The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Thursday 21st September 2006

Picturing Northern Ethiopia

Given by - Richard Woods

Reviewed by - Suzie Grant

On the road from Gondar to Debark – driving to the start of a trek in the Simien Mountains – Richard Woods was captivated by the smile of a young boy who gestured at the wonderful landscape behind him. Richard was looking for a subject for a book for his photographic degree and at that moment realised there was something here for him to do visually. His first visit to Ethiopia was a random choice – just a destination to go trekking over the Christmas period – but his involvement with Ethiopia rapidly developed and he made a further two visits and collected more material for his project. Based on his all time favourite photography book The Americans by Robert Frank, Richard’s objective was to create a black and white ‘photographic essay of episodes and encounters from daily life…in the Ethiopian province of Amhara’. This he called The Amharans.

But before he showed us his book he spoke of the broader context in which Ethiopia has been photographed by people from outside Ethiopia and how Ethiopia has been visually represented over the past twenty or thirty years.

He identified four key visual repertoires that have dominated the portrayal of Ethiopia and of Africa as a whole. These he discussed using pictures from celebrated European and American photographers and some of his own pictures to illustrate these visual repertoires.

First, the idea of humanity in distress was perhaps the most familiar concept to have influenced general perceptions of Ethiopia. Using powerful images by Michael Buerk, Paul Lowe, Sebastiao Salgado and the Daily Mirror, plus several of his own very evocative photographs Richard demonstrated not only the predatory nature of much photojournalism but also the way that children are commonly used in imagery of distress. Through the works of Salgado he showed us a sense of drama which could be described as biblical – a form of religious – almost Catholic art.

Anthropologist’s Africa, his second visual repertoire, discussed the idea of vanishing Africa where parts of Ethiopia are seen to represent a sort of primal, raw, tribal Africa, untouched by the outside world. Here the notion of people as an endangered species, about to be taken over by the modern world, prevails. Using an arresting image of a boy spitting blood by Travertini Giansanti, and emotive works by Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher he discussed the concepts of the Noble Savage “man was born free and he is everywhere in chains” and Conrad’s portrayal of the Congo as “the heart of darkness”. Ethiopia and Africa in general, are often seen by Western photographers such as Don McCullin as something they have discovered, a sort of land of primitives untouched by influences of global culture. Through photographs by Leni Reifenstahl, Hitler’s favourite film director who later turned to still photography, we saw Africa portrayed as a place of sexual potency, free from the inhibitions that restrain European society. The ‘wow’ factor – a visual feast of aesthetics but with unsubstantiated content – can lead to a sort of human zoo approach. Richard showed us some of his own photos, taken in the Lower Omo valley, and photographs taken by George Rodger in the late 1940s, which clearly illustrate this. The recent trend of documentaries (largely BBC) such as Tribe with Bruce Parry – where the presenter goes to live with a tribal community for a month and (almost!) fully immerses himself in their culture and practices – invites us to learn from the tribal community rather than just observing them through the camera lens. It encourages us to get closer to the people.

Happy Africa, a mythical place where people are naturally happy, was Richard’s third identified visual repertoire. He identified this theme in several of his own photographs. A.A. Gill writes “Most Africans work hard, are multilingual, are spiritual, kind, and love a joke with a passion, even a bad joke”. Here Africa is portrayed as an alternative to our materially and psychologically overburdened society. The psychology of happiness has become a prominent subject in the media of the economically developed world, where as income has risen, levels of happiness in our society have actually fallen.

The final repertoire Richard demonstrated was the Aid Agency’s vision for Africa. Here the idea is of development and promise for the future – the emphasis on opportunities rather than problems. Panos, an independent photographic agency representing photojournalists worldwide, aims to provide this alternative approach in a media climate dominated by celebrity and lifestyle. Showing photographs by Chris de Bode at a teachers’ primary project supported by VSO in Chimbiri, Ethiopia – Bep Bonet – the children are asked what they want to do when they grow up.

In the second part of the talk Richard showed all the pictures from his book. They were taken during two trips to the Amhara region of Ethiopia. During his trek in the Simien mountains he learnt about GEES Gondar (Ethiopia) Eye Surgery– a charity founded by Dr. Sandy Holt Wilson – a society member who many may know personally or who may have attended his lecture on Prince Alemayou. Contacting Sandy in Wales Richard agreed to return to Gondar and create a portfolio of pictures of people with eye problems for GEES which at the same time allowed him to get more in-depth images of people and everyday life. The themes recurrent in the book are the role of faith as reflected in the iconography of the Ethiopian church, the mix of curiosity, openness, friendliness and guarded suspicion that accompany most of his encounters with people, the frequent atmosphere of desperation, the sense of nobility and self-sufficiency of the people, the harshness of the light and the mountainous terrain. The main subjects are religion, landscape, children, the blind, communication, the street.

Following the presentation of his beautiful black and white photographs Richard showed us the bound volume of his book and offered prints for sale – all profits to go to GEES. The talk was well attended by Society members, trekkers from Simien mountains trips, GEES, and even Richard’s guide from the Simien mountains – Dawoud – now studying in the UK for a year. I felt that through the Society many people had been able to come together and enjoy the talk and at the same time to do something positive towards helping just a few of the people with eye problems in Ethiopia.

All photographs © Richard Woods

Check the galleries on Richard's website to see more of his photographs.

First Published in News File Winter 2006

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