Ethiopia is the English transliteration of the Greek word ‘Αιθιοπα’, which means the ‘land of the burnt faces’. Often considered as a poor country and a desert land, struggling with famine and war, Ethiopia is much more than that. Having a long and complex history, it is without a doubt one of the most fascinating countries on the African continent and yet, still largely unknown. Photographer Júlia Martins Miranda has decided to venture into the very heart of Ethiopia and, share with us her experience, but also the beauty of the tribes she met and their traditions.
Today, Ethiopia is still considered by many as an unsafe country, poor and devastated by famine. For what reasons did you decide to travel to there? Was it a way to go against these stereotypes? Or, on the contrary, to show that despite this, Ethiopia has much more to offer?
I was curious to understand life in that country and I wanted to be in touch with the tribes and the local people. I was very attracted by how the Mursi and Surma tribes created their aesthetics. I didn’t feel unsafe anywhere, people were extremely friendly. I feel like Ethiopia, as many other countries in Africa and in the world, has some pearls that our modern culture not always allows us to appreciate or even consider. Nature in this country is wild, vast and magnificent. People are poor and some are famine, it’s true, and it’s hard to accept that it’s still something “normal” in our planet, but I’ve also seen many happy people and happy kids well nourished. They developed a different kind of intelligence and I feel they are much more spiritual.
What do you look for when you take a picture? Do you plan ahead or is it on the spot?
I’m very inspired by faces, cultures and traditions, but also landscapes and nature. My travel pictures are all on the spot. I never plan anything because I never know what I’ll find and I like to capture the moment as spontaneous as it is. That’s what I look for when I capture an image, I like the scene to be real, the naivety of the moment is something that shows in the picture.
Regarding portraits; how do you approach someone to take their photo when you may not speak the same language?
It can get very difficult to photograph people when you don’t have any kind of relationship with them and, of course, language is a true barrier. Sometimes they see my camera way before they can see my face and I understand it’s awkward. Honestly I don’t feel comfortable approaching people like this so in some situations I look at them and I smile so they can empathize and understand that I’m photographing them because I think they’re beautiful. It gets less invasive. It’s very rare that I identify a subject and go talk to them (or at least try), because I would lose the instant and therefore, the picture. I lived all kind of situations, some people have fun when they realize you are taking their pictures, some others get mad, some you can convince, some ask for money. You never know how they will react.
How have the tribes reacted? One might assume they would be intrigued, even suspicious or at the opposite fascinated?
In Ethiopia when you visit a tribe you are almost constrained to have a local guide with you. That’s how the small villages organized the tourism in those remote areas and that’s how they make some money. The guides speak English so it’s easier to interact with the locals. I was very surprised with the reaction of the tribes, I had the impression they got dressed just to ‘wait for the tourists’. After I spent some days going from one tribe to another, I could confirm my impression wasn’t wrong. They understood they could make some money out of their culture and out of their difference and they started using this almost for one single end. It’s sad because a lot was lost; it’s not genuine anymore. In the tribes, I had to pay for every click of the camera, they actually count how many pictures you’re taking. But that’s a clear agreement before you can start photographing.
What was the most memorable moment of these cultural exchanges?
Africa has always fascinated me in many ways. What was more memorable to me from this experience in Ethiopia was to observe how people live, understand how they deal with difficulties that we totally lost track of while living our modern lives. It may sound like a cliché also but it’s impossible not to mention that, I’m sure they struggle every day for many different reasons, but somehow they have a different way to deal with their problems, less dramatic and less spoiled than we modern men. They get happier with much less and they live day by day, still guided by the laws of nature, like we all used to do in the far past.
Finally, what camera do you take with you?
I use a Nikon D800. In Ethiopia I only had one lens with me, the 50mm f/1.4. Today I shoot with a 14-24mm, 24-70mm and a 70-200mm.