The Heartache & The Hopefulness of Taking Photographs in Addis Ababa

Each time I return home from a trip, one of the first things I do before I even unpack my bags, is upload and look at my photographs.

And as the memories of moments come up on the computer screen, I examine the scenes and faces I have captured, both intentionally and unintentionally, to better understand where I’ve been and what I’ve seen.

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Because they stop time, photographs help me see the participants in that one moment without the distraction of sound and the dynamic of movement.

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I can stay with the moment as long as I like, lingering over what my camera has stolen away from the movement of time – expressions, clothing details, a fragment of a gesture, a moment of eye contact – a frozen mosaic of people’s lives, a tableau that will never again exist exactly like that.

There are always surprises.

And there is always the excitement, the anticipation of seeing the images on a big screen for the first time and to see what was happening around me. To see the different world that that I was a part of, that I inhabited if only for a few days – my own Alice in the Wonderlands of adventuring through the rabbit hole of travel. It’s always magical to me.

But for the longest time, I was disappointed in the shots I took in Ethiopia. The difficulty of photographing Addis is that you are confronted with (and therefore have to deal with) everything, all at once.

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For a Westerner, this often is not easy or comfortable.

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The poverty…

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dust and injustices….

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The despair, disrepair and disease, set in scorching heat and dust, often threatened to overwhelm my curiosity. Of all the photographs I took, the ones from Mount Entoto are the most difficult for me to look at. The hillsides in the process of being stripped bare of their trees, and the women who, for less than $15 a month, carry back-breaking loads many times their body size down the mountainside each day.

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Why make and keep images of this, I thought?

I was often tempted to give up, but I was writing and a book about Ethiopia. And so I kept going, looking for the stories that my camera would capture for me.

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Addis wears its heart on its tattered sleeves,

and what peaceful and beautiful respites there are…

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… are few and far between.

It took some time to realize I needed to rethink the photographs altogether. I needed to better understand what I was looking for in themto look – not at what I thought I had taken, but what I had seen  in order to overcome the sadness and despair I was feeling and find instead what might be hopeful or positive, or even beautiful.

In the end, untangling my frustrations and disappointments with the photographs revealed more to me about my feelings and reactions to Addis than what I had put down on paper while I was actually there, showing me the deeper sub-context of what was really going on in my mind and in my heart.

For example, many photographs are a mess aesthetically.  So why did I take them?

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I didn’t know at the time, but what I later realized is that they show is resilience.

I was impressed and moved by the blazing beauty, resilience, and courage of this new life blooming in vibrant and colorful glory in the midst of the forgotten debris of human efforts.

A metaphor for Ethiopians themselves?

And if I had given up and put the camera away, what I would not have seen, what I would have missed?

Gradually I began to see that what had caught my eye was more elusive and more ephemeral than the well-composed street shots I had been looking for.

In addition to the disheartening poverty and dust, what my photographs had actually captured was something more interesting – things that were right there in front of me the whole time, things that my Western eyes needed to be retrained to actually see — glimpses of resilience and potential, heart and survival…

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The ruins of old house from another era now showcases emerging new African artists…

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The beauty of fresh and colorful new life amidst the shards and brokenness of daily life…

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Photographs of love, the promise of the future – and what might be possible….

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More stories and photographs of Ethiopia @ The Red Moon Letters

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