Throughout my journey to impoverished countries all over the world, one trait has reigned true: warmth. No matter what stressful situation or unknown location we find ourselves, there is always good people we meet among the madness. The old saying goes “A few bad apples spoil the bunch” and I find that to be very true, especially in places that have been riddled with war for decades. Good people are everywhere, even in the darkest of corners of the earth. These good people are responsible for uplifting others and guaranteeing awareness of the problems that many face, every day.
When I was first offered the opportunity to travel to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia I was really unaware of the problems and issues that plague the city and the country as a whole. On the minimal available information I had been given, it was tough to surround my brain around our mission. There is so little knowledge, I was forced to dive deeper and I only scratched the surface of what I would eventually come to find.
It all started with my friends at Nadus Films and their “Give A Story” grant project. We give a grant to those world-wide foundations that need it most. The grant provides the opportunity to document, capture and provide the right tools, so these initiatives can raise awareness and gain traction for further funding. Our project in Ethiopia focused on a foundation titled “Youth Impact” which provides shelter, food and a solid path for homeless children located in the city of Addis Ababa.
Due to famine and communist civil war, nearly 60% of Ethiopia, Africa is under the age of 18 and of that demographic nearly 100,000 children are completely homeless and suffer from tremendous injustice. Poverty, addiction, prostitution and disease. Some children, just 6 years of age roaming the streets of the city. There is an extreme lack of leadership, parents and grandparents. It is a country of youth.
I knew the project would involve children who have struggled. Children who have stories and I wanted to tell their story the only way I know how, through imagery. I decided to form a portrait series of homeless street children as well as people that have grown through the Impact program. I wanted to bring the aesthetic of my portrait work blended with a journalistic mood. That style involved creating a custom 3×4 canvas solely designed from the ground up for this series.
Upon arrival at the Youth Impact shelter the initial mood wasn’t shock, but difficulty. The shelter was small, similar to a one floor ranch-style two bedroom home. The front yard was piled with random rusted debris and the back porch was a concrete dorm with open doors and ropes covered in wet clothing. The shelter is completely surrounded by a 10-foot concrete wall which was embedded with shards of glass; an inferior barbwire.
We didn’t have a system to rig the beautiful 3×4 canvas, so we grabbed what we could from the pile of wreckage on the alley-way next to the Youth Impact shelter, a cracked wooden ladder and trashed twin bed frame. Using a Manfrotto 035 Super Clamp, attached to the backdrop draped over Manfrotto 2983 Adjustable Background Holder Crossbar, we linked the clamp to another Manfrotto 035 Super Clamp and attached it to the debris. Using a combination of Gaff Tape and Zip Ties we secured the bottom of the backdrop to avoid kick up from wind.
The light setup was simple; a Profoto B2 Location Kit attached to a Manfrotto 026 Swivel Umbrella Adapter which we attached to a Manfrotto 680B Compact Monopod for complete mobility. The Profoto B2 head is modified with a 46” Photo Softlighter II, the softest source of modification I’ve ever used. Luckily, I had two trusted assistants who spoke enough broken English to understand my instructions of feathering the light and keeping the strobe consistently directional opposite the sun.
Youth Impact has blazed a trail for dozens of successful business men, architects, carpenters and artists. Once homeless, now-adults had been saved through the Youth Impact initiative. I wanted to capture not only the current children living through the shelter, but also these blossoming people who had so much to owe to their mentors. It was a humbling experience to photograph this community that has so much to say, but no voice. Hopefully, this series provides that voice that they so yearn to have.
It was a true honor to hear the stories behind these young adults, who have so much to offer but, nearly had zero foundation to create a life. Fortunately, Youth Impact has provided a reachable dream and given the ladder of victory. Built upon a dark past, they are the future of Ethiopia.