View Full Version : Ethiopian Journey

John Layton
2-Apr-2021, 08:20
While this posting is so very different from my others, I’ve been meaning for quite some time to share some of my images and experiences from past assignments to Ethiopia. But now, given that I am finding myself completely heartbroken by the current, very tragic events in Tigray - where my “journey” began in 1999 (in the midst of another conflict)…I feel its time.

Hard to know where to begin…and my fear is that as soon as I begin sharing, there will be many questions coming my way about the who's, how’s, why’s, what’s, when’s, and where’s of my eight trips to this amazing country…and that this will take time from my end. So I will ask for a bit of patience!

But maybe with these two, very different images - the first which I hope conveys something of the physically breathtaking beauty of Ethiopia, and the second which goes more to the heart, meaning, and ultimate purpose of my efforts…I will begin (prints copied with iPhone, so not great repros…will do better later):

Dembi Dollo, Wollega Province, Leica M-6, 28mm, Ektachrome, E-6

Addis Ababa Orphanage, Leica M-6, 28mm, Tri-X, D-76 1:1
Edit: This last image looks way worse here than even my iPhone copy...not sure why.

Exploring Large Format
2-Apr-2021, 10:29
Beautiful, evocative images, both. Eager for more and more details when available! Thanks!

Sent from my SM-G981V using Tapatalk

Renato Tonelli
2-Apr-2021, 10:31
Ethiopia’s history is fascinating. It’s one of those places I wish I could go to and explore.
I hope you will post more images from your visits there.

John Layton
3-Apr-2021, 11:46

In April of 1999 I noticed an article in a regional newspaper, covering a dire situation in the Tigray region along the northern Ethiopian/Eritrean border, during the border conflict there, in which young children were beginning to show up completely alone - having lost their families to this conflict. I became so moved by this story that I immediately sent off a proposal to the members of the small contingent, also described in this article, who were about to embark on a trip to that region to get a close-hand look at the situation. I wanted to accompany them to provide visual documentation. They not only agreed to this, but to also completely fund my efforts.

I then phoned the U.S. dept. of State to try to acquire any information I could about conditions of travel into what was still a zone of conflict, and was told that it was too dangerous…and that all but a skeleton crew from the U.N. remained in the region. But then I thought about those children…suddenly completely alone.

So I found myself, in early May of that year, in an environment which was, at that time, completely unique to anything I’d ever experienced.

Our stay in Addis Ababa was very brief…just two days to make final arrangements with the Relief Society of Tigray (R.E.S.T.) for our journey northward to Tigray’s capitol, Mekele. Our flight north was the very first to be allowed into that city for quite some time…the airfield having been converted to military use. Indeed, as we approached in the Fokker F-50, we were ordered to close our window blinds so that we could not look down…and my cameras needed to remain hidden. Being so “blinded” as we were, during what became an extreme amount of aircraft turbulence right up to the point of touchdown, was completely harrowing.

Speaking of harrowing…it was few hours later, while in my top (seventh) floor room at the Axum hotel (and in the process of disrobing to take a much needed shower), that I heard what sounded like a sudden blast outside my window - and looked out in time to see a Russian Mig-29 fighter jet, right at my eye level so I could also see the pilot very clearly…but only for an instant and he was gone, only to return a minute later for another round…and another, and another. At this point I phoned the desk to try to learn something (plus I really needed that shower!) - and was told not to worry, that the pilot was just “hot dogging” to earmark the beginning of the yearly festivities commemorating Ethiopia’s independence (achieved on May 5th, 1941) from a brief occupation by Italy.

After a couple of days in Mekele…we headed north - into a stunning landscape of high, dry, rocky plains punctuated by deep valleys, jagged mountains rising to 15,000ft, stone dwellings and churches, farmed terraces, and people walking…mostly women and girls…many carrying water, and what looked like young children leading large animals. There were men also…both alone and in small groups, carrying satchels, tools, what have you. A bit further north we began to run into “camel-trains”…typically consisting of five to ten camels (with a single driver) loaded with blocks of salt from the Danakil (the hottest place, on average, on the planet) and headed to various markets to the south.

It was later that first afternoon out of Mekele that we abruptly headed offroad…up, up, and through a narrow notch in an escarpment before entering a high, desolate plain, with but a few stunted trees, a small number of people and animals wandering…and, near the top of a cliff (with the valley beyond demarcating the disputed border with Eritrea), an orphanage…seemingly cobbled together with stone, dung-wattle over chicken wire, and wood, with the ubiquitous corrugated metal roof, which was itself mostly covered with dirt and dried grasses. Asking about this “roof treatment,” I was informed that such coverings were essential to hide such dwellings from Eritrean fighter jets, who were otherwise apt. to strafe such structures (more on that later).

At any rate…having been welcomed with open arms, I finally felt comfortable raising my cameras - two Leica M-6’s, with 28mm and 50mm lenses attached, each loaded with Tri-X, and two Leica R’s (R-6 and R-8), each loaded with Ektachrome film, accompanied by 24, 50, 35-70, and 80-200mm lenses. I also carried a small flash unit.

Finally…here are four photos from that first trip - the first taken at the above mentioned orphanage…of a small child, in failing health, who had been found, abandoned along a stretch of road to the north (Leica M-6, 28mm):


Fortunately, we were able to make arrangements for transport of this child back to Mekele, and eventually to a clinic down in Addis Ababa - where she was able to recover and, as far as I know, is doing quite well…having been adopted by an American family.

Before departing the orphanage, we were invited to a veritable feast, held in honor of our visit, consisting of the ubiquitous injera (fermented flatbread) with several toppings of meats, veggies, and various (and often very hot!) condiments. We were so grateful for this, especially given the almost complete lack of resources with which to assemble such a large and diverse meal.

We were also very thankful for the coffee…a drink reputed to have originated in Ethiopia - specifically in the province of Kaffa to the southwest of Addis - typically prepared by cooking the beans over a small charcoal fire, grinding the beans by mortar and pestle, then pouring the grind into an earthenware jug to which boiling water is then added…and after a bit of steeping the mixture is finally filtered through a ball of fine, dried grass, compressed into the top of the jug, and into awaiting cups (Leica M-6, 28mm):


The coffee is usually very rich, and is either taken plain, or…if resources permit (or if the occasion demands it) some sugar might be added, or salt - which seemed a bit odd at first but which I came to enjoy.

Coffee is a big deal in Ethiopia, and is often served ceremoniously, with tradition dictating that the ground surrounding the coffee table be covered with fresh leaves. We were invited to many such ceremonies, and these almost always functioned as the first true conduit of cultural exchange in a given area of the country.

Leaving the orphanage, we then headed northward along the Eritrean border, with our goal of reaching Axum, where we would spend two nights. But first, a brief stopover in Adigrat - where we were accosted by a group of people who had found yet another abandoned child (Leica M-6, 28mm):


After stay in Axum, we returned to Mekele by way of Adwa, where we’d spend another day and night (too much about this to relate here…I’m already using too much space!).

Back in Mekele, I was invited by a local family to take a room…which had no door and thus offered no privacy, but somehow this felt very natural here - and I awoke the next morning to find my small bed surrounded by curious children! Later that morning, after a small breakfast, the field nurse who’d traveled with us conducted some basic eye examinations of a number of children…one of whom became briefly distracted by my camera (Leica M-6, 50mm):


And about those jets. Shortly before leaving Mekele to head back to Addis…we were given a brief tour of a small elementary school. On the school grounds stood a small shed, with both the door and (uncovered, thus visible) corrugated metal roof of which were embedded with a very colorful array of what looked, to me, like bits of confetti…but were actually bits of shrapnel from fragmentation missiles which had been fired, only a short while before this, from Eritrean fighter jets as the children were out playing.

After the jets departed and the children’s parents arrived…the jets came back once more, in very calculated fashion - for another round. After being given this information, and with hardly any chance to assimilate it, I was led, by a group of about ten very young children, down into a nearby pit in the ground where many of them had hid from the attack.

To this day, almost twenty two years later, it is my experience in that schoolyard which can so abruptly jolt me awake…and there I am, back in that pit in the ground, with those kids whose strength, cunning, courage, and fortitude so amazed me. I can only hope, with the current and very dire news coming out of Mekele…right now, as I write this…that they are somehow still safe.

Important postscript to the above: please understand that in sharing this information I am taking no position, nor offering up any judgment(s), nor "taking sides," but only observing, recording, and sharing. Thank You!

(Further ahead - it was in January of 2001 that I returned to Ethiopia, having been hired by a then fledgling foundation, to eventually make seven more trips to provide documentation of their projects…but more on that later!)

Tin Can
3-Apr-2021, 13:42
Thank you

William Whitaker
3-Apr-2021, 14:19
This is such a wonderful and touching story. I hope you are writing this up formally somewhere, as I'm sure you must be.
Is there a book in the works? At least a portfolio? I love your images. The children are so beautiful!
This is pretty powerful stuff. I feel quite honored personally that you have shared it here.
Thank you.

John Olsen
3-Apr-2021, 14:27
This is such a wonderful and touching story. I hope you are writing this up formally somewhere, as I'm sure you must be.
Is there a book in the works? At least a portfolio? I love your images. The children are so beautiful!
This is pretty powerful stuff. I feel quite honored personally that you have shared it here.
Thank you.

Me too! Make a book of this, please.

John Layton
5-Apr-2021, 14:54
(As a preamble to this entry, I would ask folks for a bit of patience…that while, yes, this is a photography forum, I feel it important to precede my photos with a bit of background information).

My Return: It was seemingly out of the blue, that in mid-January of 2001 I received a phone call, from a woman named Donna Berber who, with her husband Philip, had just started a foundation called “A Glimmer of Hope (AGOH),” which aimed to provide assistance to “challenged” populations in Ethiopia…with a further emphasis on helping Ethiopians to develop a degree of self-sustainability which could allow them to eventually achieve complete self-sufficiency - in areas such as education, heathcare, resource development/management, agriculture, and business.

The launch of AGOH was initially seeded by Philip Berbers having sold his internet day trading software company, “Cybercorp,” (located in Austin, Texas) to Charles Schwab, for over 500 million dollars (cash). With Philip’s further aim of creating a business-based model for providing aid in a manner which would, instead of depleting his own fortune, actually sustain it while helping to maximize the recipients ability/capacity to sustain their own continued progress…he created something truly miraculous in the realm of an international aid “industry” which was (and is in some cases) frequently rife with depleting inefficiencies, culturally inappropriate implementation, to downright graft and corruption. To get some idea of this…I’d suggest that one read “The Lords of Poverty,” by Graham Hancock, which is the book Philip Berber handed to me at the beginning of that first long flight into Addis Ababa.

During that first phone call, Donna asked if I could possibly accompany her husband to Ethiopia with my cameras. She’d seen some work from my first (aforementioned) trip through contacts in the international aid network, and was now asking me to to document the hopeful establishment of some pilot projects. So, with a departing date less than two weeks away, and still having a couple of months left on my earlier, two-year Ethiopian visa…along with a further blessing from my photography students at that time (I had been running a workshop at Dartmouth College) - Philip and I were off!

On the ground in Addis Ababa…we - Philip, myself, and an Ethiopian gentleman named Tameru (whom Philip and Donna had met through the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington D.C. - where he had been stationed at the time), spent the first week, meeting with delegations, from various regions throughout Ethiopia, who both pitched their project ideas and worked to overcome their initial, historically often well-placed skepticism of all things “aid” related. Lucky for me that I’d read Graham Hancock’s book (described above) on the flight over…because when the question was asked, “how do we know that you are not just here to purchase a fancy villa, sleep with our women, and drive your shiny new Land Rover - mostly to meet with those who are rich and well-connected, and in reality hardly truly reaching out to those in need?”…I had a good sense of where they were coming from.

At any rate…after our time in Addis - we were off…flying west in a nineteen seat Otter, to the Village of Dembidollo - located about three hours flight to the west…stunningly verdant, with gently rolling hills and green valleys (see my first image), we were welcomed with open arms. We’d come to “Dembi” to facilitate the construction of a new school, the rehabilitation of a clinic, and to improve access to safe drinking water…both through the digging of new wells as well as the development and implementation of methods to treat surface water.

I will now share some photos. The first two were taken, prior to our departure for Dembidollo, at an orphanage (catholic mission) clinic in Addis Ababa, the third was taken in Dembidollo itself, and the fourth (and final, as per forum guidelines), was taken back in Vermont later that Spring, just prior to yet another return to Ethiopia. I will share more photos in a future (likely final) entry, and will also try to keep the length of my text to a reasonable level!

Photo #1: The young boy in this photo (whose diagnosis I will not share) is being tended to by one of the number of (mission) sisters present.

Technical: Leica M-6, T-Max 400, 50mm Summicron, 1/15th sec. at F/2, hand-held. Lighting conditions here were sketchy at best, but I also wanted to avoid using flash. A Leica-M truly excels at just this type of work:


Photo #2: An infant, being tended to by two of the mission sisters. As soon as (AGOH co-founder) Donna Berber saw this photograph, she said, “Hands of Grace,” which became its title.

Technical: exactly as with the previous photo:


Photo #3: Taken at a small orphan compound in Dembi-Dollo, these children lived in a row of small huts placed on both sides of a short footpath. I’ve taken a number of photographs here, having returned several times over those years to note the children’s progress - and to give them prints…many of which ended up on their walls.

Technical: Leica M-6, TMax 400, 50mm Summicron, other data unrecorded. (Note - this photo was number 37, squeezed out of a 36 exposure roll…taken to use up the film and with not much actual thought. It has become one of my very favorite images from all of my time spent in Ethiopia):


About the next (and final) photo - Shortly after we’d landed in Dembi-Dollo, and as we were heading into the village from the airstrip…I had a bit of an accident. Standing in the bed of a pickup truck (the ubiquitous, indestructible Toyota HiLux), video camera in hand (also part of my work), I’d had the video-cam’s lens set to wide angle and, true to the “objects are closer than they appear” warning as would appear on a rear-view mirror, a rather large and spiky acacia branch suddenly entered my viewfinder, and before I could react it had both smashed and speared my wrist! My first impulse was to hang onto that expensive camera…and I actually kept filming. (great fun on the flight back to the states…replaying this incident as it had been recorded in gloriously graphic, bone-crunching detail!)

Keep in mind that this incident occurred after we’d just arrived at the place I’d initially been assigned to the most coverage (with both stills and video) on this particular, all important first (AGOH) trip, and the last thing that I wanted at the time was to be evacuated…with the local clinic, at that time in dire need of some serious upgrades, not (yet) close to being equipped to handle my particular injury.

So I kept quiet and kept shooting…for almost three additional weeks before I got stateside - to then have my injury ultimately diagnosed as a broken scaphoid…a wrist bone with an inherently poor blood supply, that can be very complicated to “fix,” a complication exacerbated by my having waited so long while continuing to stress this injury prior to diagnosis. And so…with yet another trip to Ethiopia already having been scheduled for June of that year (2001), and knowing that even by then my injury would not have had time to heal properly…I made sure to bring all of my photo gear to my orthopedist appointment so that the necessary wrist cast could be designed to work with my cameras. With this having been done successfully, my only remaining task was to convince Philip that I was well enough to continue working…and he did not hesitate to say yes, and so the groundwork was established for my remaining six trips to Ethiopia.

Being mindful of the above…here is photo #4, taken with my Leica M-6/50mm by my then twelve year old son Curtis. Note the cast relating to the text above, and that I’d needed to equip one of my two M-6’s with a motor drive to facilitate photographing with this cast. Also…note the curious object under the dark cloth…my L-1 camera, upon which the later L-45A was based. I’d felt at the time that as my newly designed and constructed camera was then under consideration for a patent, and that as this particular photo was being used as the lead in of a front-page article for a local paper, I’d be best to keep it (the new camera) at least somewhat under wraps:


Postscript: Please note…that despite my long-windedness here, I have not scratched the surface of my experiences in Ethiopia, nor can I make any claim that my experiences, even in total for my eight trips over seven years - come close to doing the same for the people of Ethiopia - given all that they have faced…both during the time of my travels and to this day. Ethiopia is indeed a very complex, multi-faceted country, and its people are equally so…and I am deeply thankful to have been so warmly welcomed into so many wonderful, large, and generous hearts - where I dearly hope I can remain, as they will remain in mine…always.

William Whitaker
6-Apr-2021, 17:11
Thank you.