Theory Teacher's Blog

Finfinne Diaries 7: Photography

I don’t have much to say in this blog post about my trip to Oromia/Ethiopia. I’m saving up all my mental energy for one final post about film and media in Ethiopia. But in the meantime there are a few more photographs that I’d like to share. The basic theoretical questions I want to raise in this post are about the aesthetics of photography. I’ve never studied this before. I am both an amateur photographer and an amateur theorist of photography. What is a photographic image supposed to communicate and how does it communicate? Is it simply the resonance of the content or is it the juxtaposition of two or more elements in a surprising way? For instance, the juxtaposition of an ancient thing and a modern thing. It seems the image ought to say more than what it says, like a poem. It’s not just what’s in the image, but what that image means. But in addition, there seems to be some aesthetic or formal considerations (framing, balance, etc.) that have nothing to do with meaning…  or maybe all aesthetics is about meaning. I don’t know. I try to take photographs that express something new about the way people interact with their world. I want my photographs to provoke you to think about the general structure of society, but I also like photographs to simply look cool. Anyway, I don’t know if I succeed, and usually I don’t. I took over 1,300 photographs, and most of them are crap. Some of the good ones I posted up in my previous two blog posts on Harar and Fentale. Below are some left overs that don’t have any theoretical framework. I just think they are cool looking.     

United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA)

 The ECA also has the historic Africa Hall where the African Union first met. This is the front of the old part of the ECA, and I imagined an suspense-thriller movie with lots of spies where a character runs down these steps. I tried to make the ECA look threatening.     

village about 30 miles or so north of Finfinne

 I just took this photograph from the car window. I liked the tree in the background over the village in the middleground and the odd landscaping in the foreground. I took a lot of such pictures, and most of them aren’t so good. With this one, I think I got lucky with the composition.       

Debre Libanos

 Debre Libanos is a monastery about 65 miles north of Finfinne. People make pilgrimages there. Instead of my photographs just of the buildings or of large crowds of people, I prefer my photographs (above and below) that have a pilgrim’s face in the foreground and the building in the background.     

before Debre Libanos

man, road, charcoal

 In the country, people make charcoal by burning trees and shrubs under the earth. They sell it on the side of the highway, and then it comes to the towns where people use it for cooking, grilling corn directly on the charcoal. In a small way this contributes to deforestation and greenhouse gases. What I like about the picture above is the relaxed posture of the man. I took the picture as we drove past him, and I’m surprised it turned out so well. The picture below didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped, but I like the curve of the street over her head and the symmetry of her selling corn and the woman behind her begging for money. I probably walked by these women dozens of times, because it was right near my hotel, across the street from the Bole Medhane Alem cathedral.    

woman grilling corn on charcoal in Addis


Because the streets are so dusty, one always needs a shoeshine. As for the picture below, on the same corner as the picture above, I like the boy in the foreground, whose surprised expression seems to remind us how invasive all my photographing actually is. Behind him, a mixture of so many different kinds of people that you only get in a big city.


omg! so cute!

I was waiting for a friend to finish some business inside, and these children were playing outside and were intrigued by my presence, so I asked them if I could take a photo. The more candid second shot (below) was taken just as we were driving away, so the car window is what gives the image that hazy look. The children are so adorable. I guess this is why Angelina Jolie and so many Americans want to adopt Ethiopian children. By pure chance, quite a lot of Americans doing precisely that were staying in the same hotel as me. There’s a lot to say about the issue of international adoptions (which is controversial enough in Ethiopia that the Americans were strongly advised never to show themselves in public with their new children while they were there), but I’ll leave that for another time.

father and son in Jimma


downtown Jimma

Downtown Jimma was so busy and fascinating, but in contrast the university was so peaceful and lovely. For all you coffee lovers, Jimma is where a lot of your coffee comes from. The university also has a small and new Oromo folklore program.    

Jimma University

These two pictures aren’t especially aesthetically interesting, but perhaps meaningful from a sociological point of view. The one above symbolizes Ethiopia for me — the national bank, almost a century old has survived two revolutions. But now, since the 1990s, the Oromo can assert their cultural identity by naming the central branch after the Oromo name for the capital city. Nevertheless, it is obviously still merely a part of the global banking order (i.e., Western Union.) And picture below is the enormous Eastern Industry Zone, with its sign in Chinese and English, but not in Amharic or Oromifa, located exact center of the Oromia region, halfway between Finfinne (a.k.a., Addis Ababa) and Adama (a.k.a, Nazret.)
The skyline of Finfinne taken from the roof of my hotel in the Bole neighborhood, and downtown Adama. These photographs aren’t especially interesting aesthetically. I just include them as a point of contrast with some of my other photographs. If I showed you just these two photographs and asked you to guess which country they were of, what would you guess?

 And finally, my apologies for any formatting issues with this post. I’ve had a heck of a time uploading these pictures, and I don’t know what happened.


July 29, 2010 - Posted by | Oromia


  1. Now, see, I read that first picture completely differently than the way you wanted it to be read — in one of my Comm classes we talked about how when photojournalists want to focus on how someone has overcome adversity they take their pictures looking up at them, as if this person is larger than life. So I saw the ECA and I thought you were trying to make a point about how Africa has overcome adversity (colonial, obviously.) Then, of course, I read your explanation, which was a little different.

    Comment by Megan G. | July 29, 2010 | Reply

    • Megan, first, nothing you learn in a Comm class is ever true, and I don’t understand your reading of that picture at all (just kidding.) But more seriously, a theory is just a theory, and applying such any idea like that as a hard and fast rule is really unwise. Theory is not supposed to be a formula that you apply.

      Instead, let’s start at the beginning. Basically, when the perspective of the camera looks up at a person or an object, then that person or object looks bigger than the viewer. That’s it, that’s all we can say for sure. It may be like a child looking up at a parent or a small person looking up at a large person. You might imagine someone going to a job interview and standing in front of the large office building, scared to go in. As for the meaning of that perspective, that depends on the context of the image and is always up for interpretation, so it might mean that the subject is someone deserving of praise (like a president) or it might mean the subject is just intimidating. If the camera is looking up at a scary monster, it would be ridiculous to think that the photojournalist means to praise this monster’s overcoming adversity. The two key things here in addition to the formal property of the photograph’s perspective are the content and the context. So, essentially, the difference between our two interpretations of my photo suggests that each of us brings a different background or context to the photo.

      Comment by steventhomas | July 29, 2010 | Reply

  2. As far as the question you raised about what a photograph is supposed to communicate I think you essentially answered that in your post (yes I realize that was probably intentional). However just as a sum up of what I got out of it and what reaffirmed the first thought I had after reading the initial paragraph is that, like a poem, a photograph can communicate all of those things and more. By trying to force it into a clear definition of what it ought to be and what it ought to tell a viewer is an injustice to the photo. While the photographer may have certain concepts they wish the viewer to percieve in the photo, the photo is ultimately its own entity in which many interpretations are available and none of which are completely invalid if they happen to differ with the meaning that the photographer intended. And I personally think that yes, all aesthetics have to do with meaning, just like how the way lines are arranged and cut off can add significant meaning about a poem. Its not just about the words it contains. ANYWAYS that was rather long winded and wordy so sorry, and that pretty much wraps it up.

    (by the way, the second picture and the one of the elderly woman are awesome, tattooed women are the best! 😀 )

    Comment by Tara L. | July 29, 2010 | Reply

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