Admas Habteslasie: “Limbo” Exploring Eritrea’s Past, Future and Present

Having been born in the Middle East and growing up in London, Admas Habtelasie has made regular visits to his parent’s homeland, Eritrea, since childhood. After receiving his MA from the London College of Communication (formerly the London College of Printing) in photojournalism and documentary photography, he traveled to Eritrea in 2005 to begin work on what was to become “Limbo”, an examination the country’s past, future and present. Admas traveled to Eritrea again in 2008 to complete the project, which culminated in an exhibition at Light Work, where he had been an artist-in-residence.

While the main goal of this blog is to spotlight the work of photographers using Leica equipment, we also feel responsible for highlighting photographic works from all regions of the world and offering you engaging content. In this case, our desire to share the work of Admas Habtelasie in Eritrea supplants our bias toward Leica Camera users. Here Admas explains his influences, subject matter and choice of camera.

Q: Let’s start this interview with your beginnings in photography and Lewis Hine’s photographs, which had an important impact on you. Can you say a few words about this early photographic experience?

A: The first time I saw Lewis Hine’s photos was in the Terrence Malick film ‘Days of Heaven’; Malick uses a montage of some of Hine’s photos of labourers at the start of the film. I think it was a striking experience because I’d never really looked at documentary photography before then. I went back to the photos later when I started to become interested in photography. In many ways, it’s hard to pin down what I like so much about them. There is a sense of wonder and novelty about the photographic medium in much early photography that I find very beautiful. It’s diametrically opposed to the easy familiarity that we have with photographic images today, which I suppose is part of its appeal. For photographers who aspire to social goals, Hine in some ways represents something of an ideal – his photos were an important part of a national debate on child labour that led to the enactment of legislation outlawing the practice.

Q: Do you think that his work has had an impact on yours? If so, in what way? Have other photographers’ works been influential on your practice too?

A: I was definitely influenced by his style, by the simplicity of his aesthetic. I like a lot of photographers from that era. I think part of the reason that this style of photography attracts me so much is that I share some of that sense of wonder at photography. When I look at a photo that moves me, I feel like a child and it’s also, predictably, a function of how I see the world. I like staring at things. I’m influenced by many different photographers – too many to list – but in particular the work of Walker Evans had a big impact on me.

Q: Your residency at the non-profit US organization, Light Work in Syracuse NY in 2009 through a collaboration with the London-based charity Autograph ABP, led to “Limbo”, an exhibition of your work in Eritrea and a catalogue “Contact Sheet 151”. Can you say few words about your Eritrean project? When and how did you start taking photographs there?

A: I started taking photographs in Eritrea in 2004, a year before I started studying photography. I had been to visit Eritrea regularly from a young age, so I had a strong link to the country; when I started studying photography, it seemed natural for me to head back to Eritrea. The project started with the idea of exploring the impact of the unresolved border conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia. The project slowly expanded until it became more of a broader portrait of the country. In retrospect, the border issue was a way into the project rather than its main point.

Q: The photographs published in the catalogue included those taken in Senafe, Assab, Sembel, Asmara. What were the work and shooting conditions like for you?

A: The conditions were good, even if I could only spend a limited amount of time in some of the places I was shooting in. For example, I was in Senafe, a town very close to the Eritrea-Ethiopia border, at a time when tensions between Eritrea and Ethiopia were high, so I could only spend a couple of hours there. I know Eritrea well as I have visited regularly since I was young.

Q: The general tones of your photographs are pastel. This contributes to creating a very sweet and strange atmosphere (the limbo of your title) in spite of the difficulties experienced by the country. How do you work on this particular aspect?

A: I went to Eritrea twice for the project, once in 2005 and the second time in 2008. The first time I went, I did not have a preconceived idea of the aesthetic approach I wanted to take – I was simply drawn to things and snapped away. Some broad visual themes emerged in the editing, but I had the opportunity to really focus in on the relationship between the aesthetics and the underlying ideas during my residency at Light Work. There I had the space to play around and really think about things like the colour palette. This focused my attention for my second trip in 2008 and the overall project became significantly more aesthetically coherent as a result of this experience.

Q: In “Contact Sheet 151″ you decided to create three successive chapters: Past, Future and Present. Was this distinction already clear to you when you were taking pictures in Eritrea or did it come later, looking at your body of work and editing it?

A: No, it’s something that emerged later. The idea of history and its connection with the present is something that is quite a preoccupation, both with me personally and in the project. Photography creates history: a photo is, amongst other things, a document of a specific period in history.
Eritrea, like many African countries, has a lot of history and is wedded to its historical narrative. There is also an obsessive focus on the future and its possibilities. As a result, the present almost disappears into thin air. I suppose the chapter division was a way of trying to get some of this across.

Q: Often in your photographs, human beings are absent, very far away, sleeping or have hidden faces. This is except for the third chapter, “Present”, where a portrait of two men and another beautiful portrait of two children appear. Why?

A: The broader aesthetic approach was a consequence of the subject matter, or at least how I thought the subject matter would be best approached. Firstly, Eritrea is not a country that reveals itself to you in a straightforward way; there’s always an element of trying to work out what’s actually going on. Eritreans are obsessed with being discreet. Also, perhaps because I myself am Eritrean, I have a reticence about shoving my camera in people’s faces. I feel quite apologetic as a photographer, generally. Photographers take people’s photos and then go and form their own little narrative that is dressed up as a historical document. It’s an enormous responsibility. As such, I’m quite shy about taking portraits, or rather, I find it hard to take one I’m happy with unless I have a certain level of comfort and familiarity with the subject. Regarding this project, I wanted to temper the overall impression of looking in on a world from the outside with a glimpse into the human side of the story. It seemed like the ‘Present’ section was the right place to put the portraits, as it underscores the idea that in between the grand historical narrative of the past and the uncertainty of the future, the present is a place where people wait, patiently.

Q: Which equipment did you use for your work in Eritrea? Why? You mention the need to be unobtrusive, could you elaborate on that from a photographic material point of view?

A: I used a Yashica Mat 124-G. I liked the camera for both practical and aesthetic reasons. Practically, I could take photos unobtrusively with it (looking down or sometimes not even looking at all) which is important for me because I feel quite uncomfortable being an obtrusive photographer. The photos as a whole are pretty cautious, a huge focus on landscapes and pictures of objects and very few people. So you can see the correlation there.

Aesthetically, I really like the square format, it works well with my preference for symmetrical, simple compositions. I find it much easier to compose a harmonious picture using a square frame. I envisaged the project in Eritrea as a series of snapshots frozen in time and I think that the comparative dynamism of a rectangular format might work against such an aesthetic. Also the Yashica (as opposed to the Rolliflex, for example) has quite a soft lens which abstracts the image slightly or creates a distance between the viewer and the subject and this fit nicely with my overall aesthetic approach. The project wasn’t particularly focused on being ‘real’ – on capturing the physicality of people’s existences. It’s meant to be more of a personal portrait, so the aesthetic reflected that.

Q: Do you consider your work in Eritrea as finished?

A: In terms of the photography, it feels pretty complete. I am currently working on producing some written material to go with the work.

Q: What are your forthcoming projects?

A: At the moment I’m based in the Middle East and am working on a few projects in the region. I’m also currently doing some research for a prospective project in the Caribbean.

-Leica Internet Team

The interview above was adapted from one conducted by Marian Nur Goni published in Africultures. Marian is in charge of the Afriphoto website and activities and is editorial coordinator of Afriphoto photo collection published by Africultures / Filigranes. She is currently studying for a PhD on the history of photography in Djibouti at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris. You can read the full text of the original interview here.