I am not an artsy person, but I love art just like any ordinary person would. I love watching photographs of our mundane, ordinary, day to day life because the pictures speak to me, remind me of my own life and of life in general. The pictures remind me of the things I would not think of, had I just directly watched the things or people that are being photographed or painted. Photographers and painters show us the things that are not obvious in the obvious things that we sense in our everyday lives. Thanks to them, we get to get the deeper meaning of things.
Just today, I was looking at pictures of typical Ethiopian Shepherds who had their pictures taken, I believe, by some professional photographer who posted it on the wall of a beautifully designed modern conference room. The colors, angles, you name it, at which these boys had their pictures taken no doubt resulted in an attractive piece of photography that fit well with the modern room. But one thing strikes me in the pictures. And that is the level of poverty and life’s hardships that is reflected in the clothes and faces of the young boys on the photographs. The boys, like any typical Ethiopian Shepherd, wore ragged clothes, muddy shoes, and had face skin that reflected poor nutrition and care. What strikes me in these photographs is the fact that one is trying to produce something beautiful out of one’s miseries.
A number of questions came to my mind as I watched these photographs. In fact, these questions come to my mind each time I see a typical Ethiopian photography or painting that shows the misery of our Ethiopian lives. For one, what is the message behind these pieces of art? Are the artists trying to tell us that there is beauty in one’s miseries and life’s hardships? If one has tried to investigate in the lives of those whose photographs are being taken, I bet they would decide not to take their pictures because what one sees in those pictures is not something one would want to be reminded of. If you have observed carefully, the pictures that appear in famous Ethiopian photographs tend to side on the dark side of the country, rather than its exceptionally beautiful sides. For instance, a typical photograph I see posted on walls of “modern” places is one of a poverty ridden, skinny Ethiopian monk either saying his prayers or just standing by. Although the picture might show the religious dedications of our monks, it also bluntly shows our levels of poverty and misery. I personally would not buy and post such kind of art work.
My advice to Ethiopian artists and others interested in photographing or painting Ethiopia is that Ethiopia is a place filled with beautiful people and beautiful culture that are unrelated to our poverty and miseries. Why do we chose to photograph our dark side of things? Can one not be reminded of Ethiopia without remembering hardships and poverty? Why is it that Ethiopian photography shows the poor woman in her traditional clothes carrying her poorly cared-baby, or the young Ethiopian Shepherd wearing ragged clothes, or the poor Ethiopian monk with skinny and poverty ridden face? There is so much beauty to photograph in Ethiopia. I personally would not buy and post on my wall something that would constantly remind me of how much my people are in poverty. I would like to see in my art work something bright, reflecting hope. And besides, I do not think that making big money off of photographs of very poor people is the right thing to do from the morale perspective. And this is particularly true when the poor being photographed do not get even the slightest percentage out of the sales proceeds of their own pictures. But art is a personal choice of course. But personally, I do not believe that poverty is artsy!