It was one of my most challenging journeys. But it was also one of the most fascinating. Ethiopia – the mountainous province of Tigray. Ancient churches carved in rock. Impossible locations. Traditions that go back over one thousand years. Another world. It seems like a dream today.
An email from the editor of National Geographic Traveler China reminded me of my experiences. She sent me the PDF of the tear-sheets from the magazine (I'm sharing them here). My photos from Tigray are in this month’s edition. I have no idea if anyone from China reads my posts. If you do, you know where you can see my work in print.
It always feels very rewarding to have a stage to share my experiences, the places I saw, the people I met. I’ve said many times – the kinds of photos I make only truly come to life when they have an audience. With China being the world’s most populated country, this might be my largest audience ever.
I don't read Mandarin Chinese, but I did provide the captions, so I assume the texts are something close to what I wrote. Above is just one of the incredible rock churches that I visited in Tigray. There's a system of tunnels to get up to this one.
I still remember my friend, guide and translator Zemenfes saying "What do you see here? What's worth shooting here?" He was referring to the scene above left. I saw the sun setting, a dusty field and a group of children. I knew that they were shy, but playful. Imagine if they start running and kick up all that dust, I thought. I approached them a bit too suddenly and they all ran. The dust filled the air, the sun illuminated the dust and there I had it – a dramatic and atmospheric image.
Above right is a hand of a leather worker. This man was in his eighties. He'd been working with leather most of his life. The demand used to be very high years ago, especially for leather baby harnesses. Many women still carry their babies like that, but these days most have opted out for the mass produced options.
Local priests read prayers during a christening ceremony. We had the honour of giving the boy his Christian name. Had to be biblical. I thought of Samson, so he would be strong. Seeing these sorts of ceremonies is not that easy in Tigray, though it does get easier further away from the tourist path. This place was well off the tourist path. We had to walk to the village for an hour from the nearest road. A donkey carried our bags and camping gear.
The village head and priest (above left) who allowed us to stay in his house for a couple of nights. On the right is a nun in a hidden monastery. She was in the monastery because she lost her entire family. She preferred not to talk about what happened, but said that she was now at peace. Still looking into her eyes I could sense great sadness.
As I said, some of the rock churches are in impossible locations. What you see in the above photo is only the last part of the journey. To get here, we had to do some actual rock climbing. Vertically, along the cliff face. One wrong step and... well, it would not be a nice ending. We did the journey the day before I would have a chance to shoot a ceremony. I wanted to get familiar with the way, as the ceremony would start early and we'd need to rock-climb in the dark.
The reward of making the climb are these kinds of moments. I really like this photo, though I had forgotten about it. I sent the magazine editor a link to all the images from Tigray and I'm glad she chose it. The fact that you see only the eyes of the young deacon makes the scene seem even more mystical. It was a magical experience being in the church at around 5 am, as the priests and deacons read sacred scripts.
I shot these photos a few years ago. I'm really glad that my work isn't time sensitive. These traditions are as relevant today as they were when I made the photos. As I already said, it's nice to know that the work will be seen by a larger audience. I think if I didn't shoot photos, I'd still love to share my stories about my experiences in some shape or form.
If you enjoy my work, it would give me great pleasure to see you share it with your friends or any photo enthusiasts that you know. The share buttons are at the bottom of the page.