Throughout my journey to impoverished countries all over the world, one trait has reigned true: warmth. No matter what stressful situation or unknown location we find ourselves in, there is always a good person we meet among the madness. Good people are everywhere, even in the darkest, most forbidden war-torn corners of earth. These good people are responsible for uplifting others and guaranteeing people like you are aware of the problems that many face, everyday.
When I was first offered the opportunity to travel to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia I was really unaware of those problems and issues that plagued the city and the country as a whole. On the minimal available information I had been given, it was tough to wrap my head around what we would be doing or why we would be there. There is so little awareness and so little knowledge that I was forced to dive deeper and I only scratched the surface of what I would eventually come to find.
It all started with my friend Coury Deeb of Nadus Films and the “Give A Story” grant project. We give a grant to those world-wide foundations that need it most. The grant provides the opportunity to document, capture and provide the right tools, so these initiatives can raise awareness and gain traction for further funding. Our project in Ethiopia focused on the foundation “Youth Impact” which provides shelter, food and a solid path for homeless children located in the city of Addis Ababa.
Due to famine and communist civil war, nearly 60% of Ethiopia, Africa is under the age of 18 and of that demographic nearly 100,000 children are completely homeless and suffer from tremendous injustice. Poverty, addiction, prostitution and disease. Some children, just 6 years of age roaming the streets of the city. There is an extreme lack of leadership, parents and grandparents. It is a country of youth. Unfortunately, much of the world is ignorant to this injustice and only a brave few have taken the step to witness the problem then follow up with action. Before I even stepped off the plane, I knew it would be an experience, but I was unaware of the impact it would actually have.
While preparing for this project, everything suddenly changed. Although, Ethiopia is well-traveled by tourism, it’s also a country that is weary of exploitation. Just days before our date of departure, we hit a speed bump and had to re-think our strategy for both entering the country and the equipment we would haul. Our usual gear list consists of cameras, lenses, tripods, grip equipment, lighting, stands, sliders, and stabilizers. We had to break it down to something with a smaller footprint and less conspicuous. We had to play the tourist and travel completely under the radar, which isn’t easy for a professional production crew. Luckily, thanks to the efficiency of LensRentals, we were able to grab the right lightweight and mobile tools for the job on top of a stripped down version of our normal equipment list.
There was still one issue to overcome. I knew the project would involve children who have struggled. Children who have stories. I wanted to tell their story the only way I know how, through imagery. I decided to develop a portrait series of both children right off the streets as well as adults that have grown through the Impact program. I wanted to bring the aesthetic of my portrait work blended with a journalistic mood. That style involved creating a custom canvas soley designed from the ground up for this series. I consulted many weeks with Chelsea Niemeier, a local artist who creates custom backdrops. Unfortunately, I could not travel with a nine foot backdrop, so it had to be small, small enough to fit into a travel kit. We landed on a 3x4 drop that could be rolled around a Manfrotto 2983 Adjustable Background Holder Crossbar and then placed into a case which would house our Benro MoveOver8 Dual Carbon Rail Slider. Due to weight, we couldn’t pack any light stands, so I would have to hash out how to rig the background while on the ground.
After days of packing and working through the new gear, we had a solid gameplan and only one equipment kit per person. We could only cross our fingers to avoid any questions and hurdles during our entry into the country. Upon landing in Addis Ababa, I was nervous. I was stopped due to my camera kit having to be checked in Frankfurt, Germany. I fought it, but to zero prevail. The crew moved ahead and I was all alone in the Addis Ababa airport. Although, I attempted to catch up with the crew in the customs line, there were some unhappy customers who didn’t let me move ahead of the line, which took hours. But, I eventually got through by paying close attention to others moving faster through the checkpoint. By the time I entered the baggage claim, the crew had disappeared, so I kept pushing forward and was able to squeeze past a rope avoiding the final security checkpoint. Once I stepped outside the airport a weight fell off my shoulders, but I still had to find the team. After a small walk through the parking lot, I stumbled upon Reid, Justin and Coury sticking out among the African mob. We made it.
We were met by a man named Abraham Fiseha, who was at the helm of Youth Impact. He was well dressed and had a full head of white hair. Well spoken in English, he immediately came across as kind and warming. His demeanor was the comfort we needed after the long trip. We arrived to our hotel, which was unexpectedly more upscale then we had imagined for a 3rd world country. After a quick rundown of our schedule, we hit the rooms. Our week would start at sunrise.
At first sight I was shocked. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia isn’t the Africa I had been first introduced to. It is very different from Tanzania, which I visited in June of 2015 for The Waterboys Initiative. Ethiopia is far more developed, but more crippled. I recongized a small Western influence, but nothing like I’ve seen in alternate countries such as India. Ethiopian people are proud of their culture, religion and heritage. But, their eyes gave me a sense of desperation for more; a need to reach and achieve a better life.
Addis Ababa is beautiful, but broken. As we traveled down the streets we saw an extreme juxtaposition of humanity. Although much of the demographic is young, I immediately noticed a difference between new and old. The fashion was all across the board, from western hip skinny jeans and fake leather Air Jordan’s to authentic long white Africa dress that covered most of the body and head. And, underneath the clothing I didn’t see much happiness.
Photographing this project in Addis Ababa was one of the most difficult assignments I’ve had. Much of the content I photograph is street photography and a production-style touch of photojournalism. It’s not what I do nor what I’m known for, it’s something I really enjoy. It takes me outside of my comfort zone and into a life behind the lens. It’s my security blanket in these strenuous and precarious locations. Nevertheless, the people of Ethiopia are terrified of the unknown. Despite our project indirectly saving the lives of their own, they are hesitant of any type of picture, including documentary work. Due to the fear of exploitation, we were met with a lot of resistance and “hands over the face.” It made our job difficult, we had to be quick, inconspicuous and constantly in the shadows.
It was our task to focus on a foundation that was impacting the lives of children who so desperately need help. Upon arrival at the shelter, my reaction wasn’t shock, but difficulty. The shelter was small, similar to a one floor ranch-style two bedroom home. The front yard was piled with random rusted debris and the back porch was a concrete dorm with open doors and ropes covered in wet clothing. The shelter is completely surrounded by a 10-foot concrete wall which was embedded with shards of glass; an inferior barbwire. Unfortunately, Youth Impact has trouble keeping their shelters, due to high rent and troubled neighbors who complain about the amount of children populating the home.
Abraham Fiseha is the face of Youth Impact, a soldier of the children. He loves his country and over the years saw a great need to help the needy, which consisted mostly of children. His love for children permeates through the entire program and his thoughtful aura carries the entire shelter with strong leadership and an inspirational message. He wants the youth to succeed and has a deep passion for creating that success for each of the children. He is a hero to thousands. But, Abraham has a secret weapon. His name is Ermias Zeleke. A man with a troubled history and once lived on the streets; now the mentor to dozens of homeless children. Ermias is quiet, calm and collective. He has an amazing smile that can warm the heart in an instant. Many street children are disconnected, they are scared and alone. The street is their home and it’s hard for them to ever leave. Ermias hits the street every single day in attempt to gain the trust of the street children and build a bond so that may accept the opportunity to move into the shelter. It’s not easy, many times requiring months and months of constant inquisition and discourse.
I had a clear idea of what to expect once we dove into the project. Youth Impact has blazed a trail for dozens of successful business men, architects, carpenters and artists. Once homeless, many Ethiopian Millenials have been saved through the Youth Impact initiative. I wanted to capture not only the current children living through the shelter, but also those blossoming people who had so much to owe to their mentors. It was a humbling experience to photograph this community that has so much to say, but no voice. Hopefully, this series provides that voice that they so yearn to have. This is dedicated to the outstanding team of Youth Impact that is making a significant difference.
Orphan, he was taken into Youth Impact and has since graduated with a College degree and teaches Architecture.
Orphan, joined Youth Impact at the age of 17, she has since graduated College and is currently a School Teacher.
Orphan, joined Youth Impact at the age of 16, he has since graduated College.
Orphan, joined Youth Impact at the age of 12, he has since graduated College.
Orphan, joined Youth Impact at the age of 14, she has since graduated College and is currently a Elementary School Teacher.
Orphan, joined Youth Impact, she has since graduated College and is currently serving at a local hospital as a nurse.
Orphan, joined Youth Impact at the age of 12, she has since graduated College and is currently serving at a local hospital as a nurse.
Runaway, joined Youth Impact from the streets of Addis Ababa, he left his home in Ghana to find work in Addis Ababa.
Runaway, joined Youth Impact at the age of 16 from the streets of Addis Ababa. He left a Muslim family.
Runaway, joined Youth Impact from a troubled life on the streets of Addis Ababa. He was addicted to glue and hash. He left his rice farm in Ziway for Addis Ababa. He has since rehabilitated.
Runaway, joined Youth Impact at the age of 16 from the streets of Addis Ababa, he left his home to find better work.
Runaway, joined Youth Impact from the streets of Addis Ababa, he left his farm in Ghana to find a better life in Addis Ababa, which resulted in homelessness for over 4 years.
Runaway, joined Youth Impact from the streets of Addis Ababa, he left his farm in Dessie to find a work in Addis Ababa, which resulted in homelessness for 2 years.
Runaway, joined Youth Impact at the age of 18, he left his farm in Ghanda to find a work in Addis Ababa, which resulted in homelessness for several months.
Runaway, joined Youth Impact from a tough life on the streets of Addis Ababa. He has been jailed 8 times for alcohol related crimes. He left his farm in Ghana for Addis Ababa.
Runaway, joined Youth Impact from the streets of Addis Ababa, he left Ziway to find a work in Addis Ababa, which resulted in homelessness for several months.
We didn’t have a system to rig the beautiful canvas that I had custom painted, so we grabbed what we could from the pile of wreckage on the alley-way next to the Youth Impact shelter, a cracked wooden ladder and trashed twin bed frame. Using a Manfrotto 035 Super Clamp attached to the backdrop, draped over Manfrotto 2983 Adjustable Background Holder Crossbar, we linked the clamp to another Manfrotto 035 Super Clamp and secured it to the debris. Using gaff tape and zip ties we fixed the bottom of the backdrop to avoid kick up from wind.
The light setup was simple; a Profoto B2 Location Kit attached to a Manfrotto 026 Swivel Umbrella Adapter which we coupled to a Manfrotto 680B Compact Monopod for complete mobility. The Profoto B2 head is modified with a 46” Photo Softlighter II, one of the softest source of modification I’ve ever used. Luckily, I had two trusted assistants who spoke enough broken English to understand my instructions of feathering the light and keeping the strobe consistently directionally opposite the sun.
It was a true honor to hear the stories behind these young adults, who have so much to offer but, nearly had zero foundation to create a life. Fortunately, Youth Impact has provided a reachable dream and given the ladder of victory. Built upon a dark past, they are the future of Ethiopia.
Ethiopia has impacted the world. It tells the legend of being the birthplace of coffee. It’s also known for being the possible location for the Garden Of Eden, which is so detailed in The Bible. Although, most of our journey took place in the centralized slums of Addis Ababa, on the last leg of our adventure, we left the smoggy city and ventured out the the beautiful pastures of Ethiopia. We eventually landed at the Ethio German Park Hotel in the heart of the Blue Nile Gorge. A historical land of wild baboons, unique plant-life and mile-high canyons. The jagged rock and sandy-brown texture painted a beautiful landscape that overlooked thousands of acres of farmland and housing. I remember sucking in the fresh air for a momentary high after a long arduous week of documentation.
We were finally able to break out the DJI Inspire Drone and capture the beauty of this amazing country. We spent the first few hours planning specific shots, which had to be captured at specific times. Our final shot would be the biggest obstacle in the entire production. The Blue Nile Gorge consists of a massive waterfall which has helped create the Portuguese Bridge; a rocky structure that has three large arteries. It was built in the 16th century by the Portuguese to cross the epic waterfall. Fortunately, we arrived to the canyon during its driest season. But, there were deep pools that local youth jump into from a thirty-foot craggy overhang. This was our shot, this was our ending. We wanted to capture the thirty-foot jump from three different perspectives; overhead drone, stabilized follow-shot and a static shot down below near the natural pool. After six jumps and a lot of trial & error, we had the shot wrapped. Despite the crew being absolutely beat, we celebrated by making the jump ourselves, in just our underwear.
After a strong day in the Blue Nile Gorge, we high-tailed it back into Addis Ababa. On the way, we dropped by a road-side farmer who farms Injera, which is the main source of food in Ethiopia. The crop was dry, wheat-like and was cut into large bails, similar to Hay. The man was kind and welcoming to a photograph, a refreshing end to a stressful journey.
The flight back to the United States was a long, somber journey. The east coast had been slammed with poor weather and all international flights into the States were immediately cancelled. We tried for hours to connect the dots and make it home in a decent amount of time. Unfortunately, we were not that lucky. We had a 24 hour layover in Frankfurt, Germany which actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Despite the lack of sleep it was invigorating to breath in some cold air, trek thorought the Bacharach mountain vineyards and explore the Frankfurt night-life. The late-night strawberry hookah was just the icing on the cake and a takeaway we needed. It took nearly 48 hours to get back into the United States. We had traveled from Africa to Saudia Arabia to Germany to Texas and finally to our destination, but I couldn’t help but reflect on the week in Africa. The world is such a big place; I’m just so blessed to have the opportunity to see it.
Our experience changed me. I now drink coffee and I obsess over Ethiopian spices. On a deeper level, I came back to the United States with a new found respect for those helping others and raising a community. When I am asked about Ethiopia, the first thing I see is the faces of children who had never seen themselves in a photograph. I only hope my photography and our films can shape the lives of people all over the world.