My name is Kieffer Edgar, but I work under the name Shawn Kieffer. My African story, and the story of my life, is full of complex and beautiful moments. In my career as a professional photographer, I devote myself to capturing these moments of complex beauty, frame by frame.
My own story begins with that of my parents – My parents met after my mom had just finished high school in Dar es salaam and they got married 5 years later. The funny thing is that my dad’s older brother married my mom’s older sister – that’s actually how they met. Some people claim that this was an arranged marriage. In all honesty, I am not sure how much truth there is to this and in the end all that matters to me is that this marriage is the reason I now exist. My father, Edgar Lutofyo is a medical engineer and my mother Tamaly Edgar works in Dar es Salaam Disability hospital.
Each of my parents are observant people who, throughout my life, have been able to glean the simple, essential truths from their own experiences and pass them on to me in the form of wisdom. It would be impossible to recount all of the lessons I’ve inherited from my parents, as they have been, without a doubt, the sturdiest and most consistent guiding forces in my life.
As I’ve grown into adulthood, however, I’ve come to especially appreciate the way my parents taught me to value simplicity, as well as how to carefully observe my life, in order to choose the right goal at the right time. These are the teachings that have helped me embrace a life of balance, freedom, joy and self-determination.
Of course, this does not mean that my family has always agreed with the goals I’ve set for myself, or that they didn’t have their own ideas of what path should be pursued. When, at first, I told my parents that I believed photography was the ideal way for me to explore and share my creativity with the world, they were not very pleased, nor were my two sisters. My mother and father wanted me to choose a more conventional career and one that would naturally garner respect from those around me. They wanted me to be an economist. It took three years of persistence, hard work and self-belief before I could make a name for myself as a professional photographer. By now, I am proud to say that I converted my hobby into a full-fledged career, and thankfully, my family shares this pride, and is able to celebrate my artistic accomplishments.
Personally speaking, the choice to become a photographer was a natural and necessary one. In many ways, my preoccupation with beauty gave me an alternative to the loneliness I experienced in school, and in the social environments outside of my family home. I grew up with a lot of dark thoughts, a lot of self-limiting ideas, a lot of subtle fears. Photography was the most powerful way for me to transform those fears and become the master of my own destiny. It was through reflecting upon, and ultimately capturing, images of beauty that I came to relish my sensitivities, my gifts and special abilities. Taking pictures was the means by which I converted my insecurities to courage, and my doubts into wisdom. As I think back upon it now, I realize that I was not a particularly ambitious child, but my passion for beauty was sincere, and I never truly lost connection with the desire to use my unique way of seeing the world in order to provide for myself, my family, and even my country.
At the age of 19, I left Dar es Salaam and traveled to Cape Town, South Africa, in order to expand my pursuit of a career in fashion photography. For me, Cape Town was a remarkable place; its nature, its light and its urban areas all made it an ideal place for a photographer. South Africa also gave me my first exposure to a climate that possessed four distinct seasons. The changing weather kept me on my toes, and instilled a sense of vitality in me, as each season carries its own rhythm, life force, and impact on social activities. Cape Town is also a unique melting pot–a meeting place of different cultures, races and ethnicities all working carefully and diligently toward unity. This diversity, when matched by the city’s ongoing effort to nurture a vibrant, ever-evolving arts scene made it a potent site of creativity and professional opportunity for me. My world expanded again a few years later, when, in 2016, I was fortunate enough to live in Germany for a short time. Germany possessed an entirely different spectrum of opportunities, not just professionally, but experientially. The sounds, smells and sights of the country–whether they were the aroma of freshly baked bread or the look and feel of cobblestone streets– were all new and exciting to me. I was only in Germany for three months, but in that time I was able to work Berlin Fashion Week and photograph Beyonce during her Formation World Tour.
All of my experiences abroad have taught me that, while I am an African man and a Tanzanian who truly adores the country of my birth, that beauty knows no borders. Beauty is essential and global in its nature. This is, perhaps, a lesson I could not have learned so deeply without the power of photography in my life. Photography makes me a passionate observer of the world; photographs are potent, reality-revealing things. This is why photography is an absolute necessity in my life. Photography helps to preserve life and bring us into connection with profound moments in time that we may have otherwise missed. A single photograph may survive generations and immortalize an important moment in a way that is unaltered by fickle human memory. A photograph is, ultimately, a small expression of truth, captured and framed. I love the ability of the art form to help things survive.
I am also aware, however, that no photo can tell the whole story; a photograph is always just a frame–a moment has passed– it cannot tell us what led to that moment, or what that moment developed into. So, a photographer bears a great responsibility not to knowingly deceive the viewer, or recklessly manipulate the truth within the frame. There is almost always more tension, power, motive and context surrounding a photograph than we can see within it. Therefore, a photo should always inspire the viewer to ask questions: we need to be aware of what the lens reveals, but also aware of what the lens necessarily withholds from view.
By understanding the power of this art form and devoting myself, in a sincere way, to uncovering beauty wherever I can find it, I hope to inspire people. I hope that by doing what I am good at, I can motivate others to explore their own gifts and passions, while asking necessary questions about their own lives. Beyond myself and the legacy of my own creative career, I have hopes for Tanzania. Chiefly, I wish for it to become a safer, friendlier country again. I believe we’ve lost some sense of community in this ultra-independent, hyper-individualist social era. If we were more connected and caring, if families were stronger, if we valued one another more, many of our widespread social issues would disappear.
In Tanzania, as in all of Africa, I’d like to see more honesty. I’d like to see that the riches of the continent are shared, and, along with this I’d love to see a strengthening of democracy, and an overall reconciliation between all of the different tribes, languages, and cultures that make Africa truly wealthy. I believe that only once this reconciliation is achieved can we unleash Africa’s great potential, while coming to terms with the complexities of its past and present, in order to pursue its future.
By – Shawn Kieffer – http://shawnkieffer.tumblr.com/