Pho­tog­ra­phers look at Africa from fresh an­gle

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - LIFE - By AGENCE FRANCEPRESSE in Ad­dis Ababa

Sur­rounded by un­tidy stacks of pa­per and aban­doned half-empty cof­fee cups, pho­tog­ra­pher Aida Mu­luneh chain smokes cig­a­rettes in her Ad­dis Ababa of­fice and rails against the neg­a­tive por­tray­als of Africa by for­eign­ers.

The 42-year-old re­turned to Ethiopia nine years ago af­ter liv­ing in Yemen and Canada, and set her­self the task of chang­ing per­cep­tions of the con­ti­nent, re­plac­ing the out­siders’ dom­i­nant eye with an African one.

The Ad­dis Foto Fest, which she founded and which opened its fourth edi­tion on Thurs­day, is one way of do­ing this, she says.

Mu­luneh left Ethiopia at age 5 but de­vel­oped a pow­er­ful nos­tal­gia for home while liv­ing abroad.

Her first pho­tog­ra­phy job was with The Wash­ing­ton Post in the United States, by which time she was “ob­sessed” with Africa and ir­ri­tated by the im­ages of her home coun­try that she saw pub­lished in the me­dia, ones that still harked back to the famine of the 1980s.

But Ethiopia had changed, even if por­tray­als of it had not.

She re­turned to a coun­try mov­ing at break­neck speed, an Ethiopia “stuck be­tween the past, the present and the fu­ture”, where a drought-in­duced food cri­sis in the coun­try­side co­ex­ists with a shiny new, high­line tram for city com­muters, where lux­u­ri­ous sky­scrapers loom above shanties.

“Ethiopia gives you the full spec­trum of hu­man­ity. The ab­so­lute mis­ery and the ab­so­lute joy, and you can see a jux­ta­po­si­tion of all these el­e­ments in just a day,” Mu­luneh says.

While there are for­eign re­porters and pho­tog­ra­phers who take a broader look at Africa, Mu­luneh takes aim at “false rep­re­sen­ta­tions” of the con­ti­nent by those who fo­cus too heav­ily on its trou­bles.

“Africa is be­ing treated un­fairly,” she says, be­fore ar­gu­ing that a sim­i­lar racism can be seen in news im­ages of black peo­ple else­where in the world.

“When you look at im­ages com­ing out of the States, when it deals with black peo­ple, it’s al­ways drug deal­ers, pimps, killers and so forth. When you look at Africa, again, it’s a neg­a­tive im­age of the starv­ing Africans, the war-torn.”

Mu­luneh founded the Ad­dis Foto Fest to bring black Amer­i­can and African pho­tog­ra­phers to­gether and to en­cour­age Ethiopian pho­tog­ra­phers to re­claim their own stories.

“We do not need for­eign pho­tog­ra­phers to tell us our story,” she says, leaf­ing through some pic­tures she took at Lal­i­bela, Ethiopia’s em­blem­atic tourist site where churches are carved out of rock.

Her black-and-white pho­tographs cap­ture the de­tails of ev­ery­day life, of in­te­ri­ors, faces and fleet­ing ges­tures.

In what is likely Mu­luneh’s best-known se­ries, Painted Faces, she shows young African women, faces painted in blue, white or bright red with the models pre­sented as artis­tic sub­jects rather than be­ing re­duced to their “African­ness”.

“A lot of my work is about re­mov­ing time and space. It’s look­ing at the uni­ver­sal­ity. Some don’t re­al­ize it’s Ethiopia ... I want to think of the con­ti­nent in a dif­fer­ent way,” she says.

Au­thor­i­tar­ian Ethiopia does not make life easy for pho­tog­ra­phers, and Mu­luneh be­moans the ab­sence of a pho­to­graphic cul­ture, in which many are left with no op­tion but to shoot wed­dings for a liv­ing.

Hos­til­ity to­ward pho­tog­ra­phers is com­mon, from gov­ern­ment and se­cu­rity forces to or­di­nary folk.

“Pho­tog­ra­phy is al­ways looked at with sus­pi­cion. I can just be shoot­ing a wall and some­one will come and ask me: ‘Why are you tak­ing photos of this wall?’ ” Mu­luneh says.

When she sends her stu­dents to Mer­cato, a large ope­nair mar­ket in Ad­dis, the young pho­tog­ra­phers are fre­quently ha­rassed by po­lice and traders alike.

Putting on the pho­tog­ra­phy fes­ti­val in Ethiopia is never easy. Prints have to be made in Nairobi, and spon­sors and ex­hi­bi­tion spa­ces are hard to find.

This year is prov­ing es­pe­cially dif­fi­cult be­cause of a state of emer­gency im­posed in Oc­to­ber af­ter nearly a year of some­times deadly anti-gov­ern­ment protests.

Some have re­fused to host ex­hi­bi­tions for fear of be­ing as­so­ci­ated with what might be con­strued by the gov­ern­ment as po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties.

De­spite the chal­lenges, Ethiopian pho­tog­ra­phers are grow­ing in num­ber and skill. In 2010, there were just four par­tic­i­pat­ing in Ad­dis Foto Fest. This year, there are 30.

And the world is in­creas­ingly look­ing to Ethiopia.

“In­ter­na­tional vis­i­bil­ity is grow­ing. I have seen how ta­lent has changed. It’s well on its way, not only in Ethiopia. It’s hap­pen­ing across the con­ti­nent,” she says.

A lot of my work is about re­mov­ing time and space. ... I want to think of the con­ti­nent in a dif­fer­ent way.” Aida Mu­luneh, pho­tog­ra­pher and founder of Ad­dis Foto Fest


Tansel Isik (top), a Turk­ish crafts­man, car­ries on his fam­ily busi­ness of cane mak­ing in Devrek. He has a long list of celebrity clients.

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