As an art school student studying painting, Michael Tsegaye thought “photography was too easy and a bit boring compared to painting — all you had to do with it was click on a button!” It wasn’t until a few years later when he became allergic to the oil paints that he began to explore photography as another form of artistic expression. The world of photography quickly won him over. Based in Addis Abeba, Ethiopia, Michael has had his work exhibited all over the world. In this follow up to our first interview with Michael, we discuss two of his recent series, “Chasms of the soul: a shattered witness” and “Working Girls”.
Q: During the last edition of the Rencontres de Bamako, in 2011, you showed a work called “Chasms of the soul: a shattered witness”. Your introduction to this work is a quote by Ethiopian painter Gebrekristos Desta who wrote, “We all need witnesses for our lives — a tombstone, a relative, a keeper of stories”. Through your photographs, you’re reactivating a photographic attempt to remember. We often think of photography as something that can save our memory. In a way, your work reminds us that it’s also a fragile medium. It also raises questions about transmission and care. Can you say few words about this work? How did you arrive at these tombstones and their neglected photographs and conceive this photographic project? What kind of ideas sustain your work?
A: The year I started this project had been a rough one. I was dealing with a lot of emotional turmoil in my personal life and I wanted to express it somehow. I started this project when I heard that the city municipality would be demolishing a section of Kidus Yosef cemetery in Addis, to expand the nearby road. It is also the cemetery where my father is buried, so I was interested to see how it would be affected. It was then that I realized the general state of the cemetery and the condition many of the graves were in. I decided to turn it into a project at that moment.
The idea I wanted to explore was that of memory. What happens to the deceased when those physical markers erected to keep their memory alive disappear? In Ethiopia, we often encase a photograph of the deceased on his/her tombstone, but time and weather each have their affect on the image. I wondered if this deterioration is like a second, more final death, which led to the questions, “What is existence? Did someone exist only because we remember him/her?” I also wanted to make a general comment on our inability, as a society, to take care of the memory of our deceased. Many of the gravestones I saw had been intentionally desecrated by looters and passersby, which, I think, speaks to our decaying sense of humanity.
Q: Are all your pictures in the Chasm of the Soul series of cemetery headstones that originally had photographs on them and do you think there is any irony in photographing desecrated photographic images to preserve the memory of their obliteration?
A: Yes, there is lots of irony there. The irony is what compelled me to take the photographs. When I first started taking the images, I included the epigraph of the gravestone within the frame, but then I noticed the broken glass and the deteriorated condition of the photographs. Its violence struck me since I realized most of the broken glass was due to vandalism. So, I thought this violence should be a critical element of the photographs and focused in on just the desecrated photos, after which my other thoughts on memory and the loss of it came.
Q: Do you think there is any difference between those images that show traces of the original gravestone images and the ones where there is only broken glass remaining and do you think it is necessary to view the whole series to get the message?
A: Even in the images that seem like they are only of glass, if you look closely, you will notice a faint outline of a person. I haven’t taken images of just the glass itself; always there is a person. To me, it is important that the image is of a person, because the main point of the project is to depict the process of a person’s decay and disappearance.
Q: Recently, your series “Working Girls” — a very sensitive and delicate insight on the private lives of prostitutes in Addis Abeba — has been shown in Paris, during the PhotoQuai festival. What ties together all your works, which are very different in subjects and forms?
A: I suppose the one thing that ties the works together for me is that they are all photographs I have taken while living here in Ethiopia. I want my work to help record the historical narrative of my country. For me, taking photographs is like writing down a story or a history, which is very important.
Q: I suppose this has to be understood in connection with the idea of the loss of cultural memory?
A: Yes, certainly.
Q: Many of the pictures in the Working Girls series are very murky and low contrast. Was this a deliberate effect and what message do you think the darkness and indistinct quality of some of these images convey about the living conditions of these women?
A: I wanted to portray the women and their lives as I experienced it. So since the room was dark, I shot it as if it were a dark room. Although the women live in a dark reality it not a hopeless one, so I hope the images convey that the women deserve better, that they are young, able-bodied and have potential. They don’t have to be in the dark.
Q: There is a very mundane and ordinary quality of the surroundings of the Working Girls you depict, yet there is an unmistakable sense of shabbiness and victimization, and you sense these women are trapped in a horrible situation. Do you agree, and can you comment on how these images affect you and people who have commented on these images?
A: Yes I agree, although they are not in a situation that makes me pity them, which is sometimes the reaction some people have to the images. It is hard to answer your question because I think of it in the reverse: it is not the images that affect me, but rather, what I saw affected me and then I made the images. And what I saw is what shows up in the photos: the darkness, the victimization of the women, etc. I did not take these images to feel sorry for the women, but to show that they deserve much more than what they are surrounded by. These are young women who are capable of working, creating, growing, but for a number of reasons ended up where they are.
Thank you Michael!
-Leica Internet Team
You can view more of Michael’s work on his website, michaeltsegaye.viewbook.com.