Ethiopia: Anatomy of an Assignment
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.
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.