your work and personality?
Nairobi: Just seeing it first hand influenced me. Out in LA you have to have a plan or you will drown. In LA everybody is doing what you want to do. My experience was not for me it was for who I was working for. I don’t have this big house, I don’t own these big cars, these are theirs, but experiencing these things makes me go ten times harder. I know what I can have.
Alex: What drives you to be the best you can be?
Nairobi: I have personal problems, I have family issues and we are not the most fortunate family. My dad passed and he was the provider of my family, not just our household, but also his side of the family and my mom’s side of the family. Now that is my job. As a 19-year-old seeing your family struggle, you want better for them, you want everybody to live comfortably. It is just a matter of time before I achieve that for them. Patience is key, that’s my problem being 19. I have to remind myself I’m only 19 with my entire life ahead of me.