Magnum X Edgelands Nairobi

The third episode of the Magnum X Edgelands program featured the South African photographer Lindokuhle Sobekwa, who was invited by the Edgelands Institute to explore surveillance in Nairobi, Kenya. In Nairobi, where Huawei's CCTV cameras line every street, the city grapples with high levels of crime. In response to a terrorism crisis in 2014, Huawei, a Chinese tech giant, stepped in to implement a digitized surveillance system. This initiative, a collaboration between Huawei and Kenya's top telecom company, Safaricom, resulted in the Integrated Urban Surveillance System. Nairobi became the location for Huawei's inaugural "Safe City" project in Africa. With over 2,000 CCTV cameras installed across the city, all interconnected and transmitting data to Kenya's National Police Headquarters, Sobekwa captured Nairobi's surveillance landscape. Through his lens, Sobekwa aimed to provide insights into the history of surveillance, tracing its roots back to the advent of photography.

According to research conducted by the associates of the Edgelands Institute in Nairobi, there is scant evidence to suggest a correlation between the implementation of surveillance technology and a reduction in crime rates in Kenya. Conversely, a notable factor contributing to the surge in criminal activities is unemployment. This sentiment is echoed by Lindokuhle Sobekwa during his interview with the Edgelands Institute. Moreover, our report highlights that due to the lack of transparency surrounding surveillance measures, citizens' trust in the state has significantly eroded.

During his interview with the Edgelands Institute, Lindokuhle Sobekwa delves into his creative process within the project, offering insights into his approach.

Collaborating with a group of students at the Ojukwu Art Center in Kenya, Lindokuhle Sobekwa conducted an experiment using a camera obscura, one of the earliest optical mechanisms devised to capture images. Through this project, the photographer draws parallels between the historical development of photography and the evolution of surveillance, prompting reflection on how the advent of cameras in the past has facilitated the construction of sophisticated surveillance systems in the present. He highlights that his camera obscura, ingeniously constructed within a box on the street, served as yet another means of surveillance for individuals to engage with. Many of the images captured by Lindokuhle Sobekwa through the camera obscura were focused on specific areas, delineating a distinct circle of clarity around their perimeters.

Photo: Lindokuhle Sobekwa

Photo: Lindokuhle Sobekwa

Photo: Lindokuhle Sobekwa

Photo: Lindokuhle Sobekwa

The blurred and fragmented imagery produced by Sobekwa serves as a poignant reminder that the inner workings of surveillance systems are often shrouded in ambiguity. The distortions captured through the camera obscura parallel the skewed narratives that can arise from observing others under surveillance, highlighting the complexities and uncertainties inherent in such practices.

While exploring themes of surveillance in Kenya, Lindokuhle Sobekwa strategically navigated the city's surveillance policies by exercising caution with his photographic activities, thus evading public exposure. Despite the camera obscura serving as an additional surveillance tool for street dwellers, it also provided Sobekwa with a means to pursue his art discreetly. This tactic is particularly pertinent given Sobekwa's explanation in his interview regarding the legal protections in Kenya against being photographed by photojournalists without consent.

To delve deeper into the Magnum X Edgelands Nairobi project, consider reading the Coda Story.

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