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Shemelis Desta Interview

Time Zone: EST (New York, Toronto)
Messenger: Ras KebreAB Sent: 9/11/2008 4:26:11 AM

From Africa Today

E K'ABO's Bunmi Akpata-Ohohe, talks to Shemelis Desta, official photographer of the enigmatic Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia.

E K'ABO: Thanks for giving us the time today. Is it Shemelis, or Mr Desta?
Desta: Everyone calls me Shemelis, so you can use that. A few friends and members of my family call me Mr. Desta, but I don't mind what people call me. However, I am quite excited about this exhibition.

E K'ABO: At the start of your career you worked for the Ministry of Information until the 1960s when you were taken on as an official court photographer for Emperor Haile Selassie I. How did that come about?
Desta: I was first employed by the Ministry of Information because they saw my photographs in daily newspapers and they were very impressed with them. The ministry continued to be fascinated with my work for them and then when a vacancy arose at the royal court due to the retirement of a senior photographer, I was asked to the royal palace for a brief informal talk. Then there was a second meeting to take one photograph only. And as the saying goes, the rest is history. I was appointed court photographer number two - that is, as an assistant to the number one man, and later the number one court photographer.

E K'ABO: How was your first photographic encounter with HIM Haile Selassie I? Were you in awe or a tad nervous about him?
Desta: I was more of a worrier. I was very nervous before my very first photographic session with His Imperial Majesty - the emperor and during my actual first take, because as a court photographer you are only allowed one take and you are done. There's no second take. So during my employment I was especially worried before developing and printing the negatives, just in case I had taken a terrible photo. By terrible photo I mean - the type where one leg is missing or the head of your subject is at an angle or the faces of the emperor's guests are too distorted to be recognised. You can't go back to the royal officials or the ministry and ask for a second sitting. On the other hand, I was in wonder and amazement about his royal majesty because he was such a good and gentle human being.

E K'ABO: Were you ever worried that if you took a bad photograph of the emperor you would be sent to the gallows or banished from Ethiopia?
Desta: (Laughs hysterically) There was no such thing to be anxious about. The stories about atrocities during the emperor's time in power as far as I am concern are untrue and made-up. He was a hugely respected and peaceful person. Besides, I was trained how to signal to the Emperor to get him ready - to be prepared for a shot. His majesty travelled a lot and I got to travel with him. He turned out noble and fine in all my photographs.

E K'ABO: Some who have met with the Emperor described him as actually a diminutive man. We also know there was no touch up or digital camera in those days. How come he appears big and tall in your photos?
Desta: Yes, it is very true that his imperial majesty was a very small man and there was no retouch or digital technology involved in my work at that time. You and your readers must note this: the Emperor and I did work as one in some sense. We were partners. The strategy here was that I knew which angle to shoot him from all the time in ways that diminished his relative lack of height when matched up to his eminent guests. Throughout my career I always used two cameras - a small Rolleiflex camera and, when necessary, a zoom lens.

E K'ABO: Remarkably, when Selassie was deposed in 1974 in a military coup led by Brigadier-General Teferi Benti, and The Derg, you were able to hold on to your official position and continued to record government activities under the military dictator, and after Benti was killed and replaced by Major Mengistu Haile Mariam, a violent and brutal phase in Ethiopia's history, you continued for eight years as official photographer, clicking away. Why and how could you work with these men and their brutal governments?
Desta: It was a terrible experience. The period known as the 'red terror', a two-year campaign against opponents of The Derg was brutal. However, these photo archives offer a unique insight into the secretive and turbulent period in Ethiopian political history that in some ways I was privileged and lucky - (if I can use that word 'luck') to document for posterity. It is a comprehensive example of clear evidence of the atrocities carried out by the successor government and the militarisation of my country's postcolonial governments and at the end of the day the human cost of military exploitation not only Ethiopia but also Africa in general. But I must mention that there are some historical and meaningful photos as well, such as the state visit of Fidel Castro and the one of a youthful Queen Elizabeth II of England. On my way to City Hall in Addis to photograph the Queen and the Emperor, I was hit by a car, but continued to the hall because I did not want to miss the occasion and also I did not want to disappoint his majesty.

E K'ABO: Staring at these photos of two human heads placed in a cardboard box just stopped me in my tracks. When taking these photos and others like them, did they not stop you in your tracks, make you yelp and maybe turn a funny shade of red? Is presenting such images not mere sensationalism?
Desta: Different people have presented a variety of explanations for such images. It is most definitely not sensationalism, but to call to mind... Listen, this is the truth...I was physically sick to the pit of my stomach when taking these unpleasant pictures of dead bodies of students littering the side of the road. In spite of this, I had no choice in the matter but to take these pictures for the Mengistu junta or else I'll be killed. These are photos I'd rather probably forget. But what can you do? It also today proves Mengistu's tyrannical reign before our very eyes.

E K'ABO: Is there any historical event in this exhibition that you are most proud of?
Desta: In this selection, it is difficult to decide. Then again, three stand out: the first ever picture of (1963) African Heads of State Summit in Addis Ababa, when they signed the charter and a state visit from Cuba's Revolutionary leader Comandante Fidel Castro, and permit me to make much of the Jubilee Place Addis Ababa (1967) HIM Haile Selassie I with His Excellency Mr Hubert Humphrey, Vice President of the United States of America, and finally the very last picture of his majesty when he was 83-years-old on his throne and his arrest. He was 84 when they took him to prison.
(Last line deleted as it speaks of "death")

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Haile Selassie I