Interview: Jimmy Adriko on his 27 years of photojournalism

Last year, New Vision photo editor Jimmy Adriko resigned. Adriko, who joined the paper in 1991 as a photographer, spoke to ACME about his 27-year photojournalism journey.

What inspired your decision to pursue photography as a career?

Money. While in secondary school, I discovered I could make money by taking photos at a fee for fellow students and at school functions. During holidays, I would work at the only photo studio in Arua called AG Photo owned by a relative. I continued with the business when I joined Makerere University in 1985 where I later graduated with Bachelor of Arts in Fine Art. I started by photographing the students who came from West Nile because they already knew me. Then I moved on to get more clients at the School of Fine Art. After graduation, I got a job as chief designer at Associated Paper Industries in Jinja. My job was to design logos to be printed on paper bags and follow up on the printing too. While in Jinja, I continued with my photography among the West Nile community there. I took photos at baptism, marriage and other functions. My salary was Shs14,000 but I earned more from photography.

How was it like starting out; did it get better?

While at Associated Paper Industries, I saw an advert in the New Vision newspaper seeking to recruit a photographer with a background in Fine Art and knowledge of dark room photo processing. I had both requirements. I had learnt film processing in dark rooms while working in AG Studio during my secondary school.  I turned out to be the best candidate and that is how my photojournalism journey began.

I resigned from Jinja factory and moved to Kampala. My salary increased from Shs14,000 to Shs21,000.

Due to my love for adventure and sports, I took to sports and war sections. I covered sports activities in Kenya, war in Rwanda, South Sudan, DR Congo and Northern Uganda. I remember after seeing many bodies in Rwanda, I returned to Kampala and took my equipment to office and went to Arua for a break. During that time, I took close to one month without eating beef. The stench of decomposing bodies kept coming back to me.

Jimmy Adriko (Second Right) and other journalists with ROF Chairman Alexis Kanyarengwe (Centre) in Mulindi-Rwanda during coverage of the 1994 Rwanda war. Courtesy Photo.

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What should a young graduate keen on a photojournalism career be aware of; what should they bear in mind?

They should get ready to face fire but also remember to have fun. Photojournalism, unlike writing, is about being at the scene. You have to be ready for difficult situations, for instance funerals where people are mourning and yet you have to take pictures; near death situations such as wars and riots where tear gas is a normal occurrence. But there is also the lighter side; parties, music shows, sports, etc.  So it is a mix of fun and fire that requires courage, adventure and ability to manage peoples’ emotions while pointing a camera at them. One moment you are with the rich and powerful and the next you are with the poorest people in society.

Does photojournalism pay?

Photojournalism pays but the cost of starting can be high. The cost of equipment (a good camera and lenses cost about Shs3 million) can easily put you off your career path. However, when you get your equipment, the right contacts and good market for your photos, you can make money. You can earn up to $500 or more for a picture if you are at the right place at the right time. There is always need for news photos for online, print, magazines etc. It’s a question of how a photojournalist can market his/her work that must be good content and quality.

 What are Uganda’s photojournalists getting wrong and right?

Many Ugandan photojournalists get it right but most lack creativity and courage. They prefer conference settings which limits their creativity. They avoid getting into situations that put them in the line of fire. It could be because of lack of the right protective gear for covering such situations.

Which photojournalist did/do you look up to, here and elsewhere?

There are two great photojournalists who inspired me. First was a South African-based journalist called Juda Ngwenya (RIP). He worked for Reuters. He covered everything from nature, riot, sports, name it. He had access to Nelson Mandela events all the time. Then there was Corrine Dufka a female photojournalist who was chief photographer for Reuters, East Africa. She was courageous. We met in war zones. She was fast and creative. I admired her work a lot. Juda and Corrine became my personal friends.

 What was your first professional photo about and which photo made an unexpected impact/got the most feedback/response?

My first professional photo when I joined New Vision in February 1991 was a picture of President Museveni addressing lecturers at Kyambogo Polytechnic Main Hall. It was used on the front page. But the photos that had an unexpected impact were taken on 9 October 1993 at Kololo Independence Grounds. It was Independence Day and President Museveni was the chief guest. At the time, there was a big wrangle over Muslim leadership in Uganda between the Old Kampala-based mufti and Kibuli-based mufti. Both were invited to the event.  When it came to time for opening prayers to be said, the two rivals got up from their seats and both headed for the microphone.  I realised this could be a good picture opportunity so I started taking photos as they moved to the microphone. The two leaders started shoving each other at the microphone stand.  One was pushed and raised his leg to get balance. I was the only photojournalist who captured these moments.

The second photo was a few minutes earlier when the President arrived and was saluting the guard of honour.  A man in civilian clothes walked from the crowd and stood next to the President and also started saluting. This caught my attention and I took several photos. As the President started walking to inspect the parade, the man continued walking alongside him. This went on for about five to seven minutes before the President’s body guard called soldiers who whisked the man away. The two photos were published in the New Vision and they were the talk of town for more than a month.

How has photojournalism changed with the changes in technology? (Mobile cameras, citizen journalists, stories being broken online first, etc.)

Technology has made photo journalism easier and better. I remember during coverage of wars in northern Uganda and Rwanda, reporters would fax their stories at the end of the day’s happenings. But photojournalists had to find buses or taxis to send their films to Kampala. These would be delivered the following day. The photos would be published a day or two after the story had run. It would still be exciting. Then came a time when we got the first digital camera in Ugandan media. It was called Sony Mavica. It would record images three of four photos on a floppy disk. It cut the process of taking film to the dark room although you still had to deliver the disk physically.

That did not last long before the advent of emails which made it easier to move the photos from floppy disk to newsrooms. Then better digital cameras came to the market and the process got even easier. Emails became faster and also able to transfer heavy digital photo files. Then came smart phones with cameras; our work became easier. Citizens also joined in sending images to newsroom and eventually social media. Within a decade, things changed and life became easier for photojournalists.

How has the role of photo editor changed considering how Vision Group has evolved?

When I joined New Vision in 1991, photojournalists and reporters all submitted their work to the news editor. Later when I went to study photojournalism at Missouri University in USA, I discovered newsrooms operated differently. They had a fully-fledged photo desk. In Kansas City, Star Newspaper then, the photo desk was a completely independent unit headed by a managing director. I returned and made a report. Following my report, management at New Vision created a photo desk headed by Ben Ochan as photo editor. A few years later, he resigned and I was made the photo editor. There were few photojournalists then. With good strategies and good pay for photos at the New Vision, the number of photojournalists increased.

We then introduced the camera loan scheme for good freelance photojournalists across the country. This was to help them acquire cameras for good quality photos. New Vision would import the cameras, allocate them to photojournalists then recover the cost from their contributions over a period of four years. It was a win-win situation for the company and the photojournalists. The number of female photojournalist also rose. The desk became bigger. Then another position of photo editor was created at the Bukedde to cater for the more than 20 photojournalists. We also created a Sports photo desk to cater for sports photographers and a regional desk for photographers and writers operating in various regions. Photo operations further became bigger as magazines were introduced. By the time I retired, Vision Group had eight staff photographers and close to 100 freelance photojournalists in Kampala and other regions. Sixty per cent of them are female.

What next for you?

My next destination is an interesting one. It’s a mix of activities. Photojournalism is first on the agenda, documentary photography, photography training and consultancy with organisations and institutions, then goat rearing, farming and embroidery business.

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