Well folks, I'm back from Ethiopia, working on getting my brain back to my so-called normal life, and working through the giant stack of photos I took while I was there.
What can I say about the trip? Lalibela is difficult to describe. On a purely literal level, wandering around in church complexes carved out of solid rock in the 1200s while 50,000 pilgrims swirl around you is amazing enough.
But that's too abstract, really. It doesn't get to the personal interactions that happen in the context of history and crowds and faith. Out of 50,000 pilgrims, this one person in front of you, with their lives and stories and sense of humor.
I wrote about this the last time I went to Lalibela, but I'm deeply uncomfortable with the sort of "trophy hunting" aspect of making portraits of people in other countries - photographing people as objects.
The best example of my concerns that I've come up with so far was when I tried, haltingly, to explain my feelings about this to my sister-in-law. "Search on Flickr for any city in India. Look at the names of the photographers. Nearly everyone who has an Indian name has pictures of families on holiday, landscapes, historic sites, new cars... Nearly everyone who has a European name has pictures of dirty-faced street kids staring soulfully into the camera."
So I didn't want to do that, last time or this time. But what I found last time, and what I found again this time, is that it doesn't actually take a lot of work to reach out and make something of a genuine, if brief, connection with the people around me. The smiles on the elder Ethiopian aunties' faces when I said "Selam" were amazing to behold. Suddenly I went from Yet Another Ferengi* to an actual human. I don't think there's some kind of forever connection, I don't think somehow I was a magical white traveller who suddenly was their best friend - but for a moment, we were human beings together.
And very often, once I had done that, the next step was that they would point at my camera and their face. As you'll see in the photos at the end of this set, people just loved the chance to see a photo of themselves. And they were very clear about how they wanted to represent themselves: Scruffy hats came off, posture improved, most laughter became a serious, dignified face. So that's the spirit I took the photos in: As respectfully as possible, honoring the way they wanted to present themselves, and the brief moment of connection we had developed. This is how they were happy to be seen.
* Yes, Star Trek fans, Ferengi is Amharic for foreigner.
More photos coming!