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AWAKE by Jonathan May

Jonathan May’s “Stanford” placed first in the Head On Portrait Prize 2013. A wider selection from May’s “AWAKE” series, as well as some work from his “Thika” series, is now showing at The Queen Street Gallery with an official opening tonight on May 22 as part of the Head On Photo Festival. Here, May shares the story behind his award-winning image.

In 2007 Kenya experienced its darkest hour. Tribal tension erupted after apparent rigged elections, with violence and chaos consuming the country. Over 1,600 people were killed, while over 660,000 were forced from their homes and made to live in internally displace peoples camp (IDP) or else suffer the same brutal fate.

Stanford and his family lived in a village on the fertile land of Narok. In the middle of the night they were given 5 minutes to pack their belongings and leave their home forever, before their village was burnt to the ground.

Prior to the incident Stanford has been diagnosed with a rare skin condition that made him highly sensitive to the sun, but was fairly healthy, due to his ability to remain out of the elements. Things changed at the IDP camp, when Stanford was forced to live in a small white clear tent, in a barren field without many trees for shade. His condition quickly deteriorated.

Five years later there is a new president, but for many life in the camp remains as challenging as ever. Stanford now has no sight and struggles to breathe out of his nose, and corrective surgery is way beyond his mother’s reach. However, In the face of all the adversity he has remained hopeful for his future. He plans to be a gospel singer. He has always been drawn to music and can often be heard singing in English, Swahili and Kikuyu.

I have actually opened a non-profit organisation in Nairobi called Empowering Blind Youth.

Empowering Blind Youth seeks to give blind and visually impaired children of Kenya confidence to fulfill their potential by providing the opportunity of education and teaching modern skills to help them successfully integrate into society as adults.

Stanford is the first child that is receiving help, as he requires a couple of surgeries and continued education. The “AWAKE” exhibition I am having will be to raise money for him, and to find sponsors for other children in need.

I was driving along the Rift Valley highway about 3 hours from Nairobi when I looked up to my right and saw an old shack on the hill, and a voice in my head told me I must stop. I ran up the hill and was about to start taking photos of the old hut in the distance, when a group of kids approached and enthusiastically wanted to be photographed. The striking girl in her Sunday best dress stood out from the crowd, and it wasn’t just because she was holding a huge machete. I was instantly drawn to the contrast and clash of masculine and feminine polarities within her. She has a very masculine edge with the machete, shaved head and work boots. And yet this is contrasted and complemented by her soft feminine side – her beautiful vintage dress, her delicate pose and her innocent face.

Ahmed served in the Mauritanian army for over 18 years and reached the rank of corporal before he decided that he wanted to open his own tourism company. Business was doing well and he had many regular French tourists flocking over to visit Chenguetti. Chinguetti, established in the 13th century as a trans-Saharan trade route is considered to be the 7th holiest city of Islam. Sunni pilgrims en route to Mecca gathered here annually to trade, gossip, and say their prayers in the mosque built from stone. Al-Qaida extremists have kidnapped over 140 tourists in Mauritania over the last few years and it has halted tourism almost to a stop, and Ahmed now questions his career choices. We spent 6 days with Ahmed, driving over 3500km around his incredible country with the fear of kidnapping always in the back of my mind. Ahmed was one of the best guides I have experienced, his knowledge of his country was impeccable, but it is just a shame that his services and skills and no longer in demand.



Jericho is a suburb in Nairobi that you wouldn’t dare walk the streets as a foreigner. Having lived in Nairobi for the last 6 months it was a place that I visited frequently, but only to practice Jujitsu and Kenpo Karate. I always made sure I drove and I wasn’t there after dark. The man in the image is a 6th degree black belt and this is his home gym that he calls “Jericho Fitness Club”, on a usual Saturday afternoon there is men from all over Jericho coming to lift some weights, talk about politics and eat BBQ goat in the sun.

Jonathan May’s “Awake” series, as well as some work from his “Thika” series will be showing at The Queen Street Gallery from 17th – 27th May 2013.

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Head On Photo Awards 2024

Entries to the Head On Photo Awards 2024 open in May/June.

Image detail: Gary Ramage