UnBounded: Boniface Mwangi's Book Design picture
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UnBounded: Boniface Mwangi's Book Design

10 minute read

Wednesday, 23rd March 2016

My phone rattled. “Niaje?”
“Poa sana. To what do I owe the honour?”

“I am doing a photobook of all my award-winning photographs.”

“Nice. Long overdue. How far have you in the process?”

“It is. We have been working hard with my designer, we have put together the photos and we are in the final stages of layout. We carried out an online competition and we have a book cover (winning cover design below). I want to collect some content, put it in, and we should be through. So, I need your help in the final layout and preparing it for print.”

Wow! I had not spoken to Boniface Mwangi for at least two years and then, BOOM TWAFF!

I got excited. “Okay. May I see what you have done so that I get up to speed?”

“Sawa. I will send you a pdf. We have a dummy book from the printer to see how it will look like. When can you start?”

My mind was racing. I was at the tail end of working on a web project for Transparency International. “Give me two weeks I tie up a project I am doing and then we see.”

Later, that day, I received the pdf.

Two days go by.

A New Book

“Niaje? I have a friend, an award winning photojournalist who is passing by in 2 hours, can you make it? It is important you come and meet him. He will be giving me feedback on the draft.” Just like that. I left my studio and hurried to PAWA 254.

This friend was Gary Knight, a globally renown, photo-journalist. Gary is a straight shooter. He had already printed twelve photo books, so he knew what he was saying. In the quick, one-hour meeting, Gary made a number of things clear. As it was, the book consisted mainly of Boniface's award winning photos and photo documentaries. “Very few people look through past a third of a photobook just looking at pictures. You must have a compelling story.” Gary looked at the bound, blank book dummy, complete with a clean jacket. “Too big.” The dummy had 300 A3 size pages. If you opened the book, it covered the coffee table in Bonnie's office.  “Make the book half this.”

A book needs to have a thread of relatable stories. Each story has its pictures around it. A good book is separated into sections, using chapters or a group of chapters that follow a particular narrative arc through the book. This way, especially for a coffee table book, a reader may have time to take in only part of the book. A story should be complete with its pictures, and idea presented in a particular section of the book should resolve naturally.

Bonnie has many friends and he is quick to seek counsel from them. Most times, he then makes a decision that is totally his. On this occasion, after Gary was finished with the illuminating review, Bonnie did not need much convincing that we were going to do a whole new book.


I met Boniface Mwangi late 2006. I was part of a team that put together a project known as 24 Nairobi produced by Kwani Trust. Before this project, most of the pictures we saw of Nairobi were photographed by outsiders, looking in. Nick Yisenberg, a foreign photographer wondered why this was so. Together with Binyavanga Wainaina, they took us out for a lunch somewhere in South C and 24 Nairobi was born. Since 2007, a number of now well known Kenyan photographers came out of this project and Boniface is one of them. Bonnie commissioned and paid me for a website that would display his pictures. It never went online. He decided to start PAWA254.

Over the years, Boniface has had his run-ins with the authorities and with mishaps. The little I knew of Boniface‘s life was like a movie. Boniface, Armstrong Too and I went to a secret location, in a park near Sultan Hamud town. Everyone had a room. Mine was the print design suite, dual screen with a Wacom tablet. Bonnie’s room was central command, where we spent most of our time. Armstrong’s room was the photo library and archive. Bonnie would call the relatives and friends that he was in contact with and I would write out the details on a flip chart as he chatted on the phone. Memories were unearthed, some questions were insistent, the silences were loud. We pieced the information together, late into the night, many times. Boniface would draft the story, we would go over the texts and then compile the picture story that would accompany the texts. I found out that Boniface’s origin is a few kilometers from where my mum was born and where I spent my teenage holidays, picking coffee. As the days wore on and the stories came together, I felt for Bonnie. We slept exhausted emotionally most days. The book became personal. This book had to be done well. No, not just well, it had to be very good.

We wanted a book design that allowed the photos and the text to stand on their own, and yet work together in each section. After looking at, and then reading through a number of books from Boniface's vast library, the one that captured what I imagined of the book was Melting Away by Camille Seaman. Let me say this, by the time you finish the Melting Away, you love the author. That is the connection I wanted Boniface’s book to have. The reader needs to empathize and understand Boniface Mwangi's unrelenting passion and drive.

The texts were initially sent to Biko Zulu and when we got some of them back, they were good, slower and too smooth, too nice. I was of the opinion that Boniface's voice that comprises of short, sharp ideas in a typical clipped “mtaa” grammar was lost in Biko’s fluid, contemplative style.

As this discussion continued, Boniface had reached out to Anna Umbima. Anna met Boniface in 2008 when she was a judge of CNN/Multichoice African journalist awards where Boniface won the CNN AFRICA PHOTOGRAPHER OF THE YEAR 2008. The winning pictures were about the police raid in Mathare as the police sought out “Mungiki” operatives, which are also in the book. He consulted Anna about the book from a very early stage and she brought balance into stories and photos over discussions over a period of about two years.  Anna is a former journalist who grew up in Kenya and is now a writer who helps to amplify African voices internationally. She was the perfect person to put Boniface’s concerns to rest and to edit the book.

Anna also said it should be in his voice and that closed the debate. Boniface would finish a story and send it off to Anna. Anna would expertly tightened the language, leaving Bonnie’s voice intact.

We laid out all the picture stories that Boniface had in his arsenal. The first draft of the book was over four hundred pages. It needed to get down to 300 pages to fit the print run we wanted.

At our secret location, we stayed tw0 weeks and Bonnie put his heart into it. However, towards the end of our stay, activism came calling. I found him one afternoon, after lunch was over, he was busy on his phone, helping coordinate some protest that was to happen. I asked loudly what he was doing, considering we needed his input to make sure we left for Nairobi with a book that would only need small touches before going to the print shop. But Bonnie is Bonnie. He had to help out in the logistics of the protest.

When our time was up, we had finished sorting out the pictures for all the possible stories that could be told. What we needed to do was to pare it down. Bonnie informed us a few days later that the printer from India was in town. We set up at PAWA254 offices and worked on the book many days and nights.

Armstrong organized the cover photo production, location being the Nairobi Arboretum. We settled at our location and the expert crew he sourced, set up quickly. It was lit like a video set, no flash photography gear. That way we could see what we to expect of the picture on the computer monitor. I had my picture by the third shot. However, a number of poses were taken and what appeared on the book was not my first choice. Since we all could not agree on which it should be, Njeri, Boniface’s wife, would make the final call. And she made a good call.

My co-designer, Stephen Nderitu, who started and finished the book, adding some sparkle to the cover.

This book came out better than I ever imagined.

Thank you Boniface Mwangi.

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Last updated: March 28, 2022, 9:30 p.m.