Charlotte Chambers | Ethiopia: A Land of Natural Contrast

Nestled in the Horn of Africa, the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia is world renowned as one of Africa’s true gems. With thick forests, cascading rivers and large mountain ranges creating habitats for a vast range of unique flora and fauna indigenous to these lands. It is certainly no surprise that Ethiopia has the most UNESCO World Heritage Sites in all of Africa.

The sovereign nation has always been pioneering; being one of two countries in Africa to retain its sovereignty in the face of persistent attempts of colonisation under the rule of the Great Emperor Haile Selassie. Today, Ethiopia is only the third African country to democratically elect a woman as president after Mauritius and Liberia.

Ethiopia also one of the earliest nations where Christianity, Islam, Judaism as well as African faiths all co-exist creating a rich and diverse culture maugre surface prejudices. 

The Ocean African was excited when London photographer Charlotte Chambers returned from her eye-opening journey across the sovereign nation. Through the medium of photography and occasionally moving imagery, her projects explore human behaviour and the environment as she seeks to understand different cultures, observing how they interact.

Our editor-at-large, Damilola Ayo-Vaughan visited the creative London photographer, touching on her origins in photography as well as her remarkable trip to Ethiopia:

THE OCEAN AFRICAN: What drew you to photography? 

CHARLOTTE CHAMBERS: Photography began for me ten years ago. In secondary school, my year group was the first to have the opportunity to choose it as a GCSE. I was taught analogue photography and learned how to process my images in the darkroom. I loved it but the only problem was that at that age I was terrified of the dark, so I would only use the darkroom when someone else was using it at the same!

Compared to academic subjects, I felt creative subjects gave much more freedom. I could base my projects on whatever I wanted. I then went onto digital photography and was introduced to photoshop. I don’t remember thinking much about how I would use photography in working life, only that I wanted to pursue my interest further and so went on to study it at university.

A lot of my family are artistic and so I naturally spent a lot of time visiting galleries and exhibitions. I remember being really excited by Tim Walkers’ ‘Story Teller’ show at Somerset house. I loved the extravagant set designs, quirky models and the stories behind the images. It opened my eyes to the different styles of photography. 

OA: What was studying photography at the university of the west of England like?

CC: My tutors were great; they all gave helpful advice on everything from project ideas, what equipment to use, techniques, presenting work and getting us involved in exhibitions. The tutors would sometimes contradict each other’s opinions which made me realise there is no right or wrong in photography. It’s whatever I want to show to my audience or whatever the viewer wants to perceive. 

University gave me the time to learn about myself and my interests. I know that a successful project for me is one that I’m truly passionate about. I am really pleased with the outcome of my final university project ‘Menagerie’. This was based on zoo enclosures created for animals. I wanted to show how ridiculous they are by photographing the enclosure without the animal in them. This was to give the viewer the opportunity to analyse the set design and understand what the space is used for - most viewers are surprised when they find out it’s actually a space for animals to live in. 

Bristol was the perfect city for my studies. It’s a fun, vibrant and creative place with so much going on; live music events, circus performances and festivals. People were very friendly and open and this gave me the confidence to approach people on the street and ask for their permission to take their portrait.

OA: What are the things that have influenced you?

CC: My upbringing has probably had the biggest influences on me. My mother is Irish and my father is English. I have grown up with my older sister, Catherine. Although living in England we held close links to our Irish heritage; there is a large Irish community in Harrow and Wealdstone, we used to do Irish dancing lessons as children and as adults, visit local Irish pubs.

Where we live is one of those gateways to London, a suburb that people from other countries seem to gravitate to when first arriving to the city. So I grew up amongst friends similar to me; mixed heritage but familiar with all parts of their cultures and so we shared and learnt about each other too.

My friends influence me, we share the same sense of humour and energy and we are very supportive of one another. When I hear stories from their travels I’m inspired to go further afield too.

One of my favourite photographers is Martin Parr. He focuses on social classes and presents this in a bold and humorous way. I find his work very entertaining and it has certainly influenced me to photograph scenes from unusual and intimate perspectives.

Having a Studio among other creatives is really inspiring too. Although our practices differ; painters, designers, sculptors. Being in a busy creative space spurs me on.

OA: How did the series from Ethiopia come about?

CC: Catherine visits Ethiopia regularly. She is an artist and at the moment is painting a lot about the country and the people she meets there. It has pretty much become a second home for her. She would come back with interesting stories, it was difficult to fully imagine what such a different culture would be like. I felt the need to go there and learn more. 

I visited for six weeks and it was amazing. I constantly had my camera with me as there were too many good photo opportunities to miss! There were always interesting scenes happening.

Life everywhere in the world goes the same way, but in Ethiopia I was made aware of how much we in the western world rely on appliances and machinery for absolutely everything we do. In Ethiopia (or at least Lalibela, where I stayed) there is the same buzz of people, the same busyness, but without such assistance. 

If you want to make dinner, you go to the market to buy your food, including the live animal, you kill it, cook it on a fire – no supermarket, no oven. I would walk through the town and see new roads being built, but the paving stones had been cut into shape by hand, out of rocks from the local mountains and women carry them on their backs and lay them in place. No machines, no hard hats.

This was in the forefront of my mind when capturing Ethiopia on camera. I wanted to bridge the gap between western culture in Britain and the unique culture in Ethiopia; I particularly enjoyed taking photos at a local wedding, observing traditions new to me and recognising traditions now popularly borrowed from western culture.

Weddings typically take at least two days; one day is traditional and very unique to Ethiopia, the other ‘borrowed’ from traditions typical to a western wedding where European style wedding dresses are hired, the bridal party perform for the camera in learnt poses observed from the media. I also remember the champagne glasses surprising me with their unexpected glamour.

The juxtaposition between people’s ideas of the country in contrast to the reality was interesting to discover. We are accustomed to seeing images of starving children and poverty in the media and charity adverts. I’m not saying there aren’t any hardships or problems in Ethiopia, but children are children wherever they are born, wherever they live, and in any circumstance.

I was really struck by Ethiopia’s strong pride and unique identity. This could be to do with Ethiopia never being colonised, it was only briefly occupied by Italy, which means it has preserved and continues to practice rich traditions, celebrate uncountable ceremonies. Even regionally it has very distinct styles, and each area upholds its own individual fashions, music and dance. Ethiopia was just full of surprises, it made me realise just how underrepresented or misrepresented it is in our (U.K) media; where we know Ethiopia to be a country of drought and poverty. People’s impressions are outdated and I wanted to help change this.

OA: What was being and shooting in Ethiopia like for you?

CC: Catherine had told me a lot about Ethiopia so I had an idea of what to expect. When I first arrived in Addis Ababa, I stayed with a few of Catherine’s friends. They welcomed me with a traditional coffee ceremony and popcorn. The coffee ceremony is integral to Ethiopian culture. At dinner time they scooped up the food with their hands and fed directly to my mouth. This would had been quite alarming and made me feel a little uncomfortable if I had not been aware that this is actually a sign of respect and friendship.

I then went on to stay in Lalibela, a town in the mountains of the Amhara Region. I stayed in a compound with my sister, her friend Mengesha, and his family. This was a fantastic opportunity for me as I got to experience the culture in such depth. The family would invite me to many events and meet-ups. They seemed to always have something to celebrate and enjoyed spending time with friends, family and neighbours. 

At these events I would feel comfortable taking photos as everyone was so friendly and welcoming. Soon people were asking for me to take their picture, and kids were very excited to see themselves on the camera screen. This certainly helped me capture such special and intimate moments of everyone doing the traditional dance, eating injera and enjoying tella – homemade beer. 

Eskista is a traditional dance which everyone would take part in. This dancing was very impressive to see as there is a strong emphasis on the shoulder movement, jilting of the chest whilst often making a ‘hissing’ sound. I hadn’t seen any dance like this before, even the children were very good at it. I often didn’t get away with just sitting back and watching, they would make sure I was getting involved too. Although, sometimes shy at first to get involved, it broke down any barriers between me as a photographer and the people as subjects as we built relationships and enjoyed these ceremonies together.

When I went out exploring the town and mountains, I was aware I was a ‘ferengi’ – meaning foreigner. I needed to be respectful when taking photos and did not want to flaunt any kind of wealth. I was sometimes asked for money before taking a photo by children and even a priest! But often people were very accepting. 

During a trek through the mountains, villagers were passing by carrying heavy loads of food to sell at the Saturday market. I remember one girl walking towards me, I communicated that I wanted to take her portrait. She stopped and posed for me by looking straight into the camera and had her arms down by her side. She then walked off and continued her journey.

Sometimes, I just see something which I think would make a good picture. For me there doesn’t always have to be an in-depth meaning to every image. I may come across something interesting or bizarre that’s going on, then if the composition falls together nicely and the colours work well, I take the shot. I can look back at the image to reflect and pick up on little details of things I may not have noticed at the time. Other viewers can take what they want from it.

There was another occasion where I had been told off for taking a photo. I was taking a shot of a man balancing on a huge tyre to help him reach up to the coach he was washing. Another man began shouting in Amharic asking what the purpose for the photo. Thankfully Mengesha was able to step in and explain. I realise that I was in a good position to be alongside and shown round by locals, and I appreciate their enthusiasm and support for my photography.

OA: What’s your favourite piece from this series? 

CC: I’d say the shot of the cow being slaughtered. This situation had a huge effect on me. This was the day before the wedding and the men were preparing the food for all the of guests. 

It wasn’t the first time I’d seen an animal being slaughtered on this trip. Whilst at the livestock market we discussed buying a goat for the family we were living with to say thank you for having us stay. To my surprise, I started tearing up at the thought of a goat being killed! After I had finished with my sobbing we did buy the goat. Mengesha had the goat on a lead like a dog and we walked it back to the compound. 

He tied it to a tree for the rest of the night, then at about 5am Mengesha and his sister began the slaughter. I filmed the entire process keeping my distance. It wasn’t very pleasant and I really felt for the goat but it was done quite quickly and seemingly as painless as possible. The goat was ready to cook for dinner that evening. I soon realised that the way meat is prepared in Ethiopia is much more natural in comparison to what I’m used to in England.

When it came to the slaughter of the cow, I was a little more mentally prepared and so I got up very close when photographing. It was pretty horrifying. After the men forced the cow to lay down on its side, they started peeling the skin off the neck before slitting the throat, apparently this was for hygiene reasons. The cow’s eyes were bulging, staring right at me and the noises he was making were very disturbing. The men continued to tear off the rest of the skin and then hack into the body with large knives. The body was in spasm for a long while and the smell was horrendous.

The photo also shows a small toddler and an older child watching. They seemed relaxed and the boy was ready to step in and help when needed. The contrasting look of disgust on Catherine’s face most probably resembled mine. We are used to the quick and effortless way of popping to Tesco to pick up meat off the shelf which may have even been already been diced. Soon after returning to London, I became vegetarian!

I also really enjoy images which focus on people and bring out a good sense of humour and freedom. I wanted to capture the fun the children were having which I relate to this from the good times I had with my friends during my childhood.

There was a moment whilst the wedding guests were standing in a large crowd focused on the bride and groom, I spotted a young girl squeeze her way through with a bottle of beer in her hand and a funny expression on her face. I liked her character and this photo is one that just from a single image, a story can be read.

It was also an example of the power of photography, a moment like this would not normally be noticed and if so, only by one person, and by the time that person tried to tap another on the shoulder to share with them, the moment would have passed. But with a camera you are able to capture these moments; I like to do so and keep their true essence by not over editing or manipulating.

OA: How does the Ethiopia series fit into the wider context of your photography?

CC: All my projects connect because they all come from me, so my interests stay the same; people and their characters, particularly humour. But the different places and situations I find myself in help me learn about these ‘themes’ from new angles. Ethiopia really helped me realise this; being in a vast amount of new spaces which differ to anywhere I had been to before.

My time in Ethiopia has influenced me to step out of my comfort zone. I am very fond of animals so they always recur in my work, considering how people treat, care or use them. I learnt so much in Ethiopia about farming, killing and eating animals. I saw it all first hand and documented it.

The ‘Menagerie’ project begun from my interest in animals and developed into considering their environments, who the zoos are really designed for.  I thought back to this when experiencing some of the most stunning landscapes I’ve ever witnessed in Ethiopia. I was lucky enough to sit among Open Heart geladas baboons in their natural habitat of the mountains outside Lalibela. I also explored the Danakil Depression where the landscape is so harsh that almost nothing can survive there. It was liberating so see animals in their own habitat, and at the same time being naturally comfortable surrounded by people. But this may change in future years, and my images are a way to document how things used to be.

OA: Where do you see yourself and your work in five years?

CC: I’m so privileged to be able to travel and learn from such experiences and photography is a means to share this. I don’t want to dictate or tell people what to think but by sharing what I see, I hope to open discussion and broaden thoughts.

Photography brings people across the world closer. I enjoy when people see my work and say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that was like that’ or, ‘I never thought of it from that perspective’. It is difficult for Ethiopian people to travel abroad but they can learn about other countries and connect to people from all walks of life through imagery.

Traditional values are constantly evolving and cities and technology are growing fast. I see my work as a way to document and freeze a moment in time we can analyse and compare to the future.

In five years time I hope to continue doing this, and possibly revisit countries to document and find out what has changed or stayed the same.

Follow Charlotte Chambers on Instagram or visit her website for more wonderful scenes from Ethiopia.