Boniface Mwangi's first camera was an old Japanese film model, bought with $220 borrowed from a friend. He'd been selling books at his mother's roadside stall in Nairobi since he was 15. Then one day in 2003 he came across a biography of Kenyan photographer Mohamed Amin, whose pictures of the 1984 Ethiopian famine, the book implied, led to Band Aid, Live Aid and a new era of global humanitarianism. "That book opened a new world for me," says Mwangi. "Here was another high school dropout who went on to conquer the world using his camera." Mwangi set out to do the same. Within months his photographs were being published in Kenya, and within a year he had won a national award for Best New Photographer. His inches-close pictures of the tribal bloodletting that followed a disputed 2007 general-election result in Kenya earned him a slew of awards and a grant from the New York City--based Magnum Foundation.
For many, the story of the street hawker who became a world-class photographer seemed to epitomize the notion of an emerging Africa: a giant continent awakening from poverty and disaster, now bursting with hope and opportunity.
Then Mwangi quit. He was haunted by the idea that his success was built on his country's turmoil. He wouldn't, couldn't go on photographing the politicians he heard promise Kenyans a new dawn, only to rob them, ignore them and then, come an election, allow violence to break out. Whatever the cost to his career, the price his country was paying for that kind of execrable leadership--which led to more than 1,000 murders during the 2007--08 election crisis, along with the theft of billions of dollars from the state--was far greater. "We didn't vote for these guys for them to screw us," he says.
So in 2011, Mwangi formed a group of street artists, with whom he began staging guerrilla art attacks across Nairobi. Aerosol stencils of vultures began to appear on sidewalks and road crossings. Then more-elaborate murals appeared--of vultures urinating and wiping their backsides on the Kenyan flag. One February night, Mwangi's group painted a 40-ft. tableau on a downtown wall, depicting a smirking, suited vulture sitting next to a list of what the artists saw as Kenyan politicians' crimes since independence. "MPs--screwing Kenyans since 1963," read the caption. "Africa is rising," says Mwangi, now 29. "But there's also a lot of anger. There's trouble ahead."