Meet Sarah Waiswa

Sarah Waiswa is a Uganda born, Kenya based photographer and her series, "Luke Warm," is the story of 10-year-old Luke who has been living with non-verbal autism. Learn about her career and her creative contribution to autism awareness.

Tell us about yourself and your career as a documentary and portrait photographer.

I am a Ugandan born Kenya based freelance documentary and portrait photographer with an interest in exploring identity on the African continent, particularly the New African Identity. After getting both my sociology and psychology degrees and working in a corporate position for a number of years, I decided to pursue photography full time. My desire is to illustrate the plight of various social issues on the continent, in a contemporary and non-traditional way. 

In 2015, your photo series "Luke Warm" won a first place Uganda Press Photo Award in the story category. How did these powerful photos come to be and why did you want to share this story?

I met Charity, Luke's mom, in a bible study class. When she spoke about her son and the love she had for him, despite all of the challenges she has encountered in her life, it moved me. It was the true illustration of unconditional love and it changed my life in a lot of ways. We ended up becoming very good friends and when I met Luke, I knew I had to tell his story, and to visually document his progress over the years. 

Luke Warm is the story of 10-year-old Luke who has been living with non-verbal autism. His mother had to overcome many challenges in trying to get him diagnosed, getting resources to help with therapy and overall the stigma that she faced from her relatives and friends. He has gone from not being able to stand and feed himself to making great strides. However had he been properly diagnosed early on, and gotten access to therapy, he might have made much more progress.
— “Luke Warm” by Sarah Waiswa

What did you find most eye-opening about your experience photographing Luke and his mother?

The unconditional love the two shared. Though Luke is non-verbal, it was his relation to his mother that moved me the most. 

What's your take on autism awareness in Uganda, or more broadly, on developmental differences in Africa. 

I live in Nairobi and so do Charity and Luke. However, I imagine the treatment of people with any differences is the same continent wide. Charity told me how people would try to allude to the fact that Luke had been bewitched. Or how it took so long for him to diagnose his condition because they just didn't understand it.  As Africans we don't do very well with different and still much needs to be done about raising awareness about autism and many other issues.

Your work celebrates authentic storytelling and also explores identity on the African continent. What challenges have you faced in your journey as a Ugandan creative based in Kenya? 

I grew up in Kenya and so it much more familiar to me than Uganda. The biggest challenge for me is to tell African stories which dispel stereotypes while at the same time trying to shed light on social issues that get ignored because people are uncomfortable discussing them.

"Luke Warm" showcased one of countless under-told stories from Africa. What other stories or projects do you have in the works?

I recently did a project on albinism, attempting to illustrate visually what living with albinism is like from the point of view of an albino woman.