Outstanding environmental photography just earned me a date with royalty

A second-hand camera and a thirsty little boy drinking from a muddy puddle in a rural village, more than 400 kilometres west of the capital city of Nairobi, shaped the career trajectory of  Dharshie Wissah as a photographer.

In 2019, Wissah heard about the Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management (Ciwem) Environmental Photographer of the Year Award.

Then he remembered a photo of a little boy, which he had shot two years earlier, saved somewhere on his laptop.

At the time, he was visiting his grandmother, camera in hand, to show the devastation of deforestation on a once lush forested landscape, when he spotted the boy of about five years kneeling to drink water from a dirty puddle of water. And as he ran to stop him, the iconic photograph came to life.

That single photo transformed him into a world-renowned photographer. He bagged the prestigious award in the category of Water, Equality and Sustainability that was presented at the United Nations (UN) Climate Summit in New York.

Today, his works have been featured on global publications such as Forbes, National Geographic, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Sun, among others.

“The win opened many doors for me. Perhaps, there would be no Dharshie today without it,” he says.

Before he ventured into photography, Wissah was in the university studying information technology. It’s on campus that he was introduced to acting by friends. He got small roles in various local productions, including Tabasamu, Mashtaka, among others.

One day, a well-known actress with whom he shared a set told him that he had no future in acting and was better off modelling. And although the words shattered him, he chose to listen.

In late 2016, after modelling for over five years, he decided to get behind the camera. He felt that he had outgrown modelling and was also intrigued by the camera. With the savings from the modelling jobs, he bought his first second-hand camera.

A year later in 2017, he participated in his first photography contest organised by China Road and Bridge Corporation, Kenya’s Ministry of Transport, and the Railways Authority.

Wissah was among 25 individuals shortlisted out of close to 800 local photographers who sought to tell descriptive stories of the Mombasa-Nairobi standard gauge railway construction. He won in the category of Best Locomotive Photo and The People’s Choice Award.

“It was a big surprise. I was still learning the ropes using instructional YouTube tutorials and had no idea that I would beat some very established photographers,” he recalls.

The win boosted his confidence in his capabilities and deepened his passion.

Wissah, who describes himself as an introvert, only leaves his house when he must: to go to the gym, meet with clients or to take photos. Aside from being an avid reader, he enjoys listening to music with favourite artists being Kenya’s Juliani and Tanzania’s Mbosso.

Last year, he was commissioned by Liverpool's Open Eye Gallery in partnership with the Kitale Museum to show the impact of climate change through its trees and the local landscape. His work is being exhibited at the museum and is expected to feature at the England-based gallery.

In 2021 and 2022, Wissah has featured as the only African in a panel of elite judges from across the world for the prestigious Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation Environmental Photography Award. He will travel with others to Monaco during the launch of the exhibition in the course of the year.

Following his Ciwem win, he was able to travel across East Africa, telling stories of climate change, insecurity, sanitation, female genital mutilation, water and food shortages among others through his camera lenses.

But his journey has not been devoid of challenges. He says photography is an expensive venture.
“A good camera costs as much as Sh800,000. Aside from that expense, I constantly worry about the security of my equipment when I’m out in the field,” he says.

And then there’s the unedning theft of copyright works. “You can imagine being out in the cold for days or in the middle of nowhere, with just the sound of gunshots, only for someone steal your work.”

For anyone who wants to venture into photography, he advises that they must have patience, consistency and invest in their trade.

In the future, he plans to hold free exhibitions of his works in various parts of the country and across the globe. This, he believes, will create more awareness on environmental photography while inspiring others.

“Some people say that everyone in Nairobi is a photographer, which is not far from the truth. To stand out you must establish a niche which is driven by your passion,” he concludes.