Admas Habteslasie: « I like staring at things »

Interview of Marian Nur Goni with Admas Habteslasie

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A conversation with Admas Habteslasie on his fascinating work, « Limbo », which explores landscapes and certain aspects of recent Eritrean history in three successive chapters: Past, Future and Present.
In the documentary photography tradition, Habteslasie constructs a sensitive and powerful work.

Let’s start this interview with your beginnings in photography and Lewis Hine’s photographs, which had an important impact on you. Can you say a few words about this early photographic experience?
The first time I saw Lewis Hine’s photos was in the Terrence Malick film’Days of Heaven’; Malick uses a montage of some of Hine’s photos of labourers at the start of the film. I think it was a striking experience because I’d never really looked at documentary photography before then. I went back to the photos later when I started to become interested in photography. In many ways, it’s hard to pin down what I like so much about them. There is a sense of wonder and novelty about the photographic medium in much early photography that I find very beautiful. It’s diametrically opposed to the easy familiarity that we have with photographic images today, which I suppose is part of its appeal. For photographers who aspire to social goals, Hine in some ways represents something of an ideal – his photos were an important part of a national debate on child labour that led to the enactment of legislation outlawing the practice.
Do you think that his work has had an impact on yours? If so, in what way? Have other photographers’ works been influential on your practice too?
I was definitely influenced by his style, by the simplicity of his aesthetic. I like a lot of photographers from that era – I’m also a big fan of Walker Evans. I think part of the reason that this style of photography attracts me so much is that I share some of that sense of wonder at photography – when I look at a photo that moves me, I feel like a child – and it’s also, predictably, a function of how I see the world. I like staring at things.
I’m influenced by many different photographers – too many to list – but in particular the work of Walker Evans had a big impact on me.
A residency held in Syracuse NY in 2009, organized by the non-profit US organization Light Work in collaboration with the London-based charity Autograph ABP, led to « Limbo », an exhibition of your work in Eritrea, and a catalogue (« Contact sheet » n. 151).
Can you say few words about your Eritrean project? When and how did you start taking photographs there?

I started taking photographs in Eritrea in 2004, a year before I started studying photography (1). I had been to visit Eritrea regularly from a young age, so I had a strong link to the country; when I started studying photography, it seemed natural for me to head back to Eritrea. The project started with the idea of exploring the impact of the unresolved border conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia. The project slowly expanded, however, until it became more of a broader portrait of the country. In retrospect, the border issue was a way into the project rather than its main point.
The photographs published in the catalogue were taken in Senafe, Assab, Sembel, Asmara… What were the work and shooting conditions like for you?
The conditions were good, even if I could only spend a limited amount of time in some of the places I was shooting in. For example, I was in Senafe, a town very close to the Eritrea-Ethiopia border, at a time when tensions between Eritrea and Ethiopia were high, so I could only spend a couple of hours there. I know Eritrea well; I have visited regularly since I was young.
The general tones of your photographs are pastel. This contributes to creating a very sweet and strange atmosphere (the limbo of your title) in spite of the difficulties experienced by the country. How do you work on this particular aspect?
I went to Eritrea twice for the project, once in 2005 and the second time in 2008. The first time I went I did not have a preconceived idea of the aesthetic approach I wanted to take – I was simply drawn to things and snapped away. Some broad visual themes emerged in the editing, but I had the opportunity to really focus in on the relationship between the aesthetics and the underlying ideas during my residency at Light Work, where I had the space to play around and really think about things like the colour palette. This focused my attention for my second trip in 2008 and the overall project became significantly more aesthetically coherent as a result of this experience.
In « Contact sheet », you decided to create three successive chapters: Past, Future and Present. Was this distinction already clear to you when you were taking pictures in Eritrea, or did it come later looking at your body of work and editing it?
No, it’s something that emerged later. The idea of history and its connection with the present is something that is quite a preoccupation, both with me personally and in the project. Photography creates history: a photo is, amongst other things, a document of a specific period in history.
Eritrea, like many African countries, has a lot of history and is wedded to its historical narrative; also, there is an obsessive focus on the future and its possibilities. As a result, the present almost disappears into thin air. I suppose the chapter division was a way of trying to get some of this across.
Often in your photographs, human beings are absent, very far away, shot whilst sleeping, or with hidden faces – apart from in chapter 3, « Present », where two separate and very beautiful portraits of two men and a portrait of two children appear. Why?
The broader aesthetic approach was a consequence of the subject matter, or at least how I thought the subject matter would be best approached. Firstly, Eritrea is not a country that reveals itself to you in a straightforward way; there’s always an element of trying to work out what’s actually going on. Eritreans are obsessed with being discreet. Also, perhaps because I’m also Eritrean, I have a reticence about shoving my camera in people’s faces – I feel quite apologetic as a photographer, generally. Photographers take people’s photos and then go and form their own little narrative, a narrative that is dressed up as a historical document. It’s an enormous responsibility. As such, I’m quite shy about taking portraits – or rather, I find it hard to take one I’m happy with unless I have a certain level of comfort and familiarity with the subject. Regarding this project, I wanted to temper the overall impression of looking in on a world from the outside with a glimpse into the human side of the story. It seemed like the’present’ section was the right place to put the portraits, as it underscores the idea that in between the grand historical narrative of the past and the uncertainty of the future, the present is a place where people wait, patiently.
Do you consider your work in Eritrea as finished?
In terms of the photography, it feels pretty complete. I am currently working on producing some written material to go with the work.
What are your forthcoming projects?
At the moment I’m based in the Middle East and am working on a few projects in the region; I’m also currently doing some research for a prospective project in the Caribbean.

(1) I studied photography at the London College of Communication (formerly the London College of Printing) from January to December 2005.July 2010.///Article N° : 9709

Les images de l'article
Limbo, Telecommunications Building, Senafe, 2005. © Admas Habteslasie
Limbo, Hotel, Assab, 2005 © Admas Habteslasie
Port, Assab, 2005 © Admas Habteslasie
Limbo, School children singing Eritrean national anthem, 2008 © Admas Habteslasie
Limbo, Family gifts, 2005 © Admas Habteslasie
Limbo, Martyrs, 2008 © Admas Habteslasie
Refugee camp, Senafe, 2005 © Admas Habteslasie
Limbo, Mary in the shop, Assab, 2005 © Admas Habteslasie
Bullet, Mekrem, 2008 © Admas Habteslasie

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