“You know they say a picture is worth a thousand words, but my objective in every photography assignment I do is to make every picture worth at least 1020 words and beyond…” These were the closing remarks of one Odari Gerald when I interviewed him for this piece.
It’s 3.23 PM, Monday afternoon. I’m standing at the entrance of the University’s Engineering Laboratory Building, been standing here for two minutes now. Then finally the person I’ve been waiting for descends the stairs. He has been working on his project in the laboratory the whole day, so when he walks to me with a dejected and exhausted expression on his face, I totally understand. For as they say, Engineering in JKUAT is no child’s play. In his hands Odari is holding a carton that when he opens to my curiosity, reveals what I can only describe as a consortium of endless connections of cables, metals and several other engineering paraphernalia. You can clearly see it has taken serious effort to piece together. He tells me this is his final year project, and he’s doing it alone, which makes the workload much more. I don’t think I caught the entire explanation about what the project does but I recall him saying it’s a library robot system that would be able to automatically sort and arrange books in libraries. In two and half weeks’ time, Odari Gerald will be penning off his Bachelors Degree in Electrical and Electronic Engineering.
But I’m not here to talk Engineering. I’m here to talk Photography. Of the five years he has been in University, Odari has professionally practiced photography alongside his Engineering course and has used the proceeds to cater for his upkeep and even pay his school fees. For many people Odari Gerald needs no introduction. His work speaks not only for itself but also for him. But how exactly has he made it this far, and what does it take to successfully balance academics and a business venture?
When did you get into photography as a business venture?
I have always loved photography and it never really started as a business, but a hobby. It still is, except I’m earning a living from it. However the turning point was back three years ago when we’d gone camping in Mount Kenya. I had this point and shoot camera which I had saved some money and bought, but during the hike I interacted with a guy called Robert who had a more professional camera, a DSLR to be precise. When I made a comparison I loved the quality of his pictures and I knew I had to get a better camera. At that time I was already involved in another business, running an online shop for electronics such as mobile phones, laptops but then Jumia had just come into the market and was ruining everything for small scale folks like us. So after that hike I used the money I had saved from the electronic business and bought a camera, a Nikon D53 for sixty thousand shillings and decided to professionally give photography a try.
How did you get into the business without professional training in photography?
When I made a decision to do photography as a business I knew I had to go an extra mile, so actually what I did was watch a lot of photography tutorials on YouTube, especially by some of the world’s best photographers. This would be followed by extensive practice and free photo shoots to perfect my art. But then learning is a continuous process and I learn a new skill every day.
Apart from the first camera you acquired, how did you get other equipment to professionally practice photography?
I didn’t have much, and at this point I have to say it’s very good to have friends who can see, believe in your vision and empower you. I got a lot of support from friends, among them one Javis Otieno, a classmate who really inspired me and even complemented me financially to acquire more equipment that could help in executing quality shoots. So I managed to get extra lenses, microphones, a reflector, a tripod, extra batteries, memory cards and lighting.
Generally what was the motivation for venturing into a business while in campus? What financial need did you want to meet?
In my second year I just decided I did not want to depend on my mum anymore for all the requirements for my upkeep. Having been a government-sponsored student, my school fees was not much, but I wanted to depend on myself when it came to my upkeep and even payment of my rent because I moved out of the University hostels to go live outside. I realized I could actually relieve my parents of some of the financial obligations, and so I decided business. So far since that second year I’ve managed to cater for myself, including paying my school fees.
Over the years how have you managed to market your photography services and capture your market?
Mostly it has been through referrals as well as social media marketing, especially on Facebook and Instagram. My biggest marketing tool however has been referrals, especially from people I’ve worked with or clients I have served. I have also done a couple of free shoots, which have further enabled me to publicize my work and extend my market reach.
Professionally you’re studying Engineering. Someone would wonder how and why an engineer is doing photography. What is your response to such?
My response is simple; The heart wants what it wants. You don’t have to be fixed on one thing simply because it’s your area of study. Never lay your eggs in one basket. I like Engineering, and I love the challenges that come with it. That’s the very reason I chose to pursue it. But I’m not limited to just that. I’m passionate about photography too, it’s a hobby. I’ll therefore continue to practice them side by side. Most of the times I switch to photography to relax my mind, especially when I take a break from Engineering, except at the same time it relaxes my financial stress.
So far how have you managed to balance your business and the demanding academic requirements?
I have to admit it has not been easy, especially when I started doing business. At some point it negatively impacted on my academics, but I got to master the art of time management. At times I’ve had to sacrifice some photography assignments to work on my academics but never the other way round. So I can say it’s all about time management and seriously focusing on whatever you’re doing at any particular time.
What aspect of photography do you specialize in currently?
Portraits and fashion photography has been a dominant area of late, but this has especially been the case because I’ve been doing a lot of shoots for models. I do many other photography, including landscape, general events, wedding among others.
Apart from the financial benefits, how has the photography business impacted on your life?
I have gotten the opportunity to work in several platforms and apart from the individual shoots, I’ve worked with various organizations such as Kaymu, The Blend Club in Thika where I shoot weekly, I’ve worked with Icon Photography, Koroga Festival, and even the JKUAT Tech Expo last year. I can say all these, among many others have really made enabled me to socialize and interact with many people and that has been a plus to me.
From your entrepreneurial ventures, what have you learnt when it comes to money management and what advice can you give to others?
First lesson is that you should not spend more than you earn. Everyone needs to live within their means. Surround yourself with friends who empower you, and learn to say no to peer pressure in matters relating to financial expenditure. Don’t just spend on something to look ‘cool’. I’ve also learnt a very important lesson, that money is not everything. Sometimes you should be able to do something that will touch somebody’s life and expect nothing in return. It’s the greatest gift to humanity.
Would you say the JKUAT environment has been conducive for you to practice your business?
Definitely yes, actually literally speaking, the JKUAT natural environment is generally photo-friendly. But again the administration has presented no challenge so far when it comes to practicing my photography business or any other entrepreneurial ventures for that matter, as long as it’s legal. The students have been my biggest asset so far. I can’t possibly mention all of them, but they have supported me through marketing, referrals and even hiring my services among many others. I’m very grateful.
What plans do you have with photography after Campus?
I plan to register a company and work on my website in order to enhance my brand and image in photography. I also plan to train and even employ more photographers to work with me. All these will happen alongside my Engineering practice.
What would you say to students who prefer their comfort zones of financial dependence to engaging in income-generating ventures?
The basic reason why you’re in a University is to be able to make money, that’s what it all boils down to. It therefore should start here. You’re an adult, you don’t have to depend on your parents for your upkeep and every financial need, even airtime maze! I believe for a better society, we the youth have to get out of our comfort zones and create income-generating opportunities rather than wait for them.
Are you a student entrepreneur who is doing an income-generating initiative alongside your studies or do you know of anyone who can fit the bill? Kindly get in touch with us (The JKUAT Social Media & Customer Relations Department) and let us tell your story. Send us an email through email@example.com or directly contact the Editor through firstname.lastname@example.org or +254702899139.