Getachew Admase: A life in photography
If you’ve opened a magazine or newspaper in the past couple of decades, there’s a decent chance you’ve seen the work of Getachew Admase. The 71-year-old Ethiopian photo journalist has photographed portraits of many people, both famous and unknown – royalty, authors, artists, actors, and leading businessmen as well as “ordinary people” in a series of work reports for publications such as for Addis Zemen, the Ethiopian Herald and the defunct Ethiopia Mirror, Menen, Yekatit. His subjects include Emperor Haile Selassie, Prime Minster Aklilu Habte wolde, President Mengestu Haile Mariam, renowned statesman and author Haddis Alemayehu, poet and painter Gebre Kirstos Desta, and another painter Afewerk Tekele. In his more than five decades of work, Getachew has documented Ethiopia’s ethnic and religious diversity, as well as important events in the country’s modern history, both before and immediately after the 1974 revolution. In an era when photographers faced many technical disadvantages, he started with a Roller Flex camera and did not use a Nikon until the 1990s.
(Haddis Alemayehu, author of the Ethiopian classic Fikir Eske Mekabir and a statesman who served as Ethiopia’s representative to the UN.)
The son of a patriot, Getachew first wanted to become a priest, but his head was turned by outside influences. “What seemed to be exciting for me was whatever came from outside that country, which was pictures on the magazines, and stuff on TV,” he told me recently sipping coffee at Semen Hotel. “I think that stuck with me – that there was an exciting world somewhere that seemed to spell freedom from the quite religious life we lived.”
Getachew grew up in Aba Koran Sefer, near Merkato. His father died when he was young and he was brought up by his hardworking, and loving, mother and his grandmother. Life was not easy for the family but they were a close-knit family with a strong attachment to their church. So from those early years as a regular churchgoer and from the closet kind of contact with his deeply religious parents, Getchaew developed his code of ethical conduct. He recalled a time when everybody in the neighborhood was a like a father figure.
In 1960, he was employed a proofreader for Addis Zemen newspaper, and later joined the Ministry of Information’s Photography and Film Department. He had no formal training, but learned by working with established photographers in their darkrooms. Senior photographers of the paper, Gudina Daba and Shemelis Desta have become his teachers. “Especially Gudina was brilliant. He first worked in the Unites States Information Service and was later picked up to photograph Emperor Haile Selassie in his first visit to the United States in 1954, during Dwight Eisenhower presidency. After the visit, he became press photographer and documentary film maker. It was a great privilege to have worked with him. He could always be relied upon to turn out a great picture when one was required. He was the consummate professional and friend. There was also the self-taught Shemelis who was documentary-style photographer. If ever I wanted to know anything technical, I would turn to them.With Shemelis, we later became close friends. He was a photographer that I wanted to emulate and I became a fan. We have not been in touch since he left for England, which makes me sad. ” he said.
Getachaw’s enthusiasm for photography and working late led to him being given regular evening shifts and he eventually became an ever-present in the newsroom. He studied photo books and magazines, comparing his images to western photographers and asking himself why his shots didn’t match up.
Soon he started going on assignment to shoot the country’s agriculture and farming industries, official meetings, conferences, and spiritual holidays. On weekends, he also used to photograph weddings and social occasions. One of his early memories in his early career was the day when he spent a whole afternoon taking portraits of his neighborhood in Talyan Sefer. “A man used to see me while coming and going home carrying my camera. One day, he came up to me and asked me if I could take portraits of his family for New Year. I agreed and I went to his house on the day and he and his family members were waiting for me dressed in national white dress. I took a number of portraits of the family. They changed positions and I shot them from different angle. The children would sit on their father’s knee as he sat on the sofa,” he recalls. Then a neighbor who was in the house began throwing pleading looks in his direction. She begged him to photograph her with her children too. Word spread and before long he had lines of people from both the immediate vicinity and beyond waiting for him to be photographed.
Over the years Getachew travelled widely in different parts of the country, and created his unusual style by using infrared film, which gave his images their ethereal, haunting atmosphere. The travel has brought him in contact with the “stark and overpowering” beauty of the northern highlands and with the countryside.”
(Prime Minster Aklilu Habtewold in a pensive mood just before the 1974 revolution that has swept him and other officials of Emperor’s government.)
Working as a substitute to the royal photographer of the Emperor, Shemelis, he recorded the Emperor Haile Sealssie’s interactions with a host of stars and iconic political figures. He was greatly impressed by Emperor, “whose slight figure was in marked contrast to the overpowering impact of his personality. He loved being photographed and he was often upright and composed.”
Getachew continued working for the successor government, Mengistu Haile Mariam’s military regime. Mengistu first gained prominence when he harangued the Derg into ordering the execution of some sixty high officials from Haile Selassie regime. Ambitious, ruthless and cunning, he was impatient from the very start for revolutionary action. Coming from a poor background, a private soldier who had worked his way up the ranks to officer training school, his career and character seemed to symbolize the driving force behind the revolution. Getachew captured Mengistu in 1974 when he was on his way to prominence.
Then he was assigned to serve in the battlefields. He went to the war front in Eritrea and came up with some good photographs, offering both a chronicle the civil war.
Getachew says in the Emperor’s time, the papers and magazines had to observe guidelines and prohibitions in publishing photographs in the newspapers. “A certain number of days each week the Emperor’s picture had to appear on a paper’s front page and it always had to be in the middle or on the upper right. The same rules are followed with Mengistu and anything he did –receive an ambassador, or speak at meeting, and visit a development project-becomes a major news item. No matter what might be happening in the rest of the world, it was the Emperor first. Later it was Mengistu first, only more so,” he says.
Getachew recalls in Mengestu’s era, there were a lot of censors and photos that don’t show the regime in positive light and that disclose secrets such as the existence of famines weren’t welcome. Nude photographs of tribes were also prohibited from any publications. I ask whether it upsets him when his photos are censored or withdrawn, and he says: “It makes you angry, not on your own behalf, but on behalf of the people whose voices weren’t allowed to be heard. When you had ordinary people, rank and file, never been on newspaper, never been interviewed, and they’re not allowed to be heard, that’s scandalous. And you see it over and over again.”
Still active today, the veteran photographer prefers to pride himself on being a professional craftsman. “I have a good nose for news. It’s about knowing your trade. I’m precise, direct. I work to a set of rules, ethics. I don’t like wasting film. I have respect for film.There is always room for improvement in all aspects of photography, though, and I love to learn new things. I’m not very patient with post-processing so it’s always great to find a new way to do things that takes less time but yields the same result.” While travelling to different parts of the country, Getachew says no matter people’s hardships, he found an unbreakable spirit in everyone that shines through in his pictures.
On the face of it, Getachew could easily pegged as workday photojournalist. Many of the pictures are shot in a straight, unencumbered manner.Yet his subtle skills capture his subjects in unusual moods and postures. His furtive sense of the moment is unerring. As records of state occasions, many of the images share an air of great formality. Photographed while waiting or in some fleeting moment of relaxation between their official obligations, Getachew’s subjects do not expect their every move to have been photographed or to have been photographable.
(Afewerk Tekle three days before his death.)
(All photos are taken from published magazines and don’t have original qualities.)