Ethiopia: Anatomy of an Assignment

In Assignments, Awards & Accolades, Pep Talks, Travel by David28 Comments


This one was an adventure, no two ways about it.

Moments before I got into a cab for the airport last week I got an email from the office in Ethiopia saying I might need a business visa and we should apply as soon as possible. Blink. Pardon? Needless to say I left for the airport while trying to deal with this as best I could, and fulfill newly presented requirements that would satisfy the Ethiopian Ministry of Information. So I started my 24 hours of travel knowing I might be turned away at immigration in Addis Ababa. Hurdle number one. When I got there I proceeded as planned, got a tourist visa and was shocked to find my luggage roll off the belt before any one elses, and my driver there to meet me. This would be the last time things went to plan.

The plan was to drive to the location on Sunday, spend 4.5 days shooting, drive back on Friday afternoon in plenty of time for the midnight flight home. Turns out the location was two days drive away. In each direction. “Did we say 260km? Oops.We meant 620km. And the roads, they are not so good.” This is information I might have had previously if communication had been better. And when an African says the roads aren’t good and the drive will take longer than anticipated you know you’re in trouble. My 5-day shoot was reduced to 2. When I got to the location, a remote spot in southern Ethiopia not far from the Kenya and Somalia borders, I was in a hotel with no water or electricity (had power once) and the field-office had made no plans for me other than booking me at the hotel that would be my prison for 3 nights. I don’t normally complain, and I can do rustic, but this was just plain nasty. Still, my concern was for the success of the project and as long as the hotel could get me a cold-ish bottle of St. George at the end of the day and at least half-cook my meat before serving it to me cold, I figured I’d live.

In the end we pulled it out of our hats, and managed to prioritize the shoot, get the essential shots and jettison the expectation that we’d be able to get the rest. Try too hard to do too much and you end up succeeding at nothing well. The whole thing was a potential fiasco, and I don’t know I’ve ever worked so hard to pull it off as I did this time. The positives? I love Ethiopia and the people, so really loved the days of driving. Some would hate it, I loved it. I loved hanging out with the Oromo. Loved eating half-cooked meat with my hands and the knowledge that it could kill me, or worse, make me painfully sick. Loved the coffee. Loved the kids I got to play with. And I loved that at the end my client was thrilled with the results.

Many of my readers are people who want to do this kind of work, and many of the emails I get are about getting your feet wet with this kind of work. So here’s a reminder of the skill set you’ll be called to draw on doing this kind of work.

1. Patience, flexibility, and a sense of humour. Nothing will go to plan, things will break, communication will break down and even when you think it’s all been communicated perfectly, it won’t be. Pull your hair out or learn to lighten up. In this case we had done our due diligence and had done everything possible to make it work. Communication broke down in someone else’s sector, not ours, but we were the ones that had to deal with the fallout of that failure. Laughter helps.

2. The ability to engage in triage thinking. When it does all go south unexpectedly, you need to prioritize very quickly and to do this meaningfully you need to understand your client’s needs and wants. They won’t be there to ask and when you need it the cellular network is guaranteed to fail, leaving you cut off and on your own. The more you know your client’s business the more useful you are to them.

3. The willingness to go for a while with only pidgeon english and charades as a means of communication. In Within The Frame, I said I didn’t really subscribe to the notion of language barriers. I wasn’t referring to these occassions. When you need to communicate details, language is important and without it your ability to improvise and communicate despite the very obvious and impenetrable language barrier, becomes crucial.

4. The ability to deal with frustrations in a diplomatic way. You need to balance your need to get the shot and your need to preserve relationships with the field staff. It’s not their fault no one told them you were coming and would be asking for such ludicrous things. The art of negotiation and problem solving is as important as your ability to chose an f-stop.

5. The ability to self sustain and anticipate problems. The first thing I do en route to a location is buy more bottled water than I think I’ll need. I pack enough power bars that if there is no restaurant or the food is truly dangerous, I can live for a week without going into a coma. Beyond that, what if the hotel is without reliable power, as mine was? How long can you go on the batteries you packed? You did charge them all before you left, right? How many images can you shoot without the need to empty your cards? If, as in my case, using my laptop became impossible due to lack of power, could you shoot for the length of your assignment?

Was this assignment a fiasco? Not at all, just a series of challenges that kept me on my toes. In the end we got the shots the client needed – no, we got shots even better than they expected. But it could have been worse, for two days driving down to the location I was prepared to fly home without a single frame, and to explain why the assignment had gone so wrong. Made for a long drive. When I was still a comedian and juggling for a living, one of the truisms we lived by was this – you or someone else will drop the ball. The professional isn’t the one that doesn’t drop balls, but the one who recovers it with grace, calls the moment his own, and moves on. In this case it wasn’t me who dropped the ball, but it was me and my team of liasons that had to recover it.

And then I went back to Addis, had a long shower, an even longer massage, put on some clothes that didn’t smell like camel and funky-smelling photographer, and came home. Man I love my job. 9-5 in a cubicle? Not on your life. πŸ™‚

If this post worked for you, and you haven’t already read my article about starting out in humanitarian photography, THIS ARTICLE might be a good read. And HERE’S a slightly different take on the same sermon.


  1. I see you’re still utilizing the PCITW technique! πŸ™‚

    Glad you’re back home safe and that things worked out in the end.



  2. Great post Dave! Very insightful. I know exactly what you mean when you say that thing often don’t go as planned. If you don’t have the right approach, well you ain’t gonna get far.

    Great to see that you got things done, but then it’s no surprise. I think that you are a professional in the best sense of the word.

  3. ha! – sounds like a typical african adventure… Agree wholeheartedly that in times like these, having great camera chops is well down the list on the required skillset. Thanks for sharing this story with us all πŸ™‚

  4. Man, you should write a book! πŸ™‚

    Glad you pulled it off, but I’m not surprised. Anybody who wouldn’t let signs of heart problems interfere with his time in NYC isn’t going to be too flustered by logistical hiccups in Ethiopia.

  5. Tenastalin David,

    Nice read. I lived in Ethiopia for six years when I was a kid
    in the sixties. Bring’s back some nice memories. I’d love to go back one day.

    Regards, Erik

  6. Author

    Peter – I know what you’re saying but I’d phrase it differently, your photographic chops are by no means down the list. They are the assumed foundation to all of this. In fact they need to be better because when you’re dealing with all the logistics and stuff you need to practice your craft as close to intuitively as possible because your mind will be trying to solve other problems and will be busy thinking a few steps ahead.

    On the other hand, all the chops in the world will do you no good if you can’t wade through this other stuff to get to the point of shooting. πŸ™‚

  7. Welcome back – sounds like a fun trip. “The roads are not so good” – boy howdy.

    In Madagascar they display distance by measuring up their arm. Above the elbow is easily two days travel (not counting flat tires).

  8. So David, how long is our January 2010 African safari, really? Loved the post with all its advice and wisdom. Heading to my cubicle now πŸ™

  9. Welcome back, and thanks for sparing us the more lurid details of the stay (African Toilets).

  10. I believe that the ‘what it takes’ list also would apply to being happy in life no matter what you want to do. Great post and glad you are home, safe and well.

  11. Welcome Back David! Ah my continent of birth, always full of surprises :).
    I have to say though that the sentence that stuck with me after all this is : “Man I love my job. 9-5 in a cubicle? Not on your life.”
    Thanks for sharing your wisdom once more.


  12. So it is now Monday morning. I started this work week yesterday due to the fact that an engineering project I’ve been working on (and now manage) for the past 2 1/2 years is behind schedule and my entire team has been working way too many hours. Oh yeah, and I have that cubicle life but lately it has been more of a 7 to 7 than a 9 to 5.

    Before I get really going on my day I check in with your blog and read “Man I love my job. 9-5 in a cubicle? Not on your life.”. That did NOT help motivate me for my work day. : )

    Oh well, if I can’t trade places with you at least I can enjoy reading about the things you do. I’ll just try to avoid deep, dark depression while reading about what other people do for a living! : )

    Glad you had a great trip. Thanks for sharing all that you share on this blog. I started reading recently and have been working my way through old entries. You have shared a LOT of stuff so know that here is one person who is very appreciative!

  13. Thanks for sharing your story, David–great reading. Enjoy living vicariously through you and others from my cubicle πŸ˜‰

  14. I ate that up like a thick steak. Ever since getting my concussions I’ve been positioned in front of a desk for 4 months and I’m getting insanely restless to photograph the things I love.

    Loved the story and look forward to seeing the photos.

  15. I’m one of many unhappy 9-5 cubicle wage slaves trying to escape πŸ™‚ It’s always interesting reading your experiences. I’m wondering, if you were already familiar with travelling and working in Africa before, why didn’t you book a slightly longer visit in advance, as a precaution?

  16. Good question, serge. In the end it comes down to budget. The client produces these kinds of assignme
    t. I go where and when I’m told πŸ™‚

  17. Your post is a great lesson in Professionalism. Results, not excuses. The client is happy? End of story. Nice work.

  18. Hi David,

    Great post. It’s great that you managed to keep a positive outlook despite the setbacks you encountered. In this post and in previous posts you have mentioned that you always bring alot of powerbars just in case you don’t have access to food for a week or if the food available is not safe to eat. A suggestion I’d like to make is, in addition to the powerbars you could invest in a few Meals Ready to Eat (MRE). They were developed by the US Army, they are available to the civilian market, and the cost is not prohibitive. Also, since you have a Canon 5D Mark II, would you ever consider making a short video on one of your trips?

  19. David,
    Don’t know about you, but I carry a set of bicycle clips in my camera bag. Comes in really useful when I experience those moments of realisation that it’s all going horribly wrong πŸ˜‰


  20. Good on ya, Dave! Looking forward to seeing your African images soon =]

  21. Lately it seems that you having a “nothing out of the ordinary” trip would be out of the ordinary wouldn’t it? Glad it all worked out and we eagerly await images…

  22. As an accomplished wordsmith you may be interested in researching the word ‘pidgin’. Looking forward to more images.

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