Barbara Minishi: The Red Dress

A female photographer explores the lives of Kenyan women and tells their unique stories as seen through her lens.

Filmmaker: Katharina von Schroeder

Barbara Minishi follows the campaign of presidential candidate Martha Karua for her project on Kenyan women, which aims to represent a wide range of women all wearing the same red dress, as a symbol of unity and national identity.

She is now one of Kenya’s top fashion photographers, but Minishi struggled to make a name for herself at the start of her career.

“When I started out, one woman told me ‘you’re black, you’re female. There’s no possible way you can be a professional photographer’. You know what? This is what I want to do and I’m going to do it anyway.”

Her uncrushable spirit is what has driven her to do her Red Dress project.

“I feel that woman are very courageous,” explains Minishi, “however, some of the people who make the most impact in the grass roots you don’t see. One thing that was important for me was for the women to stand out.”

Commenting on how Africa has been photographically misrepresented for over a century, Minishi says, “Don’t look at Africa and think one thing. How come this view of Africa is always the soldier or the starving child?”


By Katharina von Schroeder

What I liked immediately about portraying a fashion photographer in Kenya was to have the opportunity to dive into the modern life of Nairobi. The high-rise buildings of the city, the models and modern streets are the images of the African continent that are hardly ever seen. I also wanted to accompany Barbara to the countryside for her current project whilst shooting the film and show the different areas of Kenya.

For me Barbara is a trailblazer, who leaves the beaten track to try something new against all odds.

For a long time, photography was not seen as a serious profession in Kenya, rather as something for people who have no proper job, trying to get by. Barbara, on the other hand, had always been one of the top students at university. After finishing her diploma in marketing it would have been easy for her to find a good job with a stable income but she realised that she wanted to do something else with her life:

“It was a week after graduation – I just woke up – I wouldn’t call it per se in a panic but it was like being hit in the gut, completely, because for the first time I could clearly see that photography was what I was meant to do with my life,” recalls Barbara. “You know, some people hear a great song and they get shivers. I realised that often when I see a great image I get shivers, because it elicits a response within me.”

I think Barbara also pursues her personal projects with the same resilience that helped her realise her dream to become a professional photographer. Many of her personal projects are self-funded, like her travelling Red Dress project.

For me one of the most touching moments during the shoot was to witness some of the tension mounting in the run up to Kenya’s election in March 2013. We were following Martha Karua, the female presidential candidate, on her campaign trail when village supporters of another party tried to stop her from speaking. The atmosphere was tense and we were warned that there may be an outbreak of violence. Luckily this did not happen but the situation reminded me of the post-election violence in 2007-2008.

During that period, after claims of a rigged election, an estimated 1500 people lost their lives and more than 200,000 were displaced. It was through her Red Dress project that I understood the relevance of Barbara’s wish to communicate with women from all areas of Kenya and to encourage a feeling of national identity and unity.

As a female filmmaker, it was of natural interest to me to hear how women in Kenya are coping with the challenges they are facing. I was inspired by many, like the headmistress who had built a school in the slum and also by Linet, a market vendor, who wanted to boost ladies’ self-esteem by selling beautiful clothes at her market stall.

But it was Barbara and her friends who I most related to. We were of a similar age and had similar questions on our minds: How can I lead an independent life? Can I pursue a career and also have a family? How can I contribute to my society?

I hope that women and men from all over the world can relate to the stories Barbara and the Kenyan women tell in the film and even draw some inspiration from their initiative and determination.