From covering the news, to making it: Why this photojournalist gave it all up

Photographer: One photo can define a moment
Photographer: One photo can define a moment

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Story highlights

  • Photographer turns activist in bid to help solve problems in Kenya
  • Group founded by Boniface Mwangi, a former award-winning photo-journalist
  • Through "artistic intervention" he tries to push citizens to take a stand against injustice

Nairobi, Kenya (CNN)Photographers are our eyes to the world. But often, the harsh reality of an unfiltered view from behind the camera lens can change a person forever.

That was certainly the case for award-winning photojournalist Boniface Mwangi, who gave up a flourishing commercial business to try and do something about the problems of his homeland, Kenya.
"With a photo, you can define a moment and change the conversation -- and that's why I became a photographer," says the 32-year-old.
    Earlier in his career he covered the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombing. Ten years later, the escalating ethnic violence that followed the disputed 2007 elections would motivate Mwangi to become an activist for social justice.
    His shots were picked up by international outlets and seen around the world. People were taking notice.

    Defining moment

    The horrors of what he'd seen left Mwangi awake at night, tossing and turning. When sleep did come, he suffered from memories of screams and the "smell of fear."
    "Covering that violence changed my life. I said 'No, I must do something to make sure this doesn't happen again."
    "I must speak out for the horrors we saw and hopefully we can learn from my pictures and my work. So I quit my job and created a traveling show across the country for peace."
    To cope with the nightmares, Mwangi decided to turn his pain into activism -- and he would use his passion of art as his greatest tool.
    In 2009, he founded Pawa254 -- an "artivism" hub based in Nairobi and today, leads a team of other concerned citizens fighting for social justice.
    The group work with creatives -- photographers, designers, musicians, filmmakers and more -- to highlight issues and drive for social change.
    For example, in 2012, Mwangi and a team of graffiti artists targeted Kenya's political elite by likening their nation's leaders to vultures in a bid to highlight corruption in the country.
    Graffiti artists target politicians
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    Beating and death threats

    But the work is not without its obstacles and transitioning from covering to creating news has put Mwangi at odds with the government.
    "It's about speaking truth to power. Saying this is the lying and this is the truth. I try to turn ordinary citizens through our work into courageous people, into active citizens who take a stand when things go wrong."
    He explains that he knows the truth can often leave a sour taste in the mouth and has been faced with death threats, beatings and arrests as a result. But he will always "go back to the streets."
    "I have been threatened, I've been beaten. I've been in police cells, I've been in jail, but I kept going on. There was a time I thought I was going to leave the country, and I was very afraid for my life.
    "Then I realized that if I leave, then I'll betray the cause because living does not make a difference. Living means that you're being a coward, and you have let fear take over."
    He adds: "I think dying for your country is one of the highest sacrifice, but I think living for this country is better."