Interview taken From the Royal Photographic Society Journal, June 2016.
I’m interested in the way beliefs shape landscape, and wanted to explore the last remaining forests that surround churches in the north of Ethiopia – a country where, in the last 100 years, 95 per cent of the forests have been chopped down.
These churches are run by those who practise the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo religion, a traditional Christian denomination. They view these forests as a kind of miniature Garden of Eden, the clothes of the church. It’s a communal resource and they try to keep it as pristine as possible.
However, in recent years, there’s been an upsurge in grazing cattle and an increase in population, slowly creeping into the centre of these forests. So the people who look after them are trying to take action to prevent this from happening.
In other places I have visited in Africa, conservation is a kind of ‘fortress’ where locals are thrown out and westerners visit in cars and look at animals, causing a division between conservation and the community.
With this project, I wanted to reconcile traditional beliefs with modern conservation ethics.
There’s a huge grass-roots desire to look after and preserve these forests in Ethiopia, which are hugely beneficial to the country, but they need financial support. I hope that exhibiting the work in the capital, Addis Ababa, will help raise awareness among those working in development.
I spent a month in Ethiopia, including three weeks in the field in Bahir Dar where most of these forests are. With the photos, I wanted to show the passing of time, and reveal how these people are stewards of the Earth, caring for these trees which will outlive them and benefit future generations. I thus started using slow exposures to show time passing, but also the spiritual sense of the place. It was a place of daily life, but it also transcended the profane.
The bursary let me go somewhere I’d always wanted to and document a positive conservation story. So much of what we hear in relation to biodiversity is how things are failing, how we’re losing stuff.
I feel this story shows that people can look after the environment, and not just in fortress-like national parks.
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