Aida Muluneh, founder of the Addis Foto Fest, speaks about how education plays a central role in connecting African photographers.
By Brendan Wattenberg
When Aida Muluneh started the Addis Foto Fest in 2010, she had a vision. “I didn’t want to do an ‘African’ festival,” she told me earlier this year. “The important thing is cultural exchange through images.” Born in Ethiopia, Muluneh was raised in Yemen and Canada. She attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., worked as a photojournalist for The Washington Post, and pursued fine art photography. Back in Addis she established the arts consulting firm DESTA for Africa (DFA) to support the festival and initiated ambitious educational workshops for local photographers. Her festival has a considerable international scope. In 2016, it welcomed 126 photographers from forty countries and urged all of them to seek or provide mentorship and to find new audiences for their work.
Brendan Wattenberg: Education is integral to your work in Ethiopia with DFA and the Addis Foto Fest. You’ve said that your own photographic education began when you were a teenager. What were the experiences that made you want to learn about photography?
Aida Muluneh: In high school, in Calgary, we had an art department and a darkroom that no one was really using. A group of us, I think four students, asked if we could use it. When I saw my first print, I became obsessed with that.
Wattenberg: Do you remember the picture?
Muluneh: Of course. It was a blooming flower! In black and white.
Wattenberg: Did you do a history of photography course in high school?
Muluneh: We didn’t do any of that. Basically, we learned how to use a camera, and then we’d go out and shoot. The idea was just to get the feel of the darkroom process. But I don’t think our teacher realized the impact it would have and the gift he gave me of seeing an image come to life on paper.
Wattenberg: At the time, were you looking at newsmagazines or photo books?
Muluneh: My mother used to buy me different kinds of books and publications, so photos were something I was always interested in. When I realized the process of printing a photo, that’s when it all came together. I did shoot here and there, but I didn’t take things too seriously until I saw Chester Higgins Jr.’s photographs at Howard.
I’ve always been interested in black-and-white photography. When I was in the States, I used to go to bookstores and look at books by photographers like Richard Avedon. But it was seeing Chester’s book, the caliber of his work, and eventually meeting him, that made a difference for me. Gordon Parks also played a role. He was not only a photographer. He was a Renaissance man.
Wattenberg: Did you discover Chester Higgins Jr. on your own or through a professor?
Muluneh: On my own. I remember I was in the library, and there was one book of his, Feeling the Spirit (1994). My whole thing, ever since I picked up a camera, has been trying to address misrepresentation. And here was a photographer who addressed that beautifully in a collection of images.
Wattenberg: When you were studying at Howard, and later when you were working as a photojournalist, were you ever a collector of photo books?
Muluneh: At that time, I couldn’t afford many of the books. So most of my time was spent between the library and the bookstore. In the bookstore, you obviously don’t see a lot on Africa—outside of anthropological or National Geographic kinds of sentiments. That’s why Chester’s book spoke to me: he photographed across Africa, and he has done extensive work in Ethiopia. Otherwise, my mentors are predominantly African American photographers.
Wattenberg: Such as?
Muluneh: Dudley Brooks was a longtime mentor. He played a big role in my journalistic life—he’s the one who got me a job at The Washington Post. I have a great deal of admiration for Stanley Greene and his way of working. And there was a commercial photographer named Harley Little, who I interned with from 1996–98 in Washington, D.C.
Wattenberg: You participated in the Bamako Biennale in 2007, and that’s when you had the idea to start the Addis Foto Fest. Was education part of your concept for the festival from the beginning?
Muluneh: Yes, of course. The festival is not just for photographers; it’s for the general public to learn about photography in its different forms. A lot of my educational sentiments come from the mentors that I’ve had, who have gone out of their way to teach me. So I thought it was only right that I teach others what I’ve learned so far.
Wattenberg: When you started AFF, what kind of educational opportunities were available for photographers in Addis?
Muluneh: I returned to Addis in 2007. I started giving small workshops in Addis Ababa University School of Fine Art and Design because I realized that there were a lot of young people who wanted to learn photography, who were passionate about it, but they weren’t able to learn it in a proper way. For example, there are two commercial schools here, but all they’re teaching is wedding and studio photography. Nothing against that—it earns you money—but one of the things that we teach students is that it’s their responsibility to be the witnesses of the changing face of Ethiopia. They have to engage with it, and share their perspectives with the world. It’s not just about the commercial benefits. Most of the good photographers in Addis have come through our system in one form or another. We’re the first ones in that sense to open their minds. With photography, it’s not just the technical; it’s showing them how to tell a story that they feel passionate about.
Wattenberg: How do you teach at DFA, besides the technical aspect?
Muluneh: A lot of our teaching is pulling images from online, putting together presentations. I want students to look at photographers from the continent. It’s not just about European or American photographers; they first have to learn who’s here on the ground and to see what other countries are producing. Often when I go to different festivals, I take photos of the exhibitions, and I introduce these in the presentation. And then the students are able to follow the photographers on Instagram and create networks.
Wattenberg: One of the other initiatives with DFA is to bring in photographers for master classes.
Muluneh: Exactly. There’s a Kenyan studio photographer named Osborne Macharia who we’ve invited to Addis twice. When he came to speak about lighting, basically the whole landscape of photography here changed, just from those four days of classes. I follow a lot of the students on social media, and I see how their work changes.
Wattenberg: Looking ahead to the next edition of Addis Foto Fest, in 2018, how do you see education shaping your activities in the off year?
Muluneh: A lot of the education comes from having partnerships with photographers in Africa and those in other parts of the world who understand our long-term goals and objectives. We can only do the workshops when we have access to photographers who are willing to do it for free, or when we’re able to find a budget. We’re thinking about how we can build a school that will make financial sense so that we’re not always dependent on outside funding for all our activities.
Wattenberg: There’s also an educational component with the portfolio reviews for young photographers and the Addis Foto Fest Award, which began last year.
Muluneh: We’ve had the portfolio reviews since 2010, so that’s an integral part of the festival. Through the reviews, we’re getting feedback from the global photography community on where exactly the photographers are. This is essential. The photographers here need to be able to compete globally.
Brendan Wattenberg is the managing editor of Aperture magazine.
This article is part of a series produced in collaboration with Contemporary And (C&) – Platform for International Art from African Perspectives.