Zacharias Abubeker is an Ethiopian-American photographer currently based in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. Raised in central Illinois, Zacharias moved to Ethiopia after completing his photography studies at Columbia College in Chicago; in Addis, he works as a commercial photographer, curates exhibitions, and continues other personal projects. Zacharias’ photographs have been shown internationally and are part of the collection at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago. You can see more of his work at http://zachabubeker.com/ and http://zachariaselias.tumblr.com/.
What drove you to visit Ethiopia and how long were you there for?
I had been working on projects concerning the Ethiopian diaspora in the United States for several years. When I finished the first major portion of a project on Ethiopian immigration to Chicago in 2011, I came to the conclusion that what I had learned about Ethiopia up until that point was limited in scope. I wanted to investigate the source of Ethiopian cultural practices from within the country. I initially planned a one-year trip, but ended up staying there for around 16 months.
Were you able to find work as a photographer in Addis Ababa? What else did you do to fill your days?
It took a little time to get into the groove of working there but yes, I had a fair amount of work during my stay. I photographed for some magazines, NGOs and a film production company. I also spent time making my own work and traveling around the country.
I love the quality and texture of your images. Are you shooting film?
Yes, I shoot both 4×5 and 6×7.
Do you find that people are generally open to being photographed or are they skeptical of you and your camera?
It varies quite a bit, really; some people are very open, others are a bit afraid. There was a communist regime that banned the use of cameras for some time (from approximately the late 1970s to late 1980s) and I think some of that stigma still remains.
What do you look for when you are walking through the city hoping to make pictures?
Normally I just look for anything that is visually interesting. I’m also drawn to the pervasiveness of Western culture throughout the country. The amount of Americana in Ethiopia is really captivating; people love America – and rather blindly for so many reasons.
I use photography in two ways, really: to document a situation or event that is happening right in front of me (or something that I come across while walking), or as a slower methodology that requires more time and patience to set up and really study the subjects. The latter is more linked to the photographing of objects, examples of which you can find on my website.
Teach us something about Ethiopia that you learned only once you were living there.
The way that telling time works is pretty confusing at first. They work off a 12 hour system which means that 7am = 1 Ethiopian time. They basically start the day with first light. Noon is 6, 6PM is 12 then it starts over at 1 for 7PM again. It’s not as confusing written, but trying to convert on the fly is hard! People will tell you to meet them at a certain time, but it is not always clear if that is European or Ethiopian time.
I notice you photographed some construction on the street. What drew you to those scenes?
The construction in Addis is crazy right now; the city is basically being completely torn down and rebuilt. Its hard not to focus on those scenes. They’re everywhere.
Where do you think you’ll travel next?
I’m currently traveling in Europe for the next 6 weeks; I’ll be stopping in the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, and France. I plan to return to Addis Ababa by the end of December.