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Unfriendly streets: Photography in Addis

Unfriendly streets: Photography in Addis

Social media accounts of the Office of the Prime Minister have been actively posting pictures of the office’s interior decoration, an impressive artwork by modern Ethiopian artists. Photographs from Girma Berta’s “Moving Shadows”and EyerusalemJirega’s“The City of Saints”appear next to a painting by Tekele Mariam Zewde.

AbinetTeshome is one of the artists that have joined the PMO’s collection in the past two months. In a euphoric Facebook post celebrating this entry, Abinet expresses the difficulties he has faced taking these photographs.

Being a street photographer is not easy, especially in Ethiopia because of so many reasons. The first reason is lack of motivation. And the second one is the law. We don’t have a proper law about shooting photos on the streets. I had so many hard times because of this when I started my journey as a street photographer.”

This is a complaint often heard among street photographers. Many people found along the street might be curious but ignore the phenomenon while others question the photographer why he/she is taking pictures. Police officers, guards or simply pedestrians and residents of a neighborhood have been known to ask photographers for permits to take pictures and banish them from the area when no such paperwork exists. Some have been known to accuse photographers of spying or having illicit connections that could lead to area’s residents’ harm.

Street photography is an essential element of the photography medium and allows a unique view into the social makeup of a certain place in at a certain time. It serves as historical record, a way to document a city in constant morphology.

Most amateur street photographers do not know how a permit can be obtained to take photos in public spaces and of course the method is marred in bureaucracy and red tape. Lack of understanding among public servants responsible for this issue prevents many photographers from asking for permits to begin with. The procedure can be daunting and time intensive, leaving many to find other means.

Street photographers chose smartphones instead of cameras to take street photos. Phones are easier to conceal and do not put people in an alert frame of mind. However, most cellphone pictures are typically of low pixels images and are usually more appropriate for instagram or other social media posts. The printed product of these images can be disappointing to both the photographer and the viewer.

Some artists go on city walks, photography tours of the city streets. These groups allow for more security while walking around with an expensive camera and less daunting for the photographer wondering what people on the street would think.

A foreign photographer had taken to walking around with a Polaroid camera and giving printouts to curious or restrictive people on the street. His approach made people friendlier and willing to be photographed or show the photographer locations they found picturesque.

“I felt discouraged here and there, but I learned how to remedy these feelings by staying inspired to work and create every single day,” says Abinet. But the problem still remains. What can be done to allow more freedom for artists to express themselves in public spaces? How can the streets be safer? When will the streets of Addis not just tolerate but embrace artistic expressions of residents?