Michael Tsegaye is an Ethiopian photographer, born in 1975. His work has been exhibited in Africa (Bamako, Addis-Abeba), Europe (Paris, Brussels, Berlin, Amsterdam) and the Americas (New York, Miami, Memphis, Mexico City). Michael Tsegaye lives and works in Addis-Abeba, the capital city of Ethiopia. This is how Michael explains what he chooses to portray, “As a photographer, I try as much as possible to escape being pigeonholed. I place myself among my peers (photographers and painters) across the world. While the spirit of my culture — its rich traditions in music, poetry and literature — informs my photography, my goal is that of any artist: to understand my life and standpoint in the 21st century, and express these through art.” Michael’s latest works, which focus on contemporary urban Ethiopia, as well as his artistic background, are the basis of this initial interview conducted for us by Marian Nur Gon.
Q: Your course of study at the Addis Ababa University School of Fine Arts and Design was painting. How did you become interested in photography?
A: After I finished my studies, I worked for a couple of years as a painter, but over time I developed allergies to the oil paints. During this period, would go to the Goethe Institute in Addis Abeba to attend its library. There I came across a photo workshop led by a German photographer, Ralf Becker. I joined his workshop and we became good friends. This was about eight years ago.
I must say, that before attending this workshop I didn’t know anything about photography. At the art school, my friends and I used to think that photography was too easy and a bit boring compared to painting — all you had to do with it was click on a button! I had also never attended photo exhibitions, since there weren’t many in Addis at the time. Ralf’s workshop was a week long and focused on basic photojournalism composition and camera techniques. As part of it, we took portraits of passersby and the shoeshine boys who worked near the Goethe Institute in Arat Kilo (an Addis Abeba neighborhood). For the background, we would drape a piece of black cloth behind each subject and use Ralf’s big Nikon camera, the exact model of which I don’t remember, to take the images. Before this, the only cameras I knew were the ones we used at home — very small snapshot cameras with a bright flash — so I was happy and surprised to see the final results after we developed the film. I hadn’t expected that sort of quality in the image. The portraits were finally exhibited at the Goethe Institute, after which Ralf bought me my first camera as a present, a Minolta manual, and I started taking photographs on my own. With this equipment I began a project taking photographs of Addis Abeba by night. When I showed these images to the people at the Goethe Institute they suggested I put on a solo exhibition, so I did. That was how my photographic career started.
Q: These were your first steps into this new field but how did you decide to devote your work to photography? In which ways did photography seduce you?
A: My transition from painting to photography was a very gradual process. I do not remember a specific moment where I decided that this was what I was going to do. At the time I came across Ralf’s workshop, I was still painting and I kept painting for quite a few months after that as well. I never imagined that there would be a time where I would have to stop, but eventually my allergic reactions to the oil paints became too severe. Thankfully, by that time, I had developed my photographic skills enough to the point where they could fully engage my creativity.
I suppose the most seductive aspect of photography for me was that it forced me to engage with my surroundings in a way that painting inside a studio could not. To photograph powerfully, I had to interact with strangers, go to different places and see different things. I found this interaction to be a very enlivening process. Painting inside a studio can be very lonely (or at least it was for me), so I enjoyed that part of photography that let me go out and engage the world.
Q: You’ve started working on a new body of work on your home city of Addis Abeba, which is also a fast-growing capital. Most of these pictures are panoramas, taken from a high vantage point. It seems that you’re creating and collecting a documentation of the fast mutations of this city. Do you know already which form you’ll give to this current project? Also, why did you choose to work in black and white?
A: I do hope to collect enough images to eventually publish a book that captures the change Addis Abeba has experienced in recent years, as well as the day-to-day life of its residents. Although I chose black and white, this is still an ongoing project and I can see myself adding color images to it. It is very much a work in progress.
There is a way in which I generally think about black and white that probably, subconsciously informed my decision. I often think of black and white images as being more direct, more honest than their color counterparts. With color photographs, it’s very easy to miss the point, since there is often so much information and color can dress up the image to the point of distraction. But with black and white, since the information in the image is limited, the photograph is somehow stripped down to relay on its essential point, which of course, has to be there and be clearly expressed.
Q: How would you describe the photographic milieu in Ethiopia today?
A: At the moment it is very basic because the demand for high quality photographs is quite low. There are few magazines and few local press agencies that require fresh images. But the situation is improving with time. Even over the past few years there has been significant change. Also, there are many portrait studios in the cities; people enjoy taking portraits of their families and friends.
Q: What are your next projects?
A: Currently, I am working on a number of projects, but the most recent one is a collection of landscape photos taken in different parts of the country. For instance, I recently went to a trip in the Afar region and comparing those images — the salt mines, the volcanoes, the hot sun — with others I have taken on other trips, I am struck by the geographical and cultural diversity in Ethiopia. I hope to publish a book that captures this.
I am also in the beginning stages of developing a project that aims to catalogue the work of Ethiopian studio photographers from the 1950s and ‘60s. This project goes along with my goal of helping preserve Ethiopia’s cultural wealth. There are so many images from older studio photographers that say much about the era they were created in. As one can imagine, working with these photographers to compile their images and preserve them would greatly enrich the historical narrative of Ethiopia.
-Leica Internet Team
You can view more of Michael’s work on his website, michaeltsegaye.viewbook.com.