Hi, I’m Ryan Eccleston and I am a Photographer/Artist. Because of my father’s occupation, my family was pretty nomadic, so I travelled frequently growing up. I was born in Jamaica, but spent the first 8 years of my life living and travelling throughout the Middle East. Growing up like this really nurtured my curiosity about life, because for me, traveling is the biggest classroom. You never stop learning. You are able to see that we are all so different and unique. While each culture brings its own flavour to life, at the root we all have the same ambitions, fears, and joys. As I continue to travel, the more I learn; and the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t always have the answer. And I’m fine with that because it’s a beautiful thing!
How does photography influence the way you travel?
Photography has influenced the way I travel in many ways, especially as I get older. I look at things keenly and try to soak up the moment since I am not a native in most of the places I find myself. Time is also finite, so I try not to take the time I’m in a given place for granted. As things are always changing, it’s never certain that I will experience similar moments if I return to a certain place. The village, city, or neighborhood might not be there next year or in its current state, so I try to bare that in mind constantly and make efforts to seize the moment; whether big or small. Photographs are a receipt that I was here or there. Many people don’t get the opportunity to travel, so I am aware how truly blessed I am with this gift.
What sparked your interest to travel to Ethiopia? Which cities did you visit?
I went there to visit my father as he was about to retire from his job and Ethiopia was his last posting. I was leaving Florida to move to New York and had a gap of months till the move. So I said to myself why not take the opportunity for some adventure and broaden my portfolio? I got to Addis in August (in the middle of the Ethiopian winter rainy season), and seeing all that was happening there was a real thrill for me. I was able to see a lot of Addis Ababa, from historical places to everyday happenings. While in Addis, I wanted to dig a little deeper, and got recommendations to explore cities like Harar, Asaita, Dire Dawa, and Gonder. My gap trip ended up taking me on a six year journey in which I decided to live in Addis and work as a Photographer/Filmmaker and run a Photography and Cinematography consultancy. I was then able to connect with more people and travel throughout not just Ethiopia, but other East African countries like Kenya and Uganda.
How did you get involved photographing the people of The Afar tribe? How would you describe their culture?
While in Addis, I kept hearing about these people that had what seemed to be a drastically different culture from what I had been exposed to in the capital city. After seeing some photos, I became fascinated by their way of life and decided to go and see it for myself. So I funded the journey, hired a jeep and a driver, got my malaria medications and off I went. It took us more than a day to get to Asaita (the main Afar town) and had to stop in a transit town due to the long distance and heat; not to mention, The Afar region is one of the hottest places on earth inhabited by man. When I finally got to Asaita it was midday and a complete ghost-town! Due to the high temperatures during the day, people choose to remain indoors until the sun sets.
The Afar culture from my observation was an extremely interesting one. The culture from my experience is very reserved, as the Afars are traditionally nomads and their camels are extremely prized assets. What I found was a sense of pride in who they are and what they do. I was captivated with how they would decorate themselves, and scarring their skin was a major way to do that. Their afro hairstyle was really popular as well. For me this was a different world and I was perpetually in awe, yet mindful to stay in the moment. I really appreciated the hospitality, as I was constantly being invited places. The people were really cool with me roaming around with my camera once the ice had been broken. I was also asked a lot about America and Jamaica regarding how life is there and what my family is like. They were just as fascinated me and what brought me to their community. Being black in Africa coming from the diaspora was always a talking point. It was perhaps one of the greatest experiences of my life.
Did you have any expectations or preconceived notions prior to your arrival about the culture you would be exposed to? How did they differ from what the cultures actually were?
Yes! I definitely had preconceived notions. People in Addis Ababa would tell me legends about how fierce the Afar were and that the region itself was a bit dangerous. For me, I wasn’t going to let that determine whether or not I would go. Once I got there, I simply listened more than I spoke and barely took out my camera for the first couple of days because I wanted to feel the vibe of the place first. I was treated with the respect and dignity.
What are some of your most memorable moments looking back?
Some of my most memorable experiences looking back would have to be on the road from Addis Ababa to Dire Dawa, a small town with no electricity. After having a small mechanical problem with the car, we pulled over to fix it. In the pitch black of night, a man just appears out of mumbling and speaking incoherently. I noticed the driver and my friend who was travelling with me paying him no attention, but the man still went on and on. I spoke no Oromia (one of the many languages spoken in Ethiopia), so I was quite confused and curious about what this strange man was saying. Once we finally fixed the vehicle and were on our way, I asked my friend, “What was that all about?” to which he replied, “Don’t mind him, he was just high off Qat (a leaf stimulant popular in the Horn of Africa that gets people high). He was telling us not to worry, any problem we had. We shouldn’t worry. He can fix all problems!”
What would you like people to know about the cities you visited that the media does not show?
The thing that I would like people to know about some of the cities that I have visited are that there are always great things below the surface. If you have time to really discover, I would strongly suggest that. Addis Ababa has a lot of history just pulsing through the city. Whether it’s from the buildings or local paintings. You can see buildings that look like they could tell you so many stories. Or visit an art gallery to older French restaurant. It’s a city where you really have to search for things, and I think the mainstream media drops the ball on that.
What recommendations can you share for future travelers also interested in visiting Ethiopia?
I would highly recommend Mercato, the largest market in Addis Ababa, because it has a lot of history. However, it’s changing rapidly, so go there before it totally changes over from stalls and open air vending to shopping malls. Try to check the cultural restaurants which normally provide traditional food with great ambiance – a vegetarian combination of Injera would be a pretty good dish to try.
What were some of your favorite (or unfavorable) culinary experiences? How did cuisine influence your experience?
Cuisine for me is always an important aspect of travelling. Some gastronomical experiences were great, some not so great. I remember the first time I tasted Injera; though it is widely eaten throughout the country I was not a fan. But after a few months of living in Ethiopia, I grew to love it. I fell in love with Ethiopian coffee. Boy! I thought I loved coffee before, but til this day I’m still convinced Ethiopian is the best.
Travel has a tendency to look very glamourous, though that is not always the case. What types of challenges did you face, and how did you overcome them?
Travelling is a blessing and with blessings sometimes there are various challenges. Some of the biggest challenges that I have faced were staying away from stomach bugs. You never can predict when they are going to hit. Even when I did my best to prevent them, they still crept in. Also, staying knowledgeable, you can never take having proper information for granted. Staying on top of that is very important as it can make or break any trip.
Of all the photos you took while in Ethiopia, which would you say is your favorite? Why?
This portrait (see image above) was in the Asaita, Afar region. We were in conversation and one of the guys I was talking to asked me, “Why did I get tattooed? Why would I do something like that to myself?” I looked at him and pointed to the scarifications on his face and in turn asked, “What was the purpose for this?” His face was priceless when I asked him that question. And he shook my hand in agreement as to say “I see your point”. And I took his portrait right after that.
What’s next for you?
What’s next for me is spending the remainder of the year in Jamaica. I’m working on Photo Series called “Someone Like Me”. With this time I will be documenting life in Jamaica from street photography to various communities, covering 2008-2014 and beyond. This is the period of time I spent travelling between Jamaica, the US and Africa. With this series I am connecting images from Africa to Diasporic communities. When I was in Africa, especially in the rural areas, I would get the question “What brought you get here?” mainly because it wasn’t common to see a black guy from the West visiting. Whereas, the question from this side of the world would be “What compelled you go to live there?” This created a lot of dialogue throughout the years, and it has been an absolute blast to have these experiences.
Images Courtesy of Ryan Eccleston