Africa has been on my radar for a while. Having shot around Europe, India and South America, I was up for a completely new challenge, and also for exploring a continent that in many ways was different to anywhere I’d experienced. I knew it wouldn’t be easy – I’ve heard stories from fellow photographers on how certain African countries weren’t the most camera-friendly of places, and Ethiopia was one of them. In spite of this, I still wasn’t fully prepared for the intensely challenging experience I was about to embark on.
Along with two fellow street photographers, Guille Ibanez and Jure Maticic, our aim was to photograph Timkat, the Orthodox celebration of Epiphany, in the country’s capital Addis Ababa. After which the plan was to spend our remaining time in Dire Dawa and Harar, exploring the more rural way of life, and capturing it as best we can.
Now I’d say I’m a pretty seasoned traveller, but culture shock really affected me the first few days. I’d only experienced it once in my life (India 2012), and I guess being thrown into a sensory overload experience, whilst being the centre of attention at all times, will do that to you. One of the things that added to the intensity was the level of poverty we experienced. It deeply affected me, and I’ll be honest and say there was one day whilst in a taxi heading back to the hotel, that I asked myself what I was doing there. Walking around with a camera in my hand gave me an enormous sense of guilt, and there was one night in particular where Guille and I sank the beers back and shared our thoughts and feelings on it all.
It was during this talk we realised that we needed to engage more. Being out of our comfort zone meant we weren’t feeling as comfortable or confident as we’d normally be, and if we were to get the most out of this experience, a change of mindset was needed. So from then on we did our best to do just that, and as a result we were part of some amazing moments, some of which are shared below. It was a trip of real highs and lows, that provided some life lessons and a healthy dose of perspective, and also a reminder of why I take two weeks out of my year to do them.
Street photography + gear
There are no two ways about it – Ethiopia is the toughest country I’ve photographed in. For starters, I’ve never had so many ‘no photo’s’ in my life! One local said it was because some people believed every picture was like an X-Ray on their soul, another said it was because some were suspicious, thinking we could be working for the Government. Whilst others, you know, just didn’t like tourists walking around their neighbourhood taking pictures of them. All of which I totally understood and respected, but it, of course, meant there were some situations and moments I was unable to capture because of this. One thing that really helped though, and I’d highly recommend, is hiring a local guide. We did so in Harar, and he took us to villages we never would’ve gone to, which allowed us to get deeper and not just capture the surface stuff.
In terms of safety, Addis felt the edgiest (especially around the Mercato and Piassa area), in spite of all the military we saw everywhere (which probably helped create a lot of the tension), and despite the repeated warnings, I still had my phone nicked by a pick-pocket. Dire Dawa felt very raw, and tensions were high there. The day we were supposed to get a flight from there back to Addis, a riot broke out between people who opposed the Government and the military and we were warned to stay away, and to just go direct to the airport on the morning of our flight. Harar was probably my personal highlight of the trip. A really welcoming city (you’re gonna hear lots of ‘Faranjo/Faranji’ which means ‘foreigner’, from everyone here, especially the kids), and much slower-paced, which I enjoyed. It was also where we explored the surrounding villages, which provided some of the best moments of the trip.
I hope you enjoyed the set, and if you’re interested in purchasing a copy of our ‘zine, which will be available to purchase at some point in the year, please sign onto the mailing list here. Details in the link, and all proceeds will go into the creation of prints of the children who wanted us to take their picture, along with school supplies to send back to their respective villages.
About the Author
Kristian Leven is a wedding and people photographer based in London, England. You can find out more about Kristian on his website and follow his work on Instagram and Facebook. This article was also published here and shared with permission.