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The Mentalyst, Africa's visual orator

Published on 09 November 2018

With 21,000 followers on Instagram, the main tool of influence for African artists, 28-year-old Trevor Maingi—travel photographer and urban explorer extraordinaire—is the face of Kenya’s new creative generation.

To understand how influential Trevor Maingi has become, look at the brands that use his images: Airbnb, Adobe, Shutterstock, LandRover Africa, FourPoints, Samsung, Huawei, Guiness and Smirnoff. But he’s more than just a commercial photographer, he’s a major player in Nairobi’s art scene, the one they call “The Mentalyst”, who—like other NuNairobi artists such as Ed Wainaina and Osborne Macharia—represents his country through his work. My Chic Africa caught up with him.

Where does the nickname “The Mentalyst” come from, and what’s the message behind it?

When I was looking for a name for my social network pages, I was a big fan of the TV series The Mentalist. I loved the way Simon Baker thought out of the box, so I thought it would be a good way to promote original thinking. There’s no other message behind it.

You started your career by taking photos with your mobile phone. Why a smartphone? And what did it teach you?

When I first got into photography, it was just a hobby, so I didn’t want to invest in an expensive camera. It may sound simplistic, but learning like this taught me to create without being dependant on multiple appliances.

You quickly built up a community on Instagram. What does this network mean to professional photographers today?

Instagram quite simply changed the way things worked, because it allows you to impact your followers and your clients every single day. Much of my work goes on Instagram. Creativity wise, it’s a way for me to both inspire my friends and the people I don’t know, and get inspired. It’s a platform where your art makes you lots of e-friends.

You describe yourself as a visual orator. In our image-focused society, can photography help us to narrate the world we live in?

Yes and no. I think of myself as a storyteller and my medium is photography. For example, the Africa I like to ‘talk about’ can only be understood through an image. Putting words onto it wouldn’t do it justice, because the continent brims with hidden, indescribable pearls. The role of a visual orator is to pay homage to nature’s beauty by transcribing it magic in the most organic way possible.

How would you define your work? And are you on a mission to show another side of Africa?

I don’t strive to give my work a style. Being versatile isn’t always looked upon kindly in photography, but for me, it allows me to shoot what my eye sees, without asking whether it suits any aesthetic guidelines I’ve set myself. I like being spontaneous, shooting things as they are, without make-up. Though, of course, as a travel photographer and urban explorer, people know me for a type of photography. And yes, I want to my art to shine light on Africa, to show what has not yet been shown. Working with brands is also a good way to this.