Profile:  Photographer KOJO KAMAU

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This month's profile features Columbus native Kojo Kamau, a nationally acclaimed photographer and one of our civic treasures. Kamau has exhibited his award-winning photographs throughout the Midwest and around the globe. To celebrate Kamau’s 70th birthday year in 2009, the Columbus Museum of Art presented Kojo: Fifty Years in Photography, a retrospective that included more than sixty photographs, both color and black and white, reflecting his five decades working in the medium. The exhibition addressed themes that run throughout his work such as community, travels, portraits of local and international artists and musicians, and political and social issues.  GCAC and the Columbus Arts Endowment have just announced that Kamau is the recipient of the prestigious Raymond J. Hanley award.  The $10,000 fellowship named in honor of GCAC's former longtime president, is given annually to an artist who has demonstrated an unusual level of achievement in their arts career. GCAC recently interviewed Kamau to get an insight into his career and creative process.

GCAC: Can you describe a moment or experience in your young life when you realized that photography was your calling?

Kojo Kamau: I realized I wanted to be a photographer shortly after high school. My Boy Scout Master always had a camera and was taking photos during our camping trips. I also had a camera and I earned my photography merit badge along with a few others. While at East High School, I took every art class available and fell in love with photography. It was neat and clean and you did not have to get dirty to create something.

GCAC: Who were your major influences in developing your career? What was the best advice they gave you?

KK: My Boy Scout Master, Tom Yates, suggested that I go to the Columbus Art School, now known as the Columbus College of Art and Design, to study photography before joining the Air Force. I was an information specialist, editor of the base newspaper and photographer in the Air Force. The best advice given to me was not about photography but about business, get the product to people when promised. I have always admired the work of Gordon Parks, James van der Zee, Walker Evans and Chester Higgins, Jr. Locally, George Pierce and Roosevelt Carter inspired me. Pierce had a studio on Mt Vernon Avenue and then Long Street. Carter was a freelance photographer and video cameraman for WBNS-TV.

GCAC: Why have you chosen to shoot most of your portraiture in black and white?

KK: I enjoy working with black and white photography. I am from the old school where we were taught that photographers paint with light. In the early days my photographs were published in newspapers and magazines which were printed in black and white. I have over 50 years experience shooting, processing and printing black and white photography. You do what you think you do best. I have always shot color negative film and transparences, never having complete control over the finished photograph. Now digital photography allows me the same creative control wether it is color or black and white.

GCAC: Can you share a favorite story or experience involving someone you photographed?

KK: I will always remember photographing Spike Lee and Gordon Parks. Lee was at an Ohio State University news conference and he spotted me taking photos. We made eye contact and he gave me a few seconds to take his photograph. I nodded my head to thank him and he responded with a nod also. Parks was at a book signing at the King Arts Complex and we made eye contact. He also gave me a few seconds and I got my photograph and a nod.

GCAC: When and why did you start documenting the urban landscape of Columbus and its neighborhoods? What do you hope your images depict about our city?

KK: I was a photography student in 1959 when I began documenting the landscape of Columbus. I was shy and not a people person, so I was attracted to places and things. Creating 35mm slide shows were popular then just as power point presentations are today. I created a slide show based on the history of Columbus from the telephone book.

My interest in documentary photography increased in the late 1960s after returning home from the Air Force. I had just suffered four years of culture shock, having never been south before. I saw the need for change. It does not happen by watching others work at it, everyone has to do their part. My contribution to change was to document what was going on in my community from a positive perspective. Having been educated in the Columbus Public School System in the 1950s, I knew less than a dozen African Americans in all the history books. We should not depend on others to document our history, we should document our own.

GCAC: You have worked hard throughout your life to share your knowledge and to serve as an inspiration and mentor to countless young artists. Can you share a particularly rewarding experience you’ve had as a mentor?

KK: I remember inviting Queen Brooks into the Kojo Photo Art Studio. She had come by a couple of times and looked through the window. I hired her as a photographer’s helper and later encouraged her to go back to school. She went back to school and earned her B.F.A. and M.F.A. from The Ohio State University. 

GCAC: You’ve documented so many beautiful people and cultural scenes from your travels around the world. What do you hope you will accomplish by sharing these images with people at home (Columbus) and elsewhere?

KK: History is important to me and I often incorporate it in my photographs. We must not forget the lessons learned from history. Lifestyles from around the world and understanding different cultures have always fascinated me. “Lifestyles of the African Diaspora” is an ongoing project of mine, not of travel photographs, but of photographs depicting the similarities of lifestyles in America and the world. Educating, dispelling myths and enlightening people through photography as an art form has always been my interest.

GCAC: Where do you see your work going next?

KK: Always remember what you do today is tomorrow’s history.

Image of Kojo Kamau by Larry Hamill.

To learn more about Kojo Kamau, visit his profile in the Artist Directory, or his website at  Are you an individual artist, musician or part of an artist collective?  Be sure to sign up for your free profile in the Artist Directory today!

Image: Work by Columbus artisans, courtesy of Ohio Craft Museum

Call for Show Proposals - NX Gallery @ CS
Presented by: Cobenick Studios
Through January 10, 2013

Donald Moffett' Exhibiton: The Radiant Future and Mr. Gay in the U.S.A.
Presented by: Columbus College of Art & Design 
Through January 11, 2013

Creature from the Black Lagoon
Presented by: Wexner Center for the Arts
January 3, 2013 — January 5, 2013

PoP Goes the DaRkroom
Presented by: Clayspace/Gallery 831
January 4, 2013 — February 1, 2013

PNC Arts Alive Presents Cleopatra
Presented by: Columbus Dance Theatre
January 18, 2013 — January 19, 2013

Suite Rosa - John Clayton World Premiere
Presented by: Columbus Jazz Orchestra
January 25 & 26, 2013

Art Studio Clearance Sale
Presented by: Ohio Designer Craftsmen
January 26, 2013 — January 27, 2013