Born in Ethiopia in 1974, Aida Muluneh left the country at a young age and spent an itinerant childhood between Yemen and England. After several years in a boarding school in Cyprus, she finally settled in Canada in 1985. In 2000, she graduated with a degree from the Communication Department with a major in Film from Howard University in Washington, D.C. After graduation she worked as a photojournalist at the Washington Post. She is the 2007 recipient of the European Union Prize in the Rencontres Africaines de la Photographie, in Bamako, Mali. As well as the 2010 winner of the CRAF International Award of Photography in Spilimbergo, Italy. She is also the founder and director of the first international photography festival the Addis Foto Fest in Ethiopia. Aida continues to curate and develop cultural projects with local and international institutions through her company DESTA (Developing and Educating Society Through Art) For Africa Creative Consulting PLC (DFA) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She talked to Capital’s Eskedar Kifle about photography in Ethiopia. Excerpts;
Capital: What does it mean to be a photographer in Ethiopia?
Aida Muluneh: Being a photographer in Ethiopia meant working mainly as an official photographer for the government or as a studio photographer for the general public. But this is all in the past. Over the last ten years, I have seen a shift, and expansion, into the different fields of photography such as fashion, photojournalism, product and fine arts photography. However, the emergence of the various types of photography has been possible due to the resilience and curiosity of the new generation and access to new technologies. Yet, defining what it means to be a photographer in our country, requires a scrutiny of the level, or lack of, adequate specialized training and higher education programs, of the absence of professional standards, and of the need for a clear delineation of the role and development of the photography industry in Ethiopia. Currently, there are many photographers across the country, the majority of which are professionally engaged in the field through their own initiative to generate an income. However, if we look at the industry internationally, the true meaning of being a photographer, whether we are talking about the quality of the images we produce, the ethics of the sector, or even its purpose, we realize that we have still a long way to go.
This is why DFA was established. Our main objective is to generate a cadre of highly skilled photographers through directed workshops and seminars. Equally, the Addis Foto Fest allows us to create opportunities, not only by engaging our own photographers locally, but to enable them to experience the wide range of possibilities that exist beyond our borders. It is easy to be a big fish in a small pond. What we look forward to as Ethiopian photographers are showing the world that we are talented and skilled professionals, with great potential to compete with photographers anywhere in the world. Photography is a 10 billion dollar industry, and when we look at photographers in Africa, we note that we are barely engaged in the industry, because of the lack of know-how and access to education in this field.
There are many opportunities for generating income as a photographer but what we see quite often is that the market is unaware of the talent that exists in the country, that little value and consideration is given to paying a fair price for the services, and that there is a tendency to rely on foreign photographers to document content when, in fact, this could be done, unquestionably, by Ethiopian photographers. What I am looking at specifically, does not involve a one-off, short-sighted, attempt to develop the sector, rather, I am looking at the long term road to creating self sustainable opportunities.
This means that we also have a role to play engaging all stakeholders such as a diversity of audiences, businesses, photographers, and the government. Therefore, the definition of what it means to be a photographer in Ethiopia at this moment needs to change, but it will only change when all the components are aligned and our intentions go beyond the individualistic, towards the collective.
Capital: What are the challenges you have to deal with due to the profession lacking both recognition and an institution to set standards in the country?
Aida: The biggest challenge that we still face relates to the security measures that we have to comply with when undertaking street photography. The reality of being a photographer in our country is obviously different from that of someone coming from a “developed” country. I often find the short-term vision of most foreign photographers rather comical, as they cannot understand the culture and history that our nation shares with photography. The issue of security is not new, it even existed at the time of the Emperor, specifically when we speak about street photography but now, with smart phones and the accessibility of producing images on any phone, it doesn’t make sense that we still have to face these challenges, as professionals who have urgency in documenting the changing phases of our country. We are aware of security sensitive areas, which by law, cannot be photographed such as the Palace or even around the US Embassy, but this is still a challenge in many other public areas, as the security forces continuously confront us.
This was in fact brought up with our late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi some years ago, and even though he gave us a positive response in connection with the violation of our rights, we still face the same issues today. And so, this takes us back to the lack of adequate policies to address our current realities and to the absence of higher education institution specializing in photography. Undeniably, photography plays a major role in society, education, businesses, and as a tool to promote our country. But how can we develop the sector if we are still facing basic issues that prevent us from doing our job? The recognition of photography as a profession would mean that society overall would also value it as a tool that can be utilized for change. Even the branding campaigns by multinational beer companies in our country use images to sell their products, however, when we look at local businesses, there is still a big gap when it comes to understanding the value of photography. We have encountered several businesses that still think that photography is just a matter of pressing the button, with no grasp of the skills required or an appreciation of a well-produced image. Regardless of how you look at it, photographers are major assets, not only as witnesses of the changing times but also, as artists who are preserving the present for future generations.
Capital: Have you addressed these challenges with government officials?
Aida: There is an ongoing dialogue with government officials. It will take time to implement the necessary policies to address, not only our rights but also, how to develop the sector. If we look at taxation and incentives, these are often given to the tourism market, which means that if you want to build a hotel you are given tax incentives, however, my main point of conversation is that no one comes to Ethiopia only to experience a hotel, people come to experience culture in whatever form it may be. Therefore, when you look at the cultural sector (under which photography falls), we are the ones engaging international audiences as promoters of our country, even before they arrive.
When a person abroad sees a film, eats at an Ethiopian restaurant, visits an art or photography exhibition they begin to experience the country, therefore, our engagement with international audiences has to be taken into consideration and also supported. Again, it comes back to the prioritization of the cultural sector and its impact, not only on our society but also, in gaining international visibility, in other words, putting Ethiopia on the map, as a country that is gradually becoming a cultural capital.
When we look at the number of galleries or even at the variety of festivals organized by private individuals on a wide range of topics like music, fashion, film, photography and food, the country is, in fact, being rebranded, to offer tourists not only an insight into our heritage but showcasing the contemporary aspects of our society as well. Therefore, in the numerous conversations that I have had with various officials, my main points have been that we need support because, in the end, culture is soft power. Irrespectively of the way we choose to consume culture, we must be able to reproduce our own realities through our own images and voices, instead of waiting for someone else to do it for us.
Capital: You referred to the absence of photographers association in Ethiopia as one of the problems in your field. How is this matter viewed by other photographers? Do they also have the same opinion?
Aida: I believe that the lack of a national photography association is the key-missing component for advocacy in Ethiopia. This is something that has been looming for several years, with no progress. Its establishment would require persistence by emerging photographers.
It is highly bureaucratic to establish a professional association specially when, unlike fine artists in Ethiopia, we don’t have a formal university level education to validate the qualifications needed to set it up. As more photographers enter the scene, a professional association becomes a priority and the key component to addressing various issues and concerns with government. However, this will require unification for the greater good on the part of the photographers, as opposed to perpetuating individualistic agendas that have not benefitted the growth of the sector.
Capital: Tell us about current projects you are working on.
Aida: Regarding my personal artwork, I am currently represented, and also exhibiting in my gallery, David Krut Projects, both in South Africa and New York. My new collection The World is 9 is touring different art fairs and museums, the most recent one being the New York 1:54 Art Fair and, soon after, it will be displayed at the Dakar Biannual, in Senegal. I will also be exhibiting my work in Germany, London and San Francisco.
In addition, I am also this year’s nominator for the Discovery Award at the Arles photography festival, in France. This award offers great visibility for emerging talents from across the world. I have made my selection from the works by Ethiopian photographer Nader Adem and those by Sarah Marie from Uganda. Later on in the year, I will continue my jury membership as part of the Uganda Press Photography Awards taking place in Kampala.
I will also be curating a collection of photography in the J’burg Art Fair, in South Africa. As far as Ethiopia is concerned, this year will mark the fourth edition of the Addis Foto Fest, which is the first and only international photography festival in East Africa, taking place during the first week in December. I affectionately call this festival “the beautiful nightmare” because it is truly a work of passion and since organizing such an event involves a lot of hard work.
This year we will be showcasing 100 photographers from around 36 different countries and launching a few new projects such as an awards ceremony, which we didn’t have in the past. This year I will also be focusing more on my personal photojournalism projects, as well as conducting workshops in neighboring countries.