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Vintage Addis: A stroll down memory lane

Vintage Addis: A stroll down memory lane

Vintage Addis Ababa has creatively curated, bound and published a book of photographs depicting Addis Ababa residents from the 1940s to the 1980s.

Photographers and journalists Wongel Abebe, Philipp Schütz and Nafkot Gebeyehu have brought the much-anticipated Vintage Addis Ababa photo book to shelves following nearly three years of research, recording and editing.

The book was launched at Alliance Ethio-Française last weekend. An exhibition of a selection of pictures from the book followed by a panel discussion on the book and the changing face of Addis Ababa were the highlight of the event.

Wongel, Philipp and Nafkot had scoured the city for the past two years searching for old photographs. Posters at various spots around Addis Ababa asked people to share old photographs. Social media was a resource for both their Kickstarter campaign to gain funding for the book and getting the word out about their project. People have given them treasured memories to scan and archive, sharing deeply personal stories along.

The short vignettes in the photo book add an immersive experience to the reader. The captions underneath most of the photographs offer a unique glimpse into the person’s life. Wongel and Nafkot hold these encounters in high regard. The stories they have heard have enriched their experience as recorders of history.

“I have been unlearning Addis Ababa through this project. The people you meet are very unique. They really enjoyed their life. They enjoyed the little things. The way they talk about their peers really shows they value each other,” says Nafkot.

She brings up one of her favorite stories in the book. Four pictures of Tezerawork in her 20s, a woman who had worked for the Ministry of Agriculture for two decades, is quoted in the book; “I can proudly say I did my part as a citizen. After all, serving my people was the force that drove me to work as hard as I did.”

“They did it for the love of country and people. This was very humbling for me,” says Nafkot, referring to Tezerawork’s sense of duty.

People that had contributed pictures to the book walked around the exhibition, pointing out friends or family members, fondly recalling the circumstances leading up to the photograph and the life of the person depicted.

The book begins with a chapter on the 1940s and 50, mostly taken in photo studios, where the poses are more regal and the hairstyles endearingly outrageous. The 1960s show a city that seems to have leapt ahead in time. Scenes of Addis Ababa’s oldest neighborhoods can be seen in the background of people comfortably posing in the sun. The 1970 and 80s are even more modern. Printed in Germany, the book contains a selection of 242 pictures from the 2000 and plus the team had gathered so far.

Maaza Mengiste in her foreword to the book states, “Some of the pictures, like the one of my grandfather’s late brother, who died during the war with Italy that began in 1935, would be one of the only tangible proofs that he existed, physically, in a particular time and space. Looking at his photograph brought him back to me and our family again and gain, it offered a form of remembering that existed outside of real time: it made him alive and young, uninjured and healthy. And this would be how we would speak of him: in that uniform, whole and vibrant and brave, smiling beneath a bright sun.”

History belongs to those that remember. But the history of Addis Ababa, while often lauded as remarkable, has not been recorded enough. It was a time of fear and destruction– the Derg had taken over; mass deaths and mass exodus were the defining moments of that period of Ethiopian history. Most of the pictures in the book, aside from random shots and portraits depict happy occasions. Birthdays, weddings, graduations or meetings with friends under circumstances history had told us people were scared to gather.

The recorders of Vintage Addis Ababa are insistent history written in books rarely paints an accurate picture of that time.

And this myopic view can be rectified. The Vintage team encourages residents to go out and meet older citizens and hear their stories.

“There are people in this book and many others we are not benefiting from. We should be asking what they could add to our experiences. We hear their stories so we do not repeat their mistakes. This book is also full of regrets. Things people regret doing or not doing. If you ask respectfully and patiently, they’re open. But we are missing out.”

During the panel discussion at the launch many discussed the rapid changes in the city and the necessity of documentation. Ahmed Zekaria from the Institute of Ethiopian Studies began with stating humans live in nostalgia. Recalling the past can sometimes serve as a salve to the burdened. The ubiquity of smartphones has allowed the present moment to be recorded from all angles at all times. Some might even refer to this as over-documentation. Ahmed insists that this incessant information gathering has to be changed into knowledge and wisdom at a certain point.

“What make a country are its people. I first heard of Aster (Zewdie, who was also part of the discussion) when she was fighting to preserve old neighborhoods, insisting that its citizens’ responsibility to take pictures of these soon to be demolished areas for posterity at the very least. Losing landmarks is losing our sense of orientation. I grew up around Fit Ber. Anyone from Fit Ber here? … If I wanted to show where I grew up to my children one day … there’s nothing there. It might be funny but it’s actually very sad. What will we pass on to our kids?” said Blen Sahilu, moderator of the discussion. 

Kibur Nega was also insistent that residents take ownership of the city. “Who does Addis Ababa belong to? It’s a city without an address, the way I see it,” he said. He warned there might come a time when these photographs will have little meaning – the city would change so completely that no resident would recall the past. Community activism and civic engagement will help cement the place of residence in the changing narrative of Addis Ababa.

Vintage Addis Ababa has preserved a fragment of history in our collective visual memory of the city. It has saved memories from the destructive power of time, recording it in a beautifully bound book that can be found in major bookstores in the city. But nostalgia can distract us from the present.

“We tend to romanticize black and white pictures but they lived their lives in color. The more we romanticize we create more distance between us and them, we remove them from our reality,” says Blen. “If someone does another Vintage Addis forty or fifty years from now, this is how we will be seen too. The more things change the more they stay the same, as the saying goes. These pictures are reflections of us too, I think. We think we are very modern but it’s fleeting. Right when we think we’ve got it, it disappears.”