“The Samburu” Captures the Heart of a Kenyan Community

By: Lyle Owerko, Freelance Photographer & Creative Director

The Samburu portrait series was shot to document the people The Thorn Tree Project supports through educational infrastructure and scholarship programs in northern Kenya. Inspired by the history of classic black and white portraits (by such outstanding talents as Richard Avedon), the goal was to capture and express the humanity of a people who were mostly being photographed for the first time in their lives. Many of the subjects said, “My grandchildren will remember me by this picture.” 

These portraits, which serve as a time capsule of an iconic people, were released in a book project to commemorate 20 years of Thorn Tree’s work in the Samburu community.  While working in conditions with no electricity, limited resources, and ample sunshine, a rudimentary portrait studio was set up using tree branches and scrims made by a local Kenyan tailor to create a unique environment to photograph in.  As a part of The Thorn Tree Project’s endeavors, literally hundreds of students have been sent to higher education and college and, in turn, brought prosperity back to their families and community.  This book project, coupled with a highly motivated charity, documented the soul of the community and their reach for a higher self in a fast-changing world.  

Producing this book involved the talents of the small design team of Lyle Owerko and Mark Sagato, as well as the logistical guidance of Gerald Govaerts, members such as Lori Lum, and the guiding eye of Jane Newman (the founder of The Thorn Tree Project). Under a tight timeframe, “Edition One” was selected to produce the book at their state-of-the-art digital printing press in Berkley, CA. 

This award from Graphis brings meaning to the project by showing that with bold determination, an unwavering belief in the creative process, and a strong social purpose, designers can deliver extremely high-end results. 

It’s “the idea,” “the content,” and “the heart” that delivered a frictionless creative environment to achieve a timeless artifact of support for a non-profit endeavor. For further information on the work of The Thorn Tree Project in Kenya, click here.

A groundbreaking documentarian photographer and artist, Lyle Owerko has published a substantial insight into a diverse range of subjects. His work has been featured on the cover of TIME magazine, with profiles on CBS Sunday Morning, NPR, The New York Times arts section, New York magazine, and The Washington Post. Often working with human rights organizations, such as Charity: Water and the United Nations Millennium Promise initiative, Lyle’s work frequently merges art with a social mission. Most notably, his contribution to urban history, “The Boombox Project,” began as a vivid chronicle of portable vintage stereos that quickly expanded into numerous books and media extensions. In 2010, Abrams Image published a survey of those photos, which included a foreword by Spike Lee (along with contributions from a wide spectrum of artists, musicians, and cultural luminaries). Lyle’s work is included in the permanent collection of the Library of Congress and the George Eastman Museum, as well as the Smithsonian and the Marguiles Collection in Miami. His work has been exhibited at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the Grammy Museum, the Rauschenberg Gallery at Florida SouthWestern, MoCA Jacksonville, and MARTa Hereford in Germany, among many other notable private galleries and institutions.

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Author: Graphis