Wednesday, December 3, 2008

DFA and Teaching Photography in Ethiopia

Hello everyone and welcome to the DFA blog:

Please feel free to send us your blog links, website (relating to photography and art), or post comments…

Background on how DFA came about:

My name is Aida Muluneh and I am a photographer based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, as well as the founder and Director of DFA. I was born in Ethiopia but spent most of my life roaming this planet, sometimes by choice and sometimes in search of a better life. But in December 2007, I decided to move back to my country after twenty-eight years of absence. Why? Well, I have always felt passionate about my country and more importantly, I have always wanted to return and teach photography.

As a child, I grew up hearing great stories about Ethiopia through my mother but these were always juxtaposed with news about the great famine of the 80’s. I remember when I was a teenager I was so ashamed to tell people that I was Ethiopian that I wished I was South African! Regardless, the stigma of the “starving Ethiopian” made it impossible for me to have any kind of pride in being Ethiopian. But, it was at the end of high school that I realized how images could create or distort realities and so, at the age of sixteen I begun exploring photography. I still remember our art teacher in high school for giving me a chance in photography by lending me his Pentax camera.

In 2000, I went on my first trip back and was surprised by the complexities, history, culture and possibilities of Ethiopia. I am not saying that things are rosy and perfect, as a photographer all that I ever wanted to do has been to explore and capture my people with dignity. Mind you, the famine of the 80’s has really become the only image people still associate with… even in 2008. There is nothing more insulting to me when people ask me “Do you have food in Ethiopia? Do you have a jungle? Are their roads?” and so forth. Yes, ignorance is rampant. I spent most of my artistic growth trying to give my viewers a different perspective then what they often to see in the mass media. Whether it’s the African-American community or the African Diaspora, the challenge always comes back to addressing the image of the Africans. I had begun to question why there was so much distortion in the media when it came to Africa and more close to me, the image of Ethiopia.

After, toiling with the idea of how I would return back to Ethiopia, I realized that the only solution to changing the image of Africa would be through training and self-sustainable opportunities.  Ethiopia is filled with foreign photographers working for various news agencies but we only have two Ethiopian photographers in the whole country that can compete with that market (Michael Tsegaye and Antonio Fiorente). Most of the photographers that we do have in the country are mostly wedding and studio photographers. Wedding photography has become a very lucrative business for many of the upcoming photographers and with that we have many wedding photography schools. Its almost comical to me to see what is taught in these schools and now with digital, it’s a matter of point and shoot photography.


Therefore, I began by offering a one-month workshop in collaboration with the Addis Ababa School of Fine Arts and Design. As one of the oldest arts schools in Africa, the one art program not fully offered is photography. I remember my first time in the darkroom and looking at the equipment. The school received donations but most of it was useless and required repair. Really frustrating to ask for donations and receive other peoples garbage! Regardless, I managed to find female students who were very eager to organize students for the workshops. After about a month with them, I realized that we have to expand this program to a full year and would need to establish something more permanent.


In the course of the past eight months our biggest challenge has been funding and equipment. We have been working with three cameras amongst thirteen students, which made it virtually impossible for retention. But the students are amazing and great source of inspiration to me. Some will become amazing photographers and their vision is slowly developing. The female photographers seem to be excelling more then the men. Not sure if this has something to do with me or if it is just the group.


Some people have asked me about our lesson plans and approach to teaching photography, here is a list of some things we have been doing:


The Lessons::::



1.         Our first lesson was going over equipment but to me photography is more then knowing your camera, you also need vision. One of my great mentors Chester Higgins Jr, used to say “its not the camera it’s your eyes.” There are plenty of photographers out there who know about the technical parts of photography but at the end their photos look like my son shot it. In the first shooting lesson, we spent five days on a small alleyway that led to the art school. This was a cobble stone street that the students spent many days walking on. It took the residence of the street a few days to get used to us taking pictures. I remember there was a mean old lady who cursed at anyone trying to take pictures of her but eventually one student managed to win her confidence. It was great seeing that! One important thing about photography is that it’s all about your interaction with your subjects. And in Ethiopia, they will be quick to bust your head with a stick if your approach is wrong. Many Ethiopians are distrustful of photographers, since so many have taken pictures of them for local and international NGO’s.


2.         Our most challenging shooting lesson was in Merkato. For those of you who don’t know, Ethiopia has the largest market in Africa called “Merkato” right in the capital Addis Ababa. It is a place that you can buy anything and everything. Also, filled with chaos. For some of the students having lived in the city, they hadn’t spent so much time inside the market and it was almost like a culture shock to them. We spent twelve hours for two days and many of them have funny stories from the shooting. One student got chased by a group of angry steel workers. A random stranger slapped one student. However, through having to deal with the police and everything else that comes with shooting there, the students gained confidence on how to deal with large crowds and also establishing the trust of complete strangers.


3.         One of the most important components to the shooting lessons is having some of the students travel along side with us as we work on our personal projects. In the month of April 2008, we received a sponsorship from ADIKA TOUR AND TRAVEL to spend one month traveling by car through the northern regions of Ethiopia. Our goal is to continue taking students on all of our shooting tours inside the country and even for other regions of Africa. After all, classroom lectures have no purpose without putting it into action



4.         Some of my peers have told me that I am old fashioned and unrealistic to have the students learn darkroom developing and printing. But in this digital world, I think every photographer should get his or her hands dirty in the darkroom. I am still having a hard time accepting digital photography and having 20,000 images to edit every time I go shooting. Either way, the darkroom is a great way for the students to truly understand the technical process of the camera. Recently, with the students, we have managed to organize the darkroom to the point that we can develop negatives but still have ways to go to have a working enlarger. There is limited black and white film and paper in the country, been using LUCKY (made in China).  Most of the images we have scanned from that film look's like it was shot in the 1930’s. I have learnt you make the best with what you have and work on improving what you have.


5.         Our final component to the various lesson plans is the Lecture Series held every two weeks inside the art school. Every student has to present a collection of edits and in addition we invite foreign photographers to present and discuss with the students about their work as well as review the works of the students. Since, we have limited access to photography books and Internet is like dial-up on snail pace, we figured that the students needed to see as many images by other photographers. Every time I travel and meet other photographers, I come back with images to show the students. The main issue for me in regards to the students is that they have many misconceptions about photography. Recently I had them look at a book by Edward Steichen and they were all surprised that it was photographs. My main thing is to have them understand the limitless possibilities of photography and the various styles out in the world. 


 So with all of this said, if you would like to find more information, to support us, to exchange ideas, to be part of our community or simply to tell us about opportunities, please visit our website


Happy shooting!


Aida Muluneh