Into the heart of Ethiopia with Mitchell Kanashkevich
A couple of months ago we went on a ten-day road trip to the Highlands of Northern Ethiopia. It is actually both easy and inexpensive to go on weekend-trips with Ethiopian Airlines to sights such as Lalibela, Bahir Dar, Gondar, Mekele and Axum. And the flights over the never-ending mountains early in the morning are incredibly beautiful. But in a plane you don’t see things in detail, you don’t experience the people, the nature and the change of landscape. It had been a dream for a long time to cover some of Tigray in a 4×4, and get one-to-one encounters with the people and landscapes of the region. We were in particular excited to go from Lalibela to Adwa and Axum via the little known or perhaps rather under-utilised 380km dirt-road via Sekota and Abi Aday that most people (especially tourists) skip for the more pleasant asphalt-road via Mekele. We knew it would be tough, but the toughness was by far worth the incredible landscapes we experienced on this one and a half day drive.
The only other ferenji (foreigner) we met on this road was in the remote and dusty town of Abi Aday. We had just washed off the dust from a day on the road, and were relaxing on the porch when a motorcycle parked in front of us. Motorcycles on these roads stroke us as quite unusual, and pretty tough. Needless to say we were pretty surprised to see a ferenji-face show up under the helmet as the driver took it off. The dusty face then greeted us with the very appropriate words: Hello Fellow foreigners, and we fell into conversation with the motorcycle man and his companion. Our fellow foreigner was travel-photographer Mitchell Kanashkevich who had been travelling in the region for a couple of weeks with his wife Tanya and their friend and ‘fixer’ Zemenfes Hagos.
Born in Belarus and residing in Australia when not travelling, Mitchell Kanashkevich is a curious world wanderer and a travel/documentary photographer. His main passion lies in capturing disappearing ancient cultures and the human condition in unique, challenging situations. He freelance and shoot documentary photo stories and writes eBooks. Much of his travel/documentary photography is represented by Getty Images, while the cultural portraits, both colour and black and white are in the private collections of photo lovers and collectors worldwide.
We asked Mitchell some questions about his experiences in Ethiopian and are very pleased to share his answers as well as some of his stunning photographs from the Tigray region with our readers. For more info and photos from Mitchell’s hand, please visit www.mitchellkphotos.com
What brought you to Ethiopia?
MK: It’s been a dream for a long time. I’d wanted to go to Africa since I was a child and then, while at university I saw a few documentaries on TV that inspired me to make Ethiopia the first country I’d visit in Africa.
Where did you go?
MK: So far I’ve been mostly in the North. I’ve spent most of my time around Tigray in particular.
What was your favourite destination?
MK: By far it has been the Inderta area – the mountain villages around the city of Mekele. The people there are incredibly hospitable and fascinating as photographic subjects. It doesn’t hurt that the landscapes are stunning too. A close second would have to be Lalibela – it’s a magical place, with all those churches and pilgrims constantly flowing through. I was there at Christmas and I felt as if I was transported back to biblical times. It was special.
How did the Ethiopia you experienced match your images of the country before coming here?
MK: That’s always a tough one, but I think even more so for this case. I desperately wanted to fall in love with Ethiopia before I came here. I heard a lot of good things, but unfortunately a few weeks into my journey I was having mostly negative experiences. The thing that struck me the most was the attitude of people in rural areas, people which are usually the best, kindest, most generous folks in other countries, in Ethiopia just kinda saw me and my wife as nothing more than a source of money. It was a little tough to take, as we couldn’t escape the crowds of money (and pen or whatever other school accessories) demanding children as well as adults with various sob stories virtually anywhere we went. It seemed that no one cared about making friendships or that their idea of friendship was us giving them something.
Photographically, the country has actually exceeded my expectations, and once I finally found areas where I felt comfortable and the people treated me as a human being, I felt that I was in a very special place.
What camera did you shoot with?
MK: Canon 5D MKII, but it really doesn’t matter, one can shoot images like mine with almost any Digital SLR camera.
Was there anything specific to the light in Ethiopia?
MK: Not really, except for the fact that it gets dark fairly early and the sun rises relatively late, I guess it’s because Ethiopia is closer to the equator than some other places I’d been to.
Any advice for (travel) photographers in Ethiopia?
MK: I think my advice would be similar as it is for photographers in other so called “developing” countries, and some things apply to anywhere. Firstly, if you’re photographing people, be respectful and I’d also say that here in Ethiopia – make sure that they are respectful towards you too, don’t just give into demands of handing out things to everybody. I strongly oppose giving money for photos in most cases. Of course, if you have taken a few hours of someone’s time, it might be ok to compensate that person, but I prefer to be creative with that compensation and to be culturally sensitive. For example, a couple of times, I’ve asked if I could see and photograph coffee ceremonies in rural areas, and sugar is usually something of a luxury there, so I bring sugar, as a small present, and it’s connectable to the whole coffee ceremony thing. It’s abhorring that some visitors see the whole world as a supermarket and everything is a transaction. They feel that they can and should buy everything, they know no other way of “paying” back. Someone smiles for the camera and you pay – that to me is a way to screw our world up beyond repair.
You seem to focus mostly on photographing rural Ethiopia, and already renown places such as the rockhewn churches of Lalibela and Tigray, Gondar and the Danakil Depression. Is there any reason for this?
MK: Actually, I don’t really focus on the known places so much, I visited them because they were interesting, but I prefer to photograph the lesser known places, to show people other sides of a country. I mean, how many people know about Inderta, or Abi Adi? Those places are also where the really genuine and kind people seem to be. It’s sad, but I think that foreign influence is not really positive in Ethiopia in most cases. So I am not so crazy about shooting in the better known tourist locations. Also, if I see a sign from a large NGO outside a village, I generally don’t want to deal with the people there. This is after I’ve had a few experiences of people trying to massively overcharge me for things like parking a bike for a couple of days. They said that that’s what the organizations pay them. There’s a lot of silliness surrounding this topic, but that is an altogether different matter.
Do you think that a travel photographer like yourself can contribute to changing the image of a country, such as the image of Ethiopia as a place of hunger of poverty?
MK: I hope so. The truth is Ethiopia’s problems are very serious and it starts with the people inside the country. However, Ethiopia is a real jewel, in terms of nature and culture. There’s so much beauty and diversity, even from what I’ve seen in the limited time in the North, it’s incredible.
Three things that come to your mind thinking about Ethiopia?
MK: Incredible culture, extreme poverty – physical and poverty of the mind, vast landscapes.
See a selection of Mitchell’s photos below, and read the full story behind each on his blog, right here.