Students in Gode, Somali Region, Ethiopia. (Hilina Abebe).

Documentary photographer Hilina Abebe talks with writer Jareh Das about the everyday images she makes of Ethiopians across the diaspora.

A self-taught documentary photographer, Hilina Abebe captures the everyday lived experiences of Ethiopians and their diaspora to explore themes of faith, identity and society. 

Influenced by her father’s black and white family photographs made in the 1960s and 1970s, Abebe is ultimately a visual storyteller whose interest is in relaying visual stories of ordinary people, taken in and beyond their local context. Her ongoing series, Ethiopia in the USA (2016-) examines migration identities taken on by Ethiopians living in the US, and the many ways these individuals still connect to their homeland through religion, dress and the social practices of coming together. In contrast, her two-part series, The Faithful is a moving reflection on Lalibela, one of the holiest sites for Orthodox Christians of Ethiopia.

In the following conversation, Hilina speaks of her inspiration to take up photography, an ethical approach to capturing individuals and her passion for contributing to a wider conversation on Africans representing themselves through images.

Photography since its inception in the 1800s has portrayed Black subjects in a less than flattering light. How did you begin working as a documentary photographer and subsequently start contributing to the narrative of Africans documenting themselves and reverting a gaze that has historically othered these images?

I never thought I would be a photographer myself, probably because of the lack of exposure to the medium in the journalistic form in Ethiopia, but images have always been embedded in my subconscious. It was after I got my small camera that I soon realized that I could say something about the things I feel most passionate about. As I have grown older and delved much more into photography and further understood the visual representation of Africa and Africans, I have come to realise that I don’t have to just photograph images, but rather show the people and their lives for what it is and as I witness it. I have always seen African lives as one of great potential and immense resilience. So, my understanding is that as African photographers, we should not just be photographers who are passive but provide a fully-fledged and more intimate portrayals of our continent. There is also the responsibility of establishing whatever trust has been lost towards photography.

‘I see community. I see life as it is not often told by the West I also see how we are made to see ourselves – as lacking, as poor, as undeveloped, which often manifests in the almost violent requests to not be photographed’

What are the nuances you have observed in documenting the lives of Ethiopian communities at home and as part of the diaspora through your work?

From construction workers who I see almost daily, to the people selling whatever they have to sell on the streets to those living abroad as “immigrants” to the farming households in rural parts of the country, I always observe the need to win whatever form of struggle life presents. I see strength, which I can even lack sometimes. There is always resilience and dignity in the spirit. I see community. I see life as it is not often told by the West. I also see how we are made to see ourselves – as lacking, as poor, as undeveloped, which often manifests in the almost violent requests to not be photographed.

Yohannes poses for a portrait at his store in Falls Church, Virginia. He left Ethiopia more than 30 years ago and calls America his second home. From Ethiopia in the USA series. (Hilina Abebe).

Your ongoing series, Ethiopia in the USA, is very relevant to this question of the nuances of black lives, given that there is a strong anti-migrant, anti-other rhetoric particularly prevalent at present.  What do you see as the greatest threat to migratory lives and migrants – not just in the USA but globally?

The view of migrants from “poor” countries as “less than,” which has been displayed, narrated, imposed in the world order for centuries now continues to play out. What we see today is a modern-day form of racial discrimination that links to that prejudice. And the portrayals have largely to do with it. In a way, associating with this “less than” is considered a threat to the existence of those nations. My ongoing project, Ethiopia in the USA started in 2016 from a need to document communities of Ethiopians abroad that I have witnessed. It was not inspired primarily from the anti-migrant rhetoric which gained momentum in recent years, but it was more how I viewed Ethiopians, as they are. Like most migrants living outside of their counties of origin, I can only hope it contributes to the realities of their life and their contributions.

How does your process of documenting work? Are there certain themes that inform the work prior to developing projects?

My process often begins from my thoughts. The issues that I continuously think about drives me into going out to find them as they exist in reality. It is a reflection of what I see. Sometimes I write them down just to come back to them if I could not photograph them at a certain time. Issues related to social and environmental divide or injustice often are strong in my thinking sphere. I always question things. I am also drawn to history and how it informs the present.  So most often the issue comes first before the image.

Portraying My Father is a deeply moving personal series, and in some sense, it is a legacy project. How has your father influenced your work as a photographer?

My father has been the family documentarian. He still is to this day. He is a storyteller in his own right. He is nicknamed by one little girl as being “useful for taking images.”  This interest of my father no doubt also influenced me. It has brought me to find meaning in visuals. My father and I never sat down to talk about photographs or photography, but it is one that has been passed down to me without that element of discussion but rather, it is one of understanding. 

My father has been a constant in my life. He strived to make me the best version of himself. From Portraying my Father series (Hilina Abebe).

‘Faith is a very strong form of expression in Ethiopia. It is almost a form of identity, which means being part of the very same society; everyone here is somewhat shaped by it’

The Faithfull and The Faithful II are striking bodies of work given the longstanding Christian traditions in Ethiopia dating back as early as 80BC. What inspired you to explore Lalibela through people, the landscape and social fabric?

Faith is a very strong form of expression in Ethiopia. It is almost a form of identity, which means being part of the very same society; everyone here is somewhat shaped by it. I wanted to show that part of my reality, regarding faith and spirituality. I made about six trips to Lalibela, not always intending to photograph but to document the spirituality of people of Lalibela and those who come on foot, or by bus from the different corners of the country on pilgrimage.

A group of congregants exit one of the Churches in Lalibela. From the Faithful series. (Hilina Abebe)

Are there other photographers, particularly of a younger generation in East Africa you regularly converse with, collaborate or mentor?

One of the good things about photography is that it lets you connect with others, even a total stranger. I have been able to get to know several photographers from the East African region, but also from different parts of the continent. We are all learning together. We often reach out to each other to ask each other questions and share experiences. That is the most valuable connection to me because we share similar challenges and opportunities and navigating it together is a bonding experience.

How have you found inspiration to keep working and going during these sad and surreal times living through the COVID-19 pandemic?

I am slowly getting around it. I have been staying home with family and other times in my own space – and have been photographing the people around me, and my environment.

An Orthodox priest holds the cross as he makes a prayer. From the Faithful series. (Hilina Abebe).