Michael Tsegaye is one of Ethiopia’s most renowned and prolific photographers. Born in 1975, he lives and works in Addis Ababa. He graduated as a painter from the University of Addis Ababa in 2002, but was forced to quit due to an allergy to oil paint. Luckily this did not discourage him, but instead lead him on a new path towards photography, a passion that eventually became his living.
Tsegaye has a particular photographic voice, and his photographs bear strong traces of his upbringing in painting. Composition, light and an overall aesthetic permeate his work, as does a sensibility and curiosity to the world around him. Ethiopia and Ethiopian culture and traditions inform much of Tsegaye’s photographic trajectory. He invites us to take a view of the country through his eyes, and takes us to places, people, and atmospheres that uncover the diversity and complexity of his homeland.
Tsegaye’s work explores a diverse platter of themes or universes with a particular Ethiopian content, as well as topics that relates to global agendas such as urban development, prostitution, environmental issues etc. Series such as ‘Ankober’ (2007), ‘Afar’ (2011) or ‘North Road’ (2008) takes us through regions in Ethiopia, capturing the essence of these places and the people living there. ‘Chasms of the Soul: A Shattered Witness’ (2010) explores an Ethiopian burial tradition that under Tsegaye’s careful interpretation and analysis reaches a new level and evokes a whole new dimension of loss and mortality. In ‘Working Girls I & II’ (2009) Tsegaye focuses on commercial sex workers in a specific area of the capital Addis Ababa. These sex workers are living a tough and in many ways undignified life searching for work on the streets, where their profession becomes a public affair. But their life in public is not of interest to Tsegaye who has a characteristic inter-personal and intimate approach in this series, as well as in much of his other work. He crosses borders and goes closer to his subjects in order for them to put down the parades and reveal their real self.
This approach is evident in Tsegaye’s recent series, AUTUMN, portraits of an elder generation of Ethiopians. With extreme close-ups Tsegaye invades his subjects personal space, strips them of their masks and drags the viewer into their private universe. Faces marked by time, grey hair, wary eyes and a minimum of space around the subjects; The intimacy seems almost invading and one needs to take one step back to fully grasp and interpret the person on display. A tight, appealing and well-composed series that reaches extreme aesthetic dimensions in the effort to map out the stories, lives and identity of a generation, Michael Tsegaye shows us what photography as an art do when at its best: it imprint itself in our mind, keeps us wondering and wanting to always return to take an extra look to reveal additional layers. Or as the grand old man of photographic theory and semiotics, Roland Barthes, puts it, it creates a punctum; it stings us, peaks at our imagination. Who are these people, what are their stories, what did they experience in their long life, what is behind their deep wrinkles, hesitant smiles and glooming eyes? No one but the immortalized subjects in AUTUMN knows the answers to these questions, and we are forever left to wonder and imagine.
We asked Michael some questions about AUTUMN:
What motivated you to portray old people?
This is a project I started a long time ago. All old people are interesting. I probably will end up like them later, so this is me embracing that. Also I think the texture of their faces is unique and revealing.
Light and composition stand out as strong features in this series. What aesthetic or outcome did you wish to achieve?
I wished to capture their strong gaze, and that they had a strong connection with me. A heart to heart moment. I wanted to bring out their identity and what life means to them.
Taking photographs is not always an easy task in Ethiopia, a somewhat photophobic country. What was your experience portraying a generation that perhaps are at the peak of this photophobia?
On the contrary, in any country there are places where you cannot photograph. Perhaps here it is stricter, so you cannot take pictures of palaces, military offices and banks. And pornography is also not allowed.
But with people, there might be a layer of reserve when you first ask them to take their photograph, but most people like having their pictures taken. Almost everyone has a photo album in their house, or a family picture or portrait hanging on the wall, of a graduation or a wedding. It’s in our culture to be photographed. If you are visiting a friend or a family member, they will give you a photo album to look through until the tea or meal is ready. So I would not say that older people here are less likely to enjoy being photographed.
How willing were they to have their portraits taken?
They were excited. Probably because I am a friendly person, and they liked me. They gave me a hug after the photo, and they spit on me to bless me. In our culture, this is fantastic.
You move very close to your subjects with your camera, creating intense and intimate portraits. Why so close?
I like to invade personal spaces and make people uncomfortable. Then when they have no choice, they relax and become themselves. The mask drops, the veil rips open and they’re naked.
What do you read/see in these time-worn faces, their gloomy eyes and hesitant smiles of the subjects you portrayed? And how does it come alive in your portraits?
What I see is not in the photographs. What I see are people with life experiences, people who I can talk to, and laugh with, and give hugs to. These are people I shared good moments with. With the photographs, I want to show a very small part of the timeline that I spent with them. But then again, that instant may show you who they were, and are, and what they may become.
Can you share one story behind a portrait that you find special, fascinating, or interesting?
There are so many stories, which could be a book. I have a hard time picking just one that is special. I’m also not trying to tell the story behind each portrait. I just want the viewer to imagine what it might be.
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