Photographer Interview: Aida Muluneh

Photographer Aida MulunehAida Muluneh is an award-winning photographer based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. In her photography book Ethiopia: Past/Forward (Africalila, 2009,) Aida explores the country through, identity, personal journey and family nostalgia after a 30-year absence. The photographs are a collection of images that showcases a return to a society juxtaposed between past, present and future.

Aida is founder of D.E.S.T.A FOR AFRICA, a non-profit cultural organization in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. D.E.S.T.A FOR AFRICA stands for Developing and Educating Society Through Art, it also means "happiness" in the Ethiopian language Amharic. D.E.S.T.A FOR AFRICA promotes cultural development through the use of photography by providing workshops, exhibitions and creative exchanges.

Follow her on Twitter @aidamuluneh.

D&B: Where are you from?
AM: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia but I consider myself to be global and local.

D&B: What kind of photography do you shoot and how did you get started - any "formal" training?
AM: I started photography in my high school in Canada, we had a small darkroom and a teacher who was willing to show us darkroom basics. I was hooked after I saw my first print. Now I shoot mostly people in their day-to-day living; I guess it would be considered editorial.

D&B: What cameras or techniques do you use?
AM: I recently started shooting digital after many years of having issues with it but I am still a fan of shooting analog. It is hard to part with my Hasselblad. But I am a believer that, it's not the camera, it's your eye.

D&B: Who are your mentors (in photography)?
AM: My first mentor is the late Harlee Little, Jr, an African-American photographer who was based in Washington, D.C. I really learned the art, craft and business of photography through him. The second is Chester Higgins, Jr, who has always been supportive of my work and I consider him to be the hardest working photographer!

Last but not least, Dudley M. Brooks, he got me in at the Washington Post and basically kicked my butt to become a better photographer. He is an amazing photographer and was able to come back from assignment with incredible images - a true artist.

Woman In Doorway, Dese, Welo, Ethiopia, Copyright Aida Muluneh
Woman In Doorway, Dese, Welo, Ethiopia
Copyright Aida Muluneh

D&B: Have you experienced any setbacks or different treatment along your photography career that you would attribute to being a woman and photographer of color? (this question is optional)

AM: As an African and a person of color, it is hard to deny the challenges that we face as image producers. I remember once, I went to show my work to a photo editor and he told me that I had too many "black" people in my portfolio. On the other hand living in Africa, the challenges are tripled because photography is still not considered an art forum.

I don't believe being categorized based on the origins of my nationality or culture. A good photographer is a good photographer. Of course our backgrounds shift the realities of what we choose to capture, but in the end it's a ridiculous to pigeonhole photographers based on superficial things, which is a standard that still exists everywhere.

Also, as a woman I feel that I have better access to my subjects and any challenges that I might face is set by my own limitations.

D&B: When did you realize you could have a career in photography? Describe your journey towards becoming a working photographer.

AM: Being a photographer and dedicating your life to this crazy passion is a great challenge. As you know, its not easy to make money but it is easy to make an image. I knew early on that I would pursue a career in images but I went to college thinking I was going to be a lawyer and ended up in the film department. One of my professors Haile Gerima would tell me that "Cinema doesn't like a mistress", so I had to live in between filmmaking and photography.

Regardless, my photography has always remained with me and in the end I had to find a balance. I worked at the Washington Post for a few years and realized that I didn't like the limitations of photojournalism. I ended up moving towards exhibiting my work instead and eventually got into my first major show at the National Museum of African Art Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

However, my biggest break and truly fulfilling experience was exhibiting at the Bamako Biennial held every two years in Mali. I won the European Union prize for my work on Ethiopia and it basically gave me the exposure that I needed for my career.

Copyright Aida Muluneh

D&B: What do you hope to achieve with your photography?

AM: I want to offer a balanced perspective on the image of Ethiopia. I am not here to save the world, I just want the rest of the world to realize that the image of Africa needs discussion, participation and exchange.

D&B: What's your dream photography project?
AM: Bridging the gap between photographers in Africa and those in the Diaspora.

D&B: What's the biggest (life) lesson you've learned through photography?

AM: 1) Patience: Things can't happen when you want them to so you have to persevere because everything is about time.

2) Humbleness: I find a lot of photographers have big egos! Someone is always smarter and better.

3) Persistence: I have learned that I would rather spend the rest of my life pursuing my dream rather than settling for an empty existence.

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