Jean Bizimana: Capturing Hope and Stories from East Africa

Success story summary Jean Bizimana, a distinguished Rwandan photographer and videographer, began his journey with “Through The Eyes of the Children.” His work financed education and supported orphanages. Focusing on documentary photojournalism, he highlights social issues in Rwanda and more. Jean’s photography is considered more than just visuals, fostering growth and understanding globally. Based in Kigali, he embraces global assignments to bridge cultures through storytelling.
An image of Jean Bizimana

Can you please share a brief history about your photography business? What motivated you to start this venture?

I started this photography business for multiple reasons. Firstly, I wanted to give back to the community that supported me during my time in the orphanage. The photos we captured were sold, some were donated, and the proceeds helped fund essential needs like school fees, housing, and food, covering my education from primary school to university.

Additionally, I have a passion for storytelling, especially narratives that resonate with me from East Africa and across the globe. Through photography, I aim to shed light on important stories that often go unheard.

The initiative that sparked my journey was the Rwanda project, spearheaded by David Jiranek from Old Greenwich, USA.

The NGO running the Rwanda project is called “Through the Eyes of the Children,” and our group was known as the Camera Kids.

In the aftermath of the genocide, many children, including myself, found themselves orphaned and without hope. However, the program provided us with a sense of purpose and empowerment, showing us that despite our past traumas, we can still make a difference. This realization fuels my desire to give back to the organization by offering my photography services to other small charities and NGOs that lack the resources to hire professional photographers to document their impactful work globally.

An image by Jean Bizimana

What kind of challenges did you face when building up your portfolio or setting up your studio? How did you overcome these challenges?

One challenge we face is the undervaluation of photography in my country, which leads to a lack of appreciation for photographers. It becomes exceedingly difficult to capture stories when people don’t understand the significance of our work.

Another obstacle is the absence of local camera vendors, necessitating costly imports from the West or Dubai. Affording a camera in Rwanda is a considerable challenge due to the high expenses involved.

Additionally, there’s a pervasive trust in Western photographers over locals, a legacy of colonization that undermines opportunities and fair compensation for Rwandan photographers. This preference persists despite the belief that locals should be empowered to share their own stories.

Furthermore, there is the absence of professional photography schools and libraries compounds our challenges. Without access to formal education and resources, aspiring photographers struggle to acquire the knowledge needed for a successful photography business.

Could you describe the early days of your business? What were the initial reactions and feedback you received?

I established my photography business in 2014 while studying at Mount Kenya University’s Kigali campus. Initially, I operated a photo studio from home, focusing on various genres such as fashion and weddings.

However, I soon realized that these genres were not my forte. Consequently, I transitioned to documentary and photojournalism, closing down the studio and setting up an office in 2015. My photography business, known as Biziphotos, has been operating from this office ever since.

During my time in wedding and fashion photography, I encountered challenges as clients were not satisfied with my work, which left me disheartened. This experience prompted me to pivot towards photojournalism, a field where I have found fulfillment. As a freelance photojournalist, I have had the opportunity to work in Rwanda and various East African countries, including Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, Kenya, and Sudan, as well as parts of West Africa, such as Ghana.

The positive reception of my work by clients has encouraged me to expand my photography business further. In February of this year, I was particularly gratified by the positive feedback received during my work in Uganda, knowing that my efforts were appreciated and making a positive impact within the community.

An image by Jean Bizimana

How did you manage to grow and expand your business? What strategies did you use to attract more clients?

What helped me grow my businesses was my passion for photography and my aspiration to become a professional photographer, inspired by renowned mentors in the field. Following their example, I dedicated myself to learning through extensive reading, attending workshops, and practicing.

My website has been instrumental in reaching a wider audience, leveraging the ubiquity of the internet. Potential clients worldwide can easily find me through online searches. Additionally, showcasing my work on the website has garnered positive feedback from clients, leading to referrals and expanding my network.

Engaging in personal projects has also been pivotal in attracting clients, particularly NGOs who appreciate my commitment to assignments mirroring my personal projects. These projects not only reflect my values and interests but also serve as a platform for sharing my experiences and expertise with others.

The majority of my clients are international entities such as charities/NGOs, news agencies, magazines, and media houses. Local trust in native storytellers or photographers is often limited, making it challenging to establish a presence at the local level.

An image by Jean Bizimana

How has your business performed financially over the years? Can you share some milestones or achievements in terms of revenue?

Over the years, my business has flourished financially. Initially, I utilized a donated Canon 60D from King’s College London. As demand for my services grew, I transitioned to a Canon 7D donated by Canon Europe. Eventually, I invested in a 6D to enhance the quality of my work. While this was a significant expense, my financial stability allowed me to afford it. I diligently managed my finances, ensuring both bill payments and savings for future camera upgrades. Presently, I utilize the Canon R6 Mark II.

Being an orphan, I lacked familial ties or a sense of home. Therefore, I embarked on building my own house, exceeding a hundred thousand US dollars in building costs. I am also able to pay my two part-time employees.

Additionally, I invested in two properties in Kigali, an expensive city in Rwanda. Consequently, my financial situation is stable, but I remain eager to expand my client base for sustained success.

What are some key lessons you've learned along your entrepreneurial journey? Is there anything you would do differently if given a chance?

The lesson I’ve learned through my photography career as well as entrepreneurship is the importance of consistency in selecting and excelling at what you’re passionate about. With dedication, achieving your goals becomes possible.

Are there any tools or software that have been particularly useful in managing and growing your business? Give us a list of what you use in your kit.

For my work, I use DaVinci Resolve for video editing and Adobe Lightroom for photo editing. Additionally, I leverage social media platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and occasionally LinkedIn for promoting my work.

Here’s my gear list:

  •  18-150mm lens
  •  24-70mm lens
  •  70-200mm lens
  •  50mm lens
  •  Canon R6 Mark II
  •  MacBook Pro
  •  iPhone 15 Pro Max
An image by Jean Bizimana

Could you recommend any books, resources, or mentors that have significantly influenced your business journey?

The book I liked is “Imagine: Reflections on Peace,” produced by several war photographers from around the world who have documented conflicts of the 20th and 21st centuries. It’s also a part of the VII Academy projects, from which I derive much of my training and mentorship, making it a significant favorite. Additionally, “War Porn” is another book I appreciate.

Kristen Ashburn, an independent photographer and teacher from Through the Eyes of the Children, an organization where I learned photography in my youth, is a mentor in my life.

Alongside her is Gary Knight, a well-known photojournalist of the 20th and 21st centuries, affiliated with VII Academy, VII Agency, VII Foundation, and VII Insider.

Thomas Mukoya, my boss at Reuters News, is the chief editor for East African countries. He’s not only the sole Black African photographer in that position but has also held it since Reuters began operating in Africa.

Nichole Sobeki has influenced me to introspect and provided mentorship, helping me apply for grants and enhance my career. She’s affiliated with both VII and National Geographic Community.

Ed Kashi is a mentor I deeply admire for his assistance despite the initial language barrier. He’s been instrumental in improving my photography skills.

What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs who wish to start their own photography business?

Advice for those supporting entrepreneurs and pursuing a photography business is to engage in activities you genuinely enjoy. Conduct thorough research and learn from successful individuals within the industry to advance in your photography career. Ultimately, my advice is simple: pursue what genuinely interests you.

An image by Jean Bizimana

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Jean Bizimana, a Rwandan photographer and videographer, started his journey with “Through The Eyes of the Children.” Training at an orphanage, he financed education through his work. Now focused on documentary photojournalism, Jean’s impactful storytelling extends from Rwanda to global audiences, highlighting social issues and supporting marginalized communities.

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My advice is simple: pursue what genuinely interests you.

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