Work and Purpose in Ethiopia
A photographic journey
Text and photographs by Redeat Wondemu
The Washington Post, AUGUST 18, 2021
In 1950, Irving Penn — one of the giants of 20th-century photography — began taking photos in Paris, London and New York for what would be known as the “Small Trades” series. The project consisted of portraits of people in the clothes they wore for work.
I discovered Penn when I needed direction on what kind of photographer I wanted to be. His portraits have a rich tonal range, from the whitest white to grays to the blackest black. He used natural lighting, and it usually came from one direction, giving the photos a dramatic quality.
Penn’s approach has served as inspiration for my portraits of workers in Addis Ababa and Jimma, Ethiopia. I spent much of my childhood in Addis Ababa, the capital, then moved to Chicago when I was 13; in 2019, I moved back to Addis Ababa to begin this project. I found people to photograph — professional and skilled workers, street vendors, hawkers, criers — and asked them to come to my makeshift studio as they were. At first, they were very skeptical, as you can see by their inquisitive looks. Like Penn, I wanted to separate my subjects from distracting elements, so I had them stand in front of a blank background.
Penn spent more than two decades perfecting his photos. I hope to do the same. At a time when Instagram floods us with images, studying the classics helps me stay focused. Penn’s dedication to his work inspires me to perfect my portraits instead of feeling overwhelmed by the next cool photography trend.
For now, I am excited to be sharing these images with you. As the world has finally realized the importance of essential workers, there has never been a better time to think about and celebrate the people shown here — many of whom do work that is undervalued and overlooked.