How I got the shot: Christopher Wilton-Steer on capturing Zanzibar’s vibrant street life

Christopher Wilton-Steer's affinity for the characters and blend of cultures that make up Stone Town, the vibrant capital of Tanzania’s laid-back Zanzibar Archipelago, shine through in his recent assignment. He takes us behind the scenes. 

By Christopher Wilton-Steer
photographs by Christopher Wilton-Steer
Published 29 Jul 2020, 08:00 BST, Updated 22 Feb 2022, 13:45 GMT
Children, some in their uniforms, playing outside after school, Pemba.

Children, some in their uniforms, playing outside after school, Pemba.

Photograph by Christopher Wilton-Steer

On assignment for National Geographic Traveller, photographer Christopher Wilton-Steer shot the photo story, Colours and culture in Stone Town, Zanzibar.

What drew you to this story and location?

I was in Zanzibar working on a project for The Aga Khan University. As part of its 35th anniversary, the university wanted to produce a book to celebrate its nursing alumni working on the islands of Zanzibar. So I was there to photograph and interview 20 nurses and midwives, taking both portraits and photos of them at work for a book. While I was there, I also photographed the people and life I encountered around Stone Town, as I do with most places I visit. Some of them were seen by National Geographic Traveller (UK)’s art team on Instagram, and the rest is history.

On location, what elements are you seeking out for a successful shoot?

My sense is that my interests are largely shared by National Geographic Traveller. Overall, I’m looking to capture a mix of landscape, architecture, action, portrait and detail shots. These provide everything you need to tell a story about a place or a person. With these shots in mind, my eye is always drawn to expressions of local culture and customs — the things that make that place unique. In the case of Stone Town in Zanzibar, this might be people playing bao (a traditional East African board game), someone walking past wearing a colourful bargashia hat, the intricately carved wooden doorways, an artisan at work, the fruit sellers, taarab music performers, boys jumping into the sea at dusk from the pier, or a dhow sailing by. 

A late afternoon stroll along Stone Town’s harbour front.
Photograph by Christopher Wilton-Steer

What was the most unexpected thing you discovered while shooting? 

How often it rained! And when it rained, it rained hard and for hours at a time. Often, the streets were flooded, so I had to walk knee deep in water. Of course, everyone took cover during these deluges, so I had to just wait it out until the weather past and people re-emerged again.

Who was the most interesting character you met?

All the nurses I met were really impressive people with fascinating and inspiring stories, but a nurse called Abdallah Hassan stood out to me. He’d spent most of his career treating HIV/AIDs patients and working to change perceptions and remove the stigma around this health issue. He was so patient with his junior colleagues and took such pleasure in seeing them learn. For every problem, there was always a solution that could be found by working together. In his own words: “We often have the solutions within ourselves or they might rest with others. It just takes collaboration to unlock the answer."

Fruit stalls — with guava, bananas and oranges — add a burst of green, yellow and orange to Stone Town’s diverse colour palette.

Photograph by Christopher Wilton-Steer

Was this shoot a typical assignment?

In terms of the type of photos I was looking to capture in Stone Town, I’d say this was fairly typical. People, places, culture — this is what I love to photograph and what I photograph wherever I travel. Photographing 20 nurses at work, however, was something entirely new. I love taking portraits but had never before been tasked with capturing only this format for a book or an exhibition. I spent a lot of time on maternity wards and in A&E, operation theatres and trauma wards. It was an intense, humbling and enriching experience.  

What do you take into account when selecting kit?

I like the flexibility of a high-quality, mid-range zoom lens. I use a Sony GM 24-70mm 2.8. This allows me to take wide-angle shots on street corners, close-up portraits, and everything in between, in quick succession. When I have more time and I know I’m going to take a portrait, I usually switch to my Sony Zeiss 55mm 1.8, as this offers much more aesthetically pleasing bokeh. For walk-arounds in the evening, though, I usually afix a Zeiss Loxia 35mm 2.0, as it's lightweight — at times, I like to be constrained to 35mm and work around that focal length. These I attach to a Sony A7III.

Where’s next on your wish list?

I was due to visit Japan in April but then coronavirus hit, so I’ll have to wait for that. Last year, I travelled from London to Beijing overland, working on a photography project about the Silk Road in partnership with the Aga Khan Foundation. I crossed 16 countries but was unable to visit Afghanistan as the presidential elections were taking place and it was deemed an unstable time to visit. So I’d very much like to photograph some sites there to ‘complete’ my journey, so to speak. In the short term, somewhere in Europe is more likely. I've always wanted to visit Palermo. 

See the photos from Christopher's shoot in our gallery, below.


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