Prints For Prints: Afar, Ethiopia

Earlier this year while I was on assignment for an NGO based in Mekele, Ethiopia, I had the unique opportunity of visiting the incredible landscape of the Danakil Depression along with my colleague, Dardinelle Troen, and two employees of Mekele University.

Danakil Depression

For us, it was an epiphany to stumble upon this unbelievable and yet relatively undiscovered corner of the world. Everything was unexpected: the place, it’s unique geology and landscape, the people and their unique way of life. One highlight was our encounter with a mile-long camel caravan led by salt miners on their way to harvest salt from the vast salt pan we found ourselves driving across. I imagined these men traversing the same well-worn paths traveled historically for countless centuries dating back to the pharaohs.

Camels

While visiting this area, and as an excuse for making a personal connection, we stopped to take a few instant print photos of the men as they passed by, gifting them the print in exchange for a moment of interaction. Their excitement and appreciation reinforced enthusiasm for one of my personal projects, Prints For Prints.

Danakil Salt Workers

In 2013, I founded Prints For Prints, a volunteer organization that brings photographers and equipment to remote corners of the world to set up portable photo studios. A family photograph is a precious thing to many of us, and especially so to people who live in remote areas. Often in areas so far away, they do not have a record of their children, their elders or even themselves. We feel strongly that a photographic print is a wonderful way for loved ones to remember each other, whether they have passed from this life or are thousands of miles away carrying salt to Somalia. Our purpose is to create a physical keepsake that documents and preserves a moment in time to be shared and remembered, and passed to future generations.

Moroccan hands

As we’ve learned time and again in our journeys, contained within the portrait process is an opportunity to make a personal connection. In the course of capturing a picture, we shared an intimate moment exchanging glimpses into each other’s hearts and inner psyches. Warmth, humor, vulnerability, and sorrow all expressed in an instant.

This aspect was reinforced again during our brief time in the Danakil. It was a bit intimidating when we approached the salt miners in their caravan; they seemed rather intense and brooding. Even after overcoming the language barrier and agreeing to have their pictures taken, they still each gave a purposeful grimace when they stood for their portraits. It only struck us after a few moments that it was partly swagger as we watched each person being cajoled by his traveling mate as they each shared their small mementos with each other. This gesture opened the gates of wishes, and we were asked by many others to make more prints.

_DSC3329

In every venture of Prints For Prints, we always find ourselves drawing a crowd. Many times we find ourselves surrounded by burgeoning local photographers seeking to advance their skills. We make the most of these opportunities by making space in our process providing educational mentoring, either one-on-one with individuals or through partnerships with local schools, and we include students in our field photographs. We hope this opportunity to pass on our photographic expertise to a local community will sow the seeds for a developing photographic industry, as the passion for the craft is very apparent.

Prints For Prints Ethiopia

While experiencing this remote region and its natural beauty and seeing the salt miners’ joy upon receiving their instant print, we realized that there is a larger potential for storytelling here. Up until now, Prints For Prints’ primary focus has been connecting photographers to their subjects and leaving behind high-quality prints and the intellectual tools and inspiration for a continued photographic industry.

But there is more substantial potential as a vehicle for authentic exploration and storytelling of the area and bringing these stories to a larger audience. In a world struggling with a rise in polarization and nationalism, there is a need for a greater inclusiveness that celebrates our diversity and perhaps redefines our preconceptions of “others.” Making an intimate human connection in the same way a photographer connects to their subject in the process of making a portrait is a way to cross cultural divides.

Prints For Prints Ethiopia

We envision the Prints For Prints expedition as a vehicle for an authentic exploration of a locale by getting to know its people on a more intimate level while finding and documenting the anecdotes and rich stories that inform their life experiences along with those “1000 words” imbued in their portrait. Creating cohesive documentation in beautiful images, stories, and video can then be re-purposed in a variety of platforms: print, publications and social media to bring awareness, tourism, and commerce to the area.

Photographing each subject against a portable backdrop, we intend to create portraits as they hold artifacts they bring with them on their nomadic journey.

Prints For Prints Ethiopia

We are seeking support via project sponsorship or monetary coverage/discounts of expenses. In exchange, we will be promoting the experience and story, in traditional publications and social media platforms. The resulting photographic assets, videos and written stories will be available for sponsors to use for their marketing and promotions, as applicable.

Through our work with organizations such as Travel Oregon, we have repeatedly seen how this process results in success in reaching a targeted, diverse audience. Travel Oregon depends heavily on image based promotions to draw in tourism from around the state and region each year.

For further information about our experiences with Prints For Prints, please visit our website at www.printsforprints.com. We welcome any questions regarding our process, past experiences and budgets for upcoming project work.

Should funding or service donations be secured, our next proposed trip will be to return to the Danakil Depression in Ethiopia in February of 2018 to give those salt workers the photo prints they asked for, as well as some much desired sunglasses that have been collected by people living in a small assisted living home in Coos Bay, Oregon.

Seaside Stichers

(Seaside Stichers, photo by Mary Luther, Activities Coordinator)

 

If you would like to donate in-kind goods, airline miles, accommodations, transportation, translation services or financial support, please contact us by sending us an email or donating directly on our Prints For Prints donation page.

We appreciate any level of support!

Prints For Prints Ethiopia

You can see more images from this location in the Afar region of Ethiopia in my stock image database here. This project will also extend my earlier Market Workers project, celebrating those behind the developing world culinary scenes who bring spice and other delectable tastes into our lives.

Thank you for considering any level of involvement and support!

The Market Workers Book

Something, Anything

She walks up to me and extends a greeting, but all I see are her eyes and I miss the first attempt at shaking her hand. Those captivating and mesmerizing eyes she has; they will haunt me forever.

She is a camel milk producer, living in the small remote town of Bambas in Ethiopia near Jijiga, in close proximity to the Somalian border. Her days are spent milking camels at the break of dawn, collecting the milk in antique wooden containers, the interiors burned by fire to instill a nice smoky taste to the milk.  (Hear Fatumo milking her camels)

She pours the milk into larger containers and then carries the heavy load miles away to either sell the milk by road side, or give it to milk collectors who will then take the milk to market. Her work is assisted by programs developed by Mercy Corps.

And the next day is the same as today.

She tends to her children, she collects firewood in the distant fields, she prepares dinner for her family, she feeds the animals and cleans their spaces, she settles neighborhood disputes, she sweeps the hay from the floor of her hut. And she looks for water, desperately at times, a scarce resource in this drought-prone area of Ethiopia.

And the next day is the same as today.

She has a quiet yet bold demeanor and when she looks at me, she looks into me. Her eyes never leave mine, and with her chin slightly tucked in and eyes constantly seeking mine, I cannot help but think that she knows how the power and grace she exudes has an effect on others. I muster up something, anything, to break the spell she has on me, but it doesn’t work. I ask her how old she is, and her answer is I am woman.

She looks at my travel clothes and makes her first observation toward me: You will never attract anyone dressed like this. Try adding more color to your style.

And on it goes, one observation after the other, her to me, and me to her. I want to touch her face, but then I realize it is only because I don’t really believe that she exists. She must be a dream. As if she knows what I am thinking, she extends her hand and touches mine, eyes never wavering her intentions.

I cry.

I feel my belly turn upside down and I know this is so inappropriate. Crying in front of an Ethiopian beckons all kinds of feelings and it is highly disturbing to them. I swallow it all, turning away to say something, anything, about the beauty of her home.

We spend the day together, and she shows me what she does all day long, every day. We visit the other milk producers and initiate song and dance among them, pounding beats on the makeshift plastic milk containers as our drums, me singing the Somalian words that I did not know that I knew.  (Hear the milk producers singing)

I return the next day before the sun rises, and she shows me how to milk a camel and what camel milk tastes like right after it has been collected. We walk in silence over sandy fields strewn with beautiful pink sparkly rocks and I try to reason with my soul why I should return home. I want nothing more than to stay longer, learn from her, feel my body adjust to constant movement to obtain nourishment. She knows what I am thinking, and she asks me to stay, inviting me to live in her village with her. I can’t even answer her right away, walking in a stupor as I wonder how she truly is able to read my mind.

I dream of living a life of simplicity, making my own music and dancing when I feel like it, listening to birds awaken me each day and wearing colorful scarves and dresses and greeting visitors in the manner in which she does. And I know I will never be like her.

I know I will return home and acclimate back into my own culture and sit at my computer and write about her, longing for this kind of exchange, deep exchange, with people back home.

And I know that our manufactured distractions will prevent me from doing this, and I might feel happy but deep inside, if I am honest, I often desire a deeper human connection in my every day. Or I won’t long for this, and instead I will replace my longing with pleasure garnered from material goods and the next travel destination and a plate filled with some chef’s concoction.

I turn to her to say goodbye and this time I can’t hold back the tears. She gasps, and waves her hand back and forth in front of me.

No, no, NO! Don’t cry.  Saying goodbye is part of life.  Are you not a strong woman?

And with that, she turns and walks away.

(All images for Mercy Corps)

 

Copyright 2017 Joni Kabana. All rights reserved. Site by TD