by Sionne Neely
AIDA MULUNEH is definitely a force to be reckoned with. The photographer and filmmaker heads up ADDIS FOTO FEST – a biannual, international photography festival in Addis Ababa that brings a diverse cadre of African photographers together to showcase their work [the third installation is Dec 2014]. In direct response to how Ethiopia has been popularly imagined by western development + media agencies since the 1980s, Aida is building an appreciation for photography among the Ethiopian public by re-working how photography takes shape in the country. The festival develops the capacity of emerging Ethiopian photographers to tell their own compelling stories.
I caught up with my fellow Howard U Film Dept. comrade on a recent trip to Accra. Here we rap about Addis Foto Fest and how emerging Ethiopian photographers are in a unique position to transform the country’s visual future.
How did Addis Foto Fest begin?
I exhibited at the Bamako Biennale in 2007 and when I went back to Addis it became critical to have a festival with all of these components in a week-long event. All over Africa there really aren’t a lot of photography festivals. As a photographer it was really important to not just give opportunities to photographers on the continent but also to introduce photographers abroad to come to Ethiopia and really see the activities in our country.
Over the past thirty years or so, Ethiopia has consistently been misrepresented based on the images of the 80s. I figured if I have this festival, we can start having this discussion about rebranding Ethiopia not only from our own photographers but also photographers who visit the country, shoot and go back to their countries and exhibit this work.
The philosophy I believe in is cultural exchange through images.
With the rebranding initiative, what is some of the content now coming out?
It’s been really interesting – the first festival I only knew a few photographers in Ethiopia. The second one, I included the photographers I met in the first one. Each time, I’m discovering new talent and new approaches to how our own photographers are looking at the changing city and the changing country. I’ve seen the shift of the quality of images and what people are documenting. In the longer run for me it’s to demystify this negative perspective that Ethiopians have in regard to photography. So when you are shooting in the street – the biggest challenge is – someone will come up to you and say you’re making money off of it.
Are you going to make an NGO billboard?
We’re also preserving the history. We did this six month project called Addis Transformations where we documented different areas of the city and it was our way of contributing. Five or twenty years from now, the reality we see today will no longer exist. It wasn’t only about structures but people. How we dress ten years from now – and I’m talking traditional dress – it’s all disappearing because of globalization. The country is really changing and we have to preserve those dynamics through images. My conversation’s not only with photographers or artists, it’s also with government and business – it’s with every component of society. Everyone has a photo album in their house and this is how I try to make a connection with people. We’re archivists ourselves because we are documenting our own memory.
You know, you look at your picture from five years old and it resonates some kind of memory. It’s really preserving memory as a future.
What kind of images are you drawn to as a photographer?
I always tell people, I don’t do animals. I don’t do landscape. I’m a people person. I’m really interested in how people live. I shoot with a 20mm and I’m always close to people because I grew up outside.
In a way I’m recreating a memory I don’t have of a country I didn’t grow up in.
There are a lot of stories that we need to tell and I haven’t even scratched the surface. Over time what I really want to do is continue documenting these stories. There’s a lot of fascinating things on the continent. For instance, when I go to Europe or the States, I don’t shoot because there’s really nothing interesting for me there. It’s very sterile, you know? But I find in my country, everything’s organic and has a beauty to it.
Some people will tell me, why are you shooting this wall? I remember this one old woman came out of her house and she was like, “Are you a part of the government? Are you taking photos of this wall because you want to tear down the neighborhood?” I told her, no I’m just documenting because I find beauty in this. So the things that people don’t find beauty in, I find interesting. The everyday thing has it’s own beauty. When I shoot. I shoot from the heart.
If we are supposed to promote our country, we need the freedom to do this. I’m not talking about the Ministry of Defense or anything, I’m just talking about neighborhoods. In our constitution it says that we have the right to document but this doesn’t get passed down to the police force, the military and what have you. At that time, the Prime Minister responded by saying that anyone who has told you that you can’t photograph – because we’ve been arrested and gone through many challenges – is perpetuating a crime against you, this is your right.
With the festival being a big event, this is a way we are trying to bridge a gap within society to show that photography is a really useful tool. I’ve had situations where I’m shooting in a neighborhood and I look around and I see twenty people following me. Then someone will call an authority to ask what I’m doing there. So the mentality has to change. At the same time I can’t blame the paranoia that exists around photography because foreigners have come and completely abused and used images against us. So now we’ve become extremely protected over what’s to be documented.
The power has to be in our own hands to tell our own stories and document our own images. We have to be able to balance out the realities.
There are a lot of foreign photographers that come and go back with these cliches that I’m really sick and tired of seeing. So even when the selection is made for the festival, I’m not looking for the usual stuff.
It sounds like there is a dual mission to your work – educating folks worldwide about a diverse Ethiopia at the same time that you are rebranding the country from within.
There should be a more positive interaction between those born and raised in Ethiopia and those who have decided to come back and invest. There’s a misconception on both sides. No one’s perfect here but in order for Africa to grow, its own population coming back and reinvesting and doing the work is great. I would rather see an Ethiopian coming and investing in Ethiopia than seeing someone from another part of the world coming and investing in our country because at least you have that connection.
How did Addis Foto Fest 2012 go?
The audience I am really interested in are the same people who watch Ethiopian and Nollywood films at the local theater. Most of the people I saw [at Addis Foto Fest] I didn’t know. It was random young people who came to these openings. We stopped counting after 500.
No matter what, if you truly believe in it and persist in it, things will happen. You will get to where you want to get if you truly believe in it. I’m working on building local talents – Ethiopians who can do this work with me, who I can train. I don’t want to bring people from the outside to do this work. I’m building an infrastructure developed by young local participants.
Stay in the loop with Aida Muluneh | @AddisFotoFest