Wall within a wall: Photographs from Harar
In its initial stage of development, photography was at the peripheral of visual arts, and it is only with critical discourses that the artistic potential of this form became apparent. It is no longer indisputable that photography, with the industrial perfections it proposes, not only documents but also reveals new ways of viewing our physical and imagined world. For, as Susan Sontag observed, “something we hear about, but doubt, seem proven when shown as a photograph.”
But it is an odd layer of emotions when one is photographing and capturing moments that are supposedly from one’s own life experience. I grew up in Eastern Ethiopia. As the old walled city of Harar is proximate to my home town and culture, every time I visit this place, I am flooded by a wave of memories. Equipped with my camera and an artistic vision, I have captured images of this centuries old city, and with a particular focus on its people and cultures and patterns of life. Through photography, it is possible to freeze pieces of everyday life, and with them precious fragments of existence.
It is true that distance affords one the capacity to be candid, but it occurs that when one visits a strange city – one which is not one’s home – then to photograph is to assert one’s insecurity. For that reason, as a way of familiarizing oneself with a new surrounding tourists will constantly capture the space they discover. But these spaces have preexisted and for the locals they are symbols with other meanings. In the same way, I have grown critical of methods of photographing one’s own home in comparison to an outsider articulating new perspectives.
When placed in contrast, photographs by those from a locality and visitors can present a clash of knowledge. While one can be subjective, another might be objective. Such interpretation, of course, is fluid. Nevertheless, it is important to identify the importance of both political and ethical knowledge of specific contexts.
For it is necessary to identify and define the links of philosophical questions to the nature of contemporary life, and, hence, patterns of artistic expressions. Sometimes, as visitors, encountering places for the first time, facts of everyday life can quickly vanish, and only remain with simple impressions.
It can even be said that photography, above everything else, promotes nostalgia. In spite of the fantasies of movement, whether voluntary or violent, it is those who revisit their homes that attempt to connect memories. Here, photography can play a vital role. Not only can photography allow one to evaluate experiences, but also become skeptical. It is under this canvas that my photography of the women of Harar, through playing with lines and patterns, that I both confirm my experiences, as well as contest knowledge.
My special focus on the women of Harar is founded on my earlier experience here, and to also assert the women’s place in the society. Beyond the brilliant colors, through my collection of photographs, I explore notions of fragility and power.
In Harar, for instance, women are the backbone of the community, yet they are
sometimes misrepresented. And so, through this photography collection, I have been consumed with telling stories of the pleasure and agonies of being a woman in Harar.