Creating change through photography: In conversation with John Wambugu

4 min
On the right, John Wambugu of MindMe International is surrounded by the children who use the Laibu Mtaani.

John Wambugu’s love of photography goes beyond taking pictures and making films. He’s using it as a means to fund education, create jobs and change lives.

When John Wambugu arrived to photograph an immunisation drive in Baringo County, Kenya, he was immediately shocked by the devastation that met him.

A graduate in Business Studies and Development Communication, as well as film school, he was in the country with UNICEF for a photoshoot. His life changed forever the moment he reached Lake Baringo, which had burst its banks and flooded the area – leaving its population completely disrupted as a result.

“A whole village and a school had been submerged,” he recalls. “And there I was, taking pictures and trying to get a smile from them in such a tough moment.”

Inspired, at the same time, by the cause of the organisation he was with and by the extreme poverty that surrounded him, John saw an opportunity to make a tangible difference there. So he began an incredible humanitarian journey in the area that has spanned an entire decade.

“I told myself there and then that I’d experienced the worst and the best of the humanitarian world through the camera,” he says.

Laying the groundwork with Canon’s Miraisha programme

The first of John’s work was to create a non-profit organisation aimed at empowering communities for sustainable development, called MindMe International. Then, he moved on to apply for Canon’s Miraisha programme and get training under the tutelage of Canon Ambassador, Gary Knight.

“Canon is a brand that I’ve loved since I could pick up a camera, so the Miraisha programme was a great learning opportunity for me,” he says. “And shortly after I started it, I found myself quickly progressing into the role of teacher as a Canon Certified Trainer.”

The camera is not just for holding. It has to embody who you are and what you feel as a person.”

That qualification took him across Africa, leading him to share what he had learnt with other future trainers as the programme rolled out country after country. “I realised I could use my new platform to talk to the youth about the UN Sustainable Development Goals, why it’s important to embrace them, and to take responsibility for what was happening within their communities using the power of the camera,” says John.

“The camera is not just for holding. It has to embody who you are and what you feel as a person. Because, at the end of the day, it is feelings – sadness, joy, excitement – that come together and can be seen and expressed in one photograph.”

A new Laibu Mtaani in Nairobi

The Miraisha programme was a crucial stepping stone for John and his career – allowing him to open a shop selling Canon products and to use part of its earnings to further fund MindMe International.

But that was just the start of his work in Africa. His continental travels led him to the informal settlements of Mathare in Nairobi, an area home to some half a million people and an estimated 70,000 children.

“Most of these children don’t attend school and as a result fall into criminality at a very young age,” he says. “After school, I often saw them go to a one room house – that has a family of six or seven with one bed – and sit on the floor to do their homework.”

The desire to be educated was there and he felt strongly that, as someone who had already benefited from an education, he had a responsibility to help.

“So, from the early days of my assignments, I started saving 20% of my income and pouring it back into these communities. I still do it to this day.”

That 20% translated into $6,000 that John used to bring to Mathare its very first ‘Laibu Mtaani’, or Community Library: a space where local kids and students come together and access books, tablets and the internet.

A dusty plot of land with a derelict building. On the left is a woman walking towards a washing line.

Before: The space that was to become Mathare’s Laibu Mtaani.

Young people around a building that has the sign ‘community library’ on the front. They are gardening and there is a person on the roof of the building.

After: The community came together to support the project.

Transforming the area for future generations

John recalls the initial challenges of getting his Laibu Mtaani project up and running. “Mathare is a place that has no electricity infrastructure and extremely high levels of crime,” he says. “In the slums, when it gets to 7pm, you can see light, but you cannot see with it because it’s all illegal connections.”

He found the answer in solar panels, which he managed to install with help from a team of young men who had taken the project under their wing. “The community shapes the project,” says John. “It was one of the most dangerous places in the slums, so I met a group of young men who were willing to reform from crime and I told them, ‘You can be something. You can be responsible for kids in your community and transform this whole space.’”

Their custodianship has since seen crime rates drop in the area, giving Mathare’s children much-needed access to the Laibu Mtaani after school to do their homework. As a result, some of them are achieving scholarships to the country’s national schools.

“We’ve also been able to help some girls get back to school after dropping out due to teenage pregnancy,” shares John. “We’ve bought toys for their children, allowing the mothers to come and concentrate on their books.”

Around ten people sit on chairs with their backs to the camera, facing at tutor at the front of the room. On either side of the tutor are two banners – one for MindMe International, the other for Canon.

The Laibu Mtaani is a resource for children and young people of all ages who use the space to study and learn.

A small boy sits at a desk reading. Other children behind him do the same.

Organisations like Canon visit the community library to deliver valuable skills training.

What I can tell you for sure is that everything starts with the small step of minding someone else. Trying to make a small change that will become one big thing.”

More recently, the Laibu Mtaani has started to welcome organisations like Canon and its Miraisha workshops – creating new opportunities to help young people gain new skills and train in photography, videography, filmmaking and professional print.

It’s a community development model that John wants to take to marginalised communities across the 47 counties of Kenya. One that he’s looking to achieve using solar-powered refabricated shipping containers, but also expanding beyond Kenya to Nigeria, Ghana, South Sudan and India.

And while John is no longer working at his photography store, his journey with Canon continues. He is now leading the brand’s Professional Imaging team in East Africa while still contributing to the work of MindMe International, which played a particularly important role in feeding communities during the Covid 19 pandemic.

“That, to me, is the power of the camera,” he says. “I’m not an 80-year-old who has seen everything, but what I can tell you for sure is that everything starts with the small step of minding someone else. Trying to make a small change that will become one big thing.”

Laibu Mtaani (Community Libraries) Story

John, MindMe International and the Laibu Mtaani project have been recognised by distinguished organisations and bodies, including a WHDO United Nations SDGs Community Service Award and the Youth United Nations SDGs Goodwill Advocate. John was also a 2021 nominee at the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders list.

Discover all about Canon’s Miraisha Programme