Telling stories through photography
Martha Tadesse is a humanitarian photographer and photojournalist. A graduate of the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology in Developmental Studies, she consultants a number of local and international NGOs, including UNICEF Ethiopia and uses her craft to advocate for social justice within Ethiopia. Here, she reflects with The Reporter’s Samuel Getachew on her career, on using an image to tell powerful stories, on advocating for the vulnerable and on the state of photography in the nation. Excerpts:
The Reporter: Martha, you have had quite a run in photography and some of the photos you have taken have been noted and celebrated. Tell me about yourself and your work?
Martha Tadesse: I started photography with point and shoot camera my sister got me maybe because she was tired of me asking for her smart phone camera (haha). I used to take photos of flowers in our home. My special gratitude goes to my precious dog that recently passed away after 15 human years with me.
I used to take photos of her and she was never tired of being photographed. She is my inspiration to my photography journey. Funny I know but my dog was a great friend being a model in front of my camera.
You have also travelled throughout Ethiopia, taking some of your most powerful images?
I have been to different regions of Ethiopia to document different development projects. I have visited different IDP centers, refugee camps; emergency response and I have also written stories on child marriage and FGM/C. I do photography to challenge the narrative about social issues; my work mostly revolves around child and women’s rights. Ethiopia has been misrepresented in the media and it is my hope that my photos and stories help in challenging those narratives.
The aid world communication has also failed in documenting communities ethically, we even have the term “poverty porn”, my aim is that my audience connects through the stories and photos I document without making those stereotypical images ignorer to transfer my messages. Yes, Ethiopia has poor children but how do we make sure the images we took of these children are documented ethically? How are we sharing sensitive issues on our social media? What other stories can we tell to balance the narrative? I try to answer these questions when I am in my element. There is always a way we can tell stories and we have to make sure we keep the dignity of the people we photograph.
We are in 2019 and you still meet people from the western world asking you if you eat food every day. This tells you how powerful images/narratives are. I have to make myself clear that I am not about documenting infrastructure and our railways. I am not denying the complex of poverty in our country. However, a single story, as the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi said, is dangerous. Captioning an image as “poor child” does not tell a story but forces an audience to build a problematic narrative. Poverty is complicated. One can’t just take photos of starve appealing baby and consider it a job well done.
One of the photos you took and most remember you by is the images of a couple in Maksegnit Health Center. Tell me about that?
The couple are Sifrash and Mar’eshet. I was sent to a Maksegnit Health Center in Gonder to document UNICEF’s support to child deliveries. Sifrash was going through a prolonged labor for her first baby in the delivery room. Even though the experience of documenting her time at the health center was painful, I enjoyed being there and learning about her.
I was touched by the community’s immense support during the process and I decided to follow up with her story, which led to the fundraiser. There was a small room right outside their house intended to be a shop to generate income for the family. But due to financial constraints, this hadn’t happened yet, which is why the money was raised. With the support of my family, friends and followers on my social media pages, we were able to raise around 40,000 birr, which helped Sifrash and Mar’eshet to start their business.
The shop doesn’t only help Sifrash’s family, but also the community around them, as they used to walk at least 2-4 km to find a shop previously. I am grateful for all the support I received and so grateful for supportive friends. I will be following up their story as long as they continue allowing me. They have also given me the honor of being a godmother to their daughter, Edilawit, so I am visiting quiet often and doing godmother duties.
What made impacted you most about this couple?
Why I felt connection to this specific story, and why it stood out to me, was the community that walked in to the health center with Sifrash to support her during child birth. There was her mother, mother- in-law, friend, her mother’s friends, her father- in- law, and Mar’eshet’s friend. The support and warmth the community brought was overwhelming, which I believe is why I felt the connection that I did to continue documenting.
Do you find local photography is moving forward?
I am not sure if I can speak about growth of photography in Ethiopia as a whole, speaking about it in Addis Ababa, there is a growing photography community in different fields, especially in street photography. The consumer base is also growing - it is a delight to see local photographers’ pieces on office/hotel walls. I see people appreciating photography better but we still have a long way to go regarding our understanding of photo ethics, as well as photo credit and copy rights issues. Especially on social media, we download images and share them without giving proper photo credit and twisting the intended caption, which distorts stories and compromises the dignity of people in them.
For instance, there was an image of Sifrash and Mar’eshet I shared on Valentine’s Day, hugging and being affectionate. This photo was shared widely on social media but with different captions which misrepresented the message I was conveying by replacing it with the generic narrative about images from rural areas of Ethiopia. People’s captions were mostly twisted to be related to love in the context of poverty, which for anyone who followed that story from the beginning, is clear that it wasn’t about that.
How do you fight old stereotypes with the image you take?
We need to unlearn such generic narratives and stereotypes that distort truth, and start learning and honoring individual stories. I understand that we have no control of our images once they go on social media, but I hope that we can respect photographers’ work by paying careful attention to the stories they’re telling with their photos, and by giving proper credit instead of writing “#stolen” as a caption. We can always research or ask around whose work we’re sharing. Stealing is not cool.
Who has inspired you and your work when it comes to photography?
I am a huge fan of Bradon Stanton, the Humans of New York founder, author and photographer. I am fascinated by people’s stories and Brandon’s storytelling is brilliant. I have learned a lot about storytelling from him.
Not only about storytelling but also about using my social media platform for a good cause. I look up to many photographers I follow on social media and if I have to mention one, Hilina Abebe, an Ethiopian photographer, stands out. Her photographs are soul touching, done with so much ethics, dignity, and sensitivity. She has an incredible activity to connect her audience with the story she tells beautifully, and she inspires me to do more.
What advice would you have to those who may want to emulate you, as a photographer?
To young amateur photographers - please keep creating, keep shooting. Follow photographers online - Instagram is home for incredible photography, and make a good use of it. Dare to share your work and connect with your audience. Seek guidance for you work and opportunities to grow, big or small. And if you are interested in documentary photography or human-interest stories, learn to respect the human story - it can’t be contained by just what we know.