Photographer Sara Melotti traveled to Ethiopia this summer and spent time shooting portraits of the women there for her personal photography project, Quest for Beauty. The women in Ethiopia gave her a new perspective on what beauty means to different people. We caught up with her to hear about her trip and what she learned from photographing the women of Ethiopia.
Tell us what drew you to Ethiopia. How long were you there and where did you spend your time?
I had wanted to travel to Ethiopia for years, particularly to see the tribes of the Omo Valley. Their tradition of body decoration is fascinating and I wanted to learn more about them and their history. Over the summer, I got an assignment from an agency based in the capital, Addis Ababa, and I was ecstatic. I knew I had to take advantage of the opportunity and take some portraits for a personal project I’m working on as well, called Quest for Beauty. The goals of the project are to find out what beauty means to different people, to challenge and change unrealistic beauty standards, and to show that each one of us is beautiful even if we don’t fit into those standards. Beauty goes far beyond anything physical.
I was in Ethiopia for about three weeks. I started in Addis Ababa, then moved south, spending a few days in the Bale Mountains. I then went on to explore the Omo Valley, using most of my time to visit the many tribes living in villages around that area.
How did Ethiopia inspire you?
What inspired me was the country’s diversity. The landscape varied from huge stretches of lush greenery to dry, harsh deserts to volcanoes to mountains. There are 80 different ethnic groups, more than six religions practiced, and about 88 languages spoken. It was amazing to know that so much diversity exists in one country, and also inspiring to see that people live pretty peacefully with each other despite their differences (there are occasional conflicts for territory between the tribes, though, which we are hearing more about today).
How did you interact with local communities and what was that like?
One of my favorite parts of traveling is spending time with locals — I don’t think there’s any other way to get to know a culture. On this trip I had an amazing fixer that helped me communicate with people, though sometimes community members didn’t speak Amharic (the fixer’s native tongue and the primary language spoken throughout the country) and we needed a third person to translate. Unfortunately, in those cases, some things did get lost in translation.
My time was spent photographing women as I have found that the concept of beauty tends to affect them more deeply. In Ethiopia, as in other developing countries I have visited, there is a gap between men and women’s rights. I try to give women a voice through my project. I usually stop them in the streets while they are going about their daily life. Beside taking their portrait — when communication is possible — I ask them some questions. The questions are all beauty related but often they end up telling me a lot about their life, their hopes and dreams, and their sorrows. These women don’t have it easy. They aren’t free to do what they want and they work incredibly hard — it actually broke my heart to see just how hard.
How did the women react to having their photographs taken?
Most were comfortable having their portraits taken — tourism in Ethiopia has increased significantly over the last 10 years and they are used to people asking for their photos. They did typically ask for compensation of about five birr, which is the equivalent of roughly 20 cents.
What did the women you photographed teach you about beauty? Was this different than what you’ve seen or learned from communities in other parts of the world?
When I ask women ‘what is beauty?,’ I rarely get answers that have to do with physical appearances. Overall, everyone I interviewed identifies beauty in kindness, confidence, empathy, and other similar qualities, but in Ethiopia it was quite different.
While most women in Addis and the countryside identified beauty with health, the tribal women had a much different view. Many of the women of the Hamer tribe have scars on their bodies used as decorative elements. Almost all adult women of the Mursi tribe have their bottom lip pierced, where they insert a circular clay plate. They put their body through a lot of pain to achieve these ‘looks’ but, to them, these marks are signs of strength and strength is the highest form of beauty across their cultures.
What do you hope to accomplish with your photo series?
I want to show how strong and beautiful Ethiopian women are. Their lives aren’t always easy and often include challenging work, particularly in the countryside where they are expected to help out with their family’s farm or land from a very young age. Seeing children engaged in heavy labor made me realize how lucky I have been to be able to play and go to school and daydream about my future. Many children around the world don’t have that same luxury.
Would you say you were changed by your time in Ethiopia?
Certainly. Connecting to some of these people, hearing their stories and seeing how different their lives are from ours inevitably changed me.
This trip made me reflect on the privileges we have on our side of the world — there are so many things we take for granted that none of those people ever even saw in their lifetime. People in Ethiopia generally have so little, and we on the other side have so much we don’t even need … it hurt. But that’s the magic of travel: it forces us to learn unfairness, to see the importance of equality and equal opportunities. It makes us better people.