Award-winning photographer Aïda Muluneh left Ethiopia for Yemen as a child, then moving to England, Cyprus, Canada and eventually the United States, where she worked at The Washington Post. The journey taught her many things, including the importance of mentors.
When she returned to Ethiopia more than a decade ago, she wanted to start giving back, especially in the realm of photography, which was underdeveloped and dominated by people from outside the country.
In 2010, Muluneh founded the Addis Foto Fest, a biennial festival in the Ethiopian capital that has become the largest in the continent and is currently staging its fifth edition. Although it has swelled to include 152 photographers from 61 countries around the world, its central goal remains to develop African photography.
“It’s important to have a global conversation,” she said before the festival’s Dec. 6 opening. “I’m trying to get African photographers into the international market. These are the networks that are important to build.”
One of the hardest things for local photographers starting out in Africa is gaining access to the talent and inspiration of the more experienced photographers. In many countries, photography isn’t celebrated, and there are few people to learn from.
“One thing that’s missing for photographers in the continent, they don’t have that feedback. They are creating the work, but you need input,” Muluneh said, recalling her own invaluable learning experiences working with veterans at places like The Washington Post.
Part of the Addis Foto Fest brings together 20 photographers from across the continent and puts them in a room with five experienced photographers, including from National Geographic and The Post, who critique their portfolios.
Eight years on, the festival, said Muluneh, has given many young photographers a boost.
The festival “takes chances on exhibiting work that in some cases might not fit in the international market,” she said. “What has happened is those that have exhibited with us have moved on to other things.”
To Lebo Thoka, from South Africa, the festival represents an amazing chance to gain exposure and meet other artists. “It’s a big step for me. I’m quite a recent graduate,” she said, noting South Africa’s high unemployment rate and the challenges of landing a job there. “It’s still quite difficult to even have this opportunity.”
She described meeting the other photographers from across Africa and the world as “eye-opening,” even as she develops her own striking fine art images.
Coming from Lagos, Nigeria, Nneke Ezemezue actually has a photo festival she could attend in Lagos, but she said the scope of the one in Addis Ababa is broader and more international.
She first applied to be part of the 2016 edition but didn’t make it, so she reapplied this year with a new portfolio of her documentary photography and was accepted.
“When you are part of the festival itself, you get introduced and you get to meet people you have heard of,” she said. “It’s good to put my work out there, to meet new photographers and editors and improve my network.”
Zelalem Gizachew from Addis Ababa, another photographer who’s part of the portfolio review, remembers the scene in Ethiopia when he first started shooting about eight years ago. Photography was not seen as a high art form and there was little in the way of learning opportunities.
“When I started doing photography, there wasn’t much — there weren’t a lot of people to talk to,” he recalled. “Since the Foto Fest started, photography has grown.”
He said opportunities like this helped him take the next step. “At some point in my photography life, I reached the point of what’s next?” he said. “Why am I shooting? Why am I taking photos?” Engaging in programs like the festival gave him direction.
Muluneh’s quest to create this festival and develop photography in Ethiopia was driven by her desire to get Africans presenting their own images, rather than just being the subjects of them.
“If we are trying to promote Ethiopia, show a different side of Ethiopia or Africa, then it goes back to we have to develop the talent. We can’t be continuously relying on Western media to show us what our reality is,” she said.
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