Arts, Culture and Sport
Meet Kenyan creative Polly Irungu, the first official photo editor for Office of VP Kamala Harris
The White House visual storytellers help shape public perceptions and craft the impressions that become fixed in the collective imagination. Visual archives are, therefore, a crucial tool in defining an administration and its leaders. Kenyan self-taught photographer Polly Irungu is now a part of how Kamala Harris’ narrative unfolds.
Kenyan-born photographer and journalist Polly Irungu is the first official photo editor for the Office of the Vice-President in the Biden-Harris Administration. She made the announcement on her social media platforms saying, “Honoured and grateful is an understatement.”
In this position, she will help curate the images that will personify the first female VP’s time in office. She will co-author the visual archives that will spark and possibly guide public imagination about the woman behind the historic role.
Speaking about the intricacies of her journey on her LinkedIn page, Irungu said, “When my family first moved to the states from Kenya, I had trouble understanding and speaking English and ended up making my own language – a mix of English, Swahili, and Kikuyu – that only my mom and sister could understand what I was saying. Fast forward two decades later, I’m now speaking and teaching for The International Center of Photography.”
“If you are being hard on yourself for not accomplishing X, Y, and Z by a certain age, please give yourself some grace. You don’t realize how far you have come to get to this point. Take a moment to stop and celebrate that.”
Her love for photography started as a way of coping with a major move. “With the suggestion from one of my (high school) counsellors I got involved in yearbook to help find a creative outlet. I realized that I really enjoyed storytelling and capturing the moment,” she explains in a self-exploratory article on Portrait Noire.
“During my first typical high school job, (I was a cashier at McDonald’s), I purchased a camera even though I had no idea what to do with it… because I thought it would be fun to learn the hard way. So sure enough, buying my first camera with my hard-earned dollars at McDonald’s is what eventually led me to the path of photography.”
Her appointment is the manifestation of years of honing her craft in stylised settings and out in the field- and pushing for inclusivity in an industry that does not often see or hire Black women.
“As a Black African woman, I’ve learned that if you don’t advocate, promote yourself, know your worth, etc then you will easily get walked over. I’ve learned that opportunities will not be delivered into your lap; you have to create them. Your work quality, persistence, and consistency will determine the end result,” she explains.
Irungu’s work can be found in numerous publications, including Adobe’s Create Magazine, The New York Times, NPR, CNN, BBC Africa, Reuters, Global Citizen, Refinery29, The Washington Post, BuzzFeed, MEFeater, and others.
Pushing the envelope for her work led her to launch Black Women Photographers (BWP), a global community, directory, and hub in 2020. The community now hosts over 1,000 Black women and non-binary identifying photographers, spanning over 50 countries and 35+ U.S. States.
“Black Women Photographers aims to disrupt the notion that it is difficult to discover and commission Black creatives,” chastises the website. “Black Women Photographers is a home for Black women to receive proper recognition, and most importantly, get hired.”
And now, Irungu gets to work with not only the first female but also the first woman of colour Vice President of the US. At the White House, she joins fellow Kenyan-American visual storyteller Joy Ngugi, who became a video producer and editor in the Office of Digital Strategy in Biden’s administration recently. She’s already taken part in capturing global Asian sensation BTS during their visit to the White House to discuss the rise of Anti-Asian hate crimes.
As a 2022 IWMF Gwen Ifill Fellow, a programme designed to address the lack of diversity in leadership positions across newsrooms in the United States, Irungu is an apple close to the proverbial tree. Also, in July, her mother, Dr. Jane Irungu became Utah State University’s new VP for diversity, equity, and inclusion.
On Portrait Noire, Irungu talked about her plans for the future and how the steps she is making today will lend valuable skills to what she hopes to achieve. “In the next 10 years, I would like to own a creative studio back in Nairobi. As a journalist and photographer, I realized how important it is to be able to tell your own story… I’m tired of seeing stories and photos of Africa through a white lens and pen.”
Follow This Is Africa on Twitter and Facebook to join the conversation.