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Blogging Ethiopian style

With the help of CAFOD, Ethiopians are telling their stories in pictures online. Paul Northup reports.

Ethiopian girl with cameraA picture, they say, paints a thousand words. And – in an age where our image of Ethiopia is still shaped by famine, starvation and drought – the vivid photographs staring back at us from the ethopialives.net photo-blogging website are all the more powerful.

They speak of lives not so different from ours. Lives full of work, education, families, love, laughter, struggle, tradition, change, food and even animals. The site provides a unique grassroots insight into the richness, diversity, culture and tradition of an Ethiopia that will be unrecognisable to those whose information comes only from mainstream media. New technology has enabled ordinary Ethiopians to present their own lives to the rest of the world. And it’s a different picture they paint.

When CAFOD first had the idea of equipping a handful of Ethiopians with cameras to record their lives, they imagined starting the project in the capital, Addis Ababa. But they were quickly convinced that, as 80 per cent of the country’s population lives in rural areas, this would not be representative. Annie Bungeroth, trainer on the project, was committed to training people in their environments. So, two other locations were added: Mekele in the rural north and Yabelo in the pastoralist south.

In all these areas CAFOD already had partners on the ground and these NGOs, together with the community elders, proposed the participants – 15 in all, five from each centre. Selection was based both on what the participants would bring to the project and also on what they would take forward as a result of their involvement. This was vital, because, although the CAFOD project itself will last just a year, the team is committed to enabling lasting change.

The first five-day training sessions in each location focused on convincing those taking part of the intrinsic worth of the project itself. They also gave basic training in how to use the camera (CAFOD supplied each participant with a four Megapixel Nikon digital compaq camera) and how to download the images. Inside five hours, they were all taking photos and uploading the results to the Internet!

Using shared resources and hubs of Internet access, this geographically diverse group have produced results that have surprised everyone with the quality, depth and variety of the photos.

Ethiopia Lives websiteHarnessing the increasingly popular ‘blogging’ vehicle as a user-friendly means of publishing updatable web pages to the Internet, Branislava Milosovic and the web team at CAFOD have enabled this group of Ethiopian photo-bloggers to document their lives instinctively. They have constructed an online collage that speaks powerfully of what life in their country is really like.

As well as the camera, CAFOD equipped each of the participants with three batteries and two memory cards, giving them the storage space and power to capture as many as 200 pictures between meetings. One of the participants has to walk 12 hours to recharge his battery, and power and data capture – crucial in any digital project – present huge challenges.

But these issues, together with a lack of Internet connectivity in the more rural areas, have been overcome with good systems and training – and by the participants pooling their resources. Issues of illiteracy – especially when it comes to captioning photos – are again overcome by sharing resources. Those in each area who can read and write help those who cannot.

The project has been harder to realise in Yabelo in the south, as there is no online access there. In Addis and Mekele, however, the photographers have been able to see the blog as it has developed and so can much better appreciate their part in it. This helps them refine and enhance their contribution.

The main benefit of using digital technology lies in its immediacy. In introducing the cameras – especially in the South where cameras had not been seen before – the team were able to show people the photos they were taking straight away. The participants knew immediately what their pictures looked like, even before they could be viewed on the Internet. And, in the same way, we, the browsers, can see the images captured just days after they are taken.

Majoring on the visual is vital in an environment where levels of literacy are often poor. That said, the second training trip, which CAFOD has just completed, focused more on the importance of good photo captioning. Captions are the key means of explaining exactly what the pictures themselves portray – educating the viewer and drawing them more deeply into the online story.

Now, this ‘voice’ – these images of life in Ethiopia – is sparking another conversation; one in which people in the UK can comment on the Ethiopians’ work and even upload pictures in return, so opening up a new dialogue. This online cultural exchange is intended to reinforce the shared-ness of life between Ethiopians and British in an instinctive, powerful way.

Debbie Wainwright, one of the project leaders at CAFOD, has been amazed at how quickly the photographers have taken to the technology. Now, training is being adapted to prepare participants to take on commissioned work. Some of the Addis-based participants have already been paid to cover weddings and there is some evidence that the project is equipping people for a career beyond its twelve-month span. This fledgling group of photo-bloggers are now talking about setting up a co-operative and using their new-found skills to earn money.

What started out as a good development concept – to use digital technology and web access to document the lives of ordinary Ethiopians – has taken on a life of its own, yielding financial , as well as cultural, value. An exhibition will mark the end of the year when some of the participants may be launching out as working photographers in their own right.

More information at
www.ethiopialives.net
www.cafod.org.uk

Before I didn't really know what a camera was, but now I have new knowledge and I will be able to make money out of it.