The Indian-Kenyan Photojournalist Who Captured Africa’s Independence Movements

 © The Priya Ramrakha Foundation
© The Priya Ramrakha Foundation

Hidden unknown in a box in the corner of a basement in Nairobi lay prints and negatives of one of Africa’s most prolific photographers, Priya Ramrakha. They lay there undisturbed, a visual documentation of different moments in Africa’s anti-colonial and independence movements of the 1950s-60s and the civil rights struggle in the US. It was after almost four decades that Shravan Vidyarthi, a relative of Ramrakha’s, stumbled across this cardboard box and discovered a collection of Ramrakha’s previously unseen work that for years was thought to be lost to the world.

An Indian Kenyan, Ramrakha came from a family of journalists and started photographing the world around him from his teen years. His images of local politicians and leaders were spotted by Life magazine photographer Eliot Elisofon in an anti-colonial newspaper. Elisofon encouraged Ramrakha to take a course and study photography in the United States.

Layout from 'Priya Ramrakha' photo-book featuring a portrait of the photographer Source: Kickstarter

During his time at the Art Center College of Design in California, Ramrakha witnessed the growing civil rights movement around him and documented them through the lens. He rose to international fame as one of the first African photographers to be published in the highly reputed Time and Life magazines.

Whether there were popular or political figures, leaders or fights for liberation – for Ramrakha, they were more than just subjects of his work. From the anti-colonial Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, freedom fighters Jomo Kenyatta and Tom Mboya to Miriam Makeba, Dr Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Salvador Dali. He captured humanity and the situations unfolding around him as they were, unfiltered and unrestricted to publishing guidelines and the Western editorial standards.

Malcolm X and Nation of Islam, New York, 1962. Photographed by Priya Ramrakha. © The Priya Ramrakha Foundation

Going through all the archival materials, Vidyarthi made his documentary filmAfrican Lens: The Story of Priya Ramrakha’ which made its debut at the Zanzibar International Film Festival and received three awards. With Erin Haney, he spent years compiling Ramrakha’s archive of over 100,000 images from around the world.

John F Kennedy and Patricia Kennedy Lawford, Los Angeles, 1960. Photographed by Priya Ramrakha. © The Priya Ramrakha Foundation

The result, Priya Ramrakha, became the first book to present Ramrakha’s recovered work circa 1950-1968. With a foreword by Paul Theroux, essays and interviews with Morley Safer, Sana Aiyar, Erin Haney, John Edwin Mason, Drew Thompson and Vidyarthi himself, Priya Ramrakha is truly a collector’s item and a testament to an incredible man the world lost at the young age of 33 when he was caught in the crossfire while on assignment in Biafra, Nigeria in 1968.

You can buy the book here.

Salvador Dali, 1963. Photographed by Priya Ramrakha. © The Priya Ramrakha Foundation
Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr, Los Angeles, 1961. Photographed by Priya Ramrakha. © The Priya Ramrakha Foundation

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