MY MEMORIES OF JOHANNES HAILE
At 11:00 pm on April 21st 2016, I received an email from Johannes Haile's nephew Dr. Michael Haile that read, 'Dear Meskerem, I hope this note finds you well. It is very hard to say but Gash Johannes passed away last week. He is reported to have had a stroke at home and then to have gone to the hospital. I send you all the greetings of the Haile clan. Best Michael.'
By Meskerem Assegued
I was in disbelief. I jumped out of my bed and couldn't stop crying. He had prepared himself for this. He often told me that he may not make it to the exhibition, and I used to say, "Stop joking, because we have a major show and more". He was so eager to fly to Germany. I cried, not because he is finally resting, but for me. I lost my friend. He gave me a great deal of confidence and was always concerned about my well-being. If I didn't call or visit him for a few days, he called to see if I was okay.
Once, he took me to lunch at Backyard, an Italian restaurant located not far from his house. He was handsomely dressed in a proper gray coat and blue pants with a white shirt and striped tie. As we were eating, we saw Marilyn Monroe's photo hanging on the wall. He looked at it and said, "You know, I used to roommate with her photographer Milton Greene in New York". I asked if he met her and he said "No, I never did, but Milton used to talk about her." In the 1950s Johannes Haile studied photography at the Pratt Institute in New York and at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
"Being Photographed by Gash Johannes Implied Sophistication and Culture"
For my parents and my generation living in Addis Ababa, Johannes Haile is a household name. In many living rooms, the walls, fireplace mantels, televisions and bookshelves are adorned with framed black and white portraits of family photos. Being photographed by Gash Johannes implied sophistication and culture. He was eccentric. He was listening to Tchaikovsky, Chopin and his most favorite Beethoven, the 5th, 6th and 9th symphonies. He knew every movement and sometimes hummed the melodies. "You see," he used to say about the 9th, "now listen, his emotions are splitting everywhere. He goes high and low at the same time. He was tormented with love". He actually used to visualize and politicize the melodies. Once, in his living room he stood up and conducted parts of the music briefly. He was a great deal of fun. I think our closeness came from our artistic inclination.
To those who were close to him, he was a disciplined gentleman with high ethics and generosity. To the general public, he was feared for his directness and seriousness. Regardless of these perceptions, people flocked to have their portraits taken in his photo studio. Once a customer sat for a portrait in his studio, Gash Johannes took his time until the customer forgot the camera and relaxed. He never liked fake smiles and knew exactly when to click. He enjoyed capturing serene expressions. He then mounted the black and white film in a light-box with a magnifying glass mounted above the viewing area to examine and fix the portraits. With special lead pencil he retouched the pimples, scars and minor wrinkles. This technique is now replaced with digital cameras and Photoshop.
His studio was located in Piazza on the ground floor of the historic five-story stucco building known as the Electric House. This building was constructed in the late 1930s during the five-year Italian occupation of Ethiopia. Ironically, when Gash Johannes had his first camera at the age of eleven, he learned the art of photography from the occupying Italians who had a photo studio in Harar. He told me that the first time he touched the camera he knew he wanted to be a photographer. He also used to tell me that when he was young he used to ride his bike from Harar to Dire Dawa, taking photos along the way. Although he has taken countless photographs as a UN official photographer, he made them artistic. The images are proof of his passion and love of photography.
One Afternoon …
The reader is probably wondering why I call him Gash Johannes. I knew him all my life, and in my native language, Amharic, 'Gash' derives from 'Gasha', which means shield. Culturally, young people are expected to address an older male with a prefix "Gash" before the first name. One afternoon, about eight years ago, I went to his house and found him sitting by the driveway burning rolls and rolls of negatives. I was stunned and asked him why. He said that they were head shots that he photographed in his studio over many years. He had already given the prints to the customers and wanted to protect the negatives from being misused after he died. Exposing people's privacy was against his ethics. I was speechless. I sat and watched him throwing the roles of negatives in the flaming fire one after another as we were talking about the bees in his backyard. He used to have beehives where he collected and bottled pure honey. He often gave me a couple of bottles he saved in his dining room cabinet. His living room wall had a few family photos, a painting and animal horns.
On the wall behind his dining table there was a photo of Jeanne Morrew and him hugging in Langano, a famous lake resort southeast of Addis Ababa. The year was 1967 and she was in Ethiopia to star on a British drama film The Sailor from Gibraltar, directed by Tony Richardson. Whenever he talked about her, which was often, his eyes twinkled. I never asked him about the depth of his relationship but it was easy to see that he loved her. I did however ask him why he neither got married nor had children. He used to smile and say that his brother and sister have done that and he is happy to have his nephews and nieces as his children. He was never interested in losing his freedom. He told me, "What kind of a woman would go to the wilderness with me and let me do what I wanted. If I insist on my freedom, I will hurt her so I chose not to get married". He once showed me a photo of a beautiful young American girl whom he almost married. I never asked him why they didn't marry.
Gash Johannes loved simplicity and comfort. His diet was light, mostly chicken, fish, fruit, vegetables, and a glass of wine or beer. He also had siesta after lunch. He spent his youth traveling in different parts of Ethiopia and around the globe. He enjoyed hunting but in the end he used to tell me that he sympathized with the wildlife activists. Hunting kept him close to the wilderness and villagers. Whenever I visited him, we used to sit in his living room by his fireplace and look through his photographs. He enjoyed showing and telling the stories of the pictures. I often used to tell him that he should exhibit them but he was not interested.
With Different Eyes: The Exhibition
One day, around May 2012, he called and asked me to come to his house. When I arrived, his coffee table was covered with many photographs I never saw before. We looked through them as he was telling me their stories. On the floor, there were a couple of boxes full of negatives. He said that if I wanted to exhibit his photos he would give me the boxes on the floor containing negatives he took in Germany in 1962. Since he stored his printing machines in his storage, he did not have a way to print them so I looked at them using his light box. From that moment on, I started exploring every possibility to find a proper exhibition venue in Germany. I first asked Her Excellency Lieselore Cyrus the German Ambassador to Ethiopia if she could visit Gash Johannes to see his photos. She agreed and came to his house. She was impressed both by his photographs and his personality. She then agreed to sponsor a writer from Germany to interview him and document his story. I was introduced to Marie Luise Knott, a journalist, translator and author through a mutual friend. Marie came to Ethiopia and interviewed him. I then sent a proposal to the ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen) who accepted it.