Skyscrapers, Steel Plants and Shoe Shiners
Johannes Haile: A Life of Photography
Johannes Haile captured in pictures what the people in front of his camera felt: deep trust and empathy. His photographs take us on a journey to almost forgotten landscapes of memory: In the 1960s, the Ethiopian photographer visited the Federal Republic and caught on camera the everyday life of the industrial boom. In her exhibition 'With different Eyes' the anthropologist and writer Meskerem Assegued presents some of these photographs for the first time in Germany. In this interview, she talks about her curatorial decisions and Haile's life with and for photography.
By Juliane Pfordte
ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen): In 1962 Ethiopian photographer Johannes Haile was invited by the German Embassy in Addis Ababa to depict Postwar Germany and its industrial boom. How would you describe the image he portrayed during his seven-week trip?
Meskerem Assegued: He captured the industrial activities at that time, for example the workers in the Volkswagen plant in Wolfsburg or in the steel and coal town Oberhausen. Nevertheless, he gravitated to the stories of people behind these machines. He kind of 'humanized' industrialization by following and photographing personal stories of people who made this boom possible. Look at the photograph of the shoe shiner in Berlin! Who would think of photographing a proud older shoe shiner on the street in the middle of a blooming city while at the same time tensioned due to the wall that had just been built?
ifa: He looked behind that excitement. In his pictures we also see women in high heels crossing Berlin's Kurfürstendamm; or an honest smile, a direct gaze – his pictures recall Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous concept of the 'decisive moment'. What makes his photographs special to you?
Assegued: He had an eye and a feeling for the right moment. He definitely knew when to pull the trigger. His images are not dry photographs, but fluid and artistic. Every single one seems to be a composed painting with special attention to the light, angles, juxtaposition and contrasts. They are not photoshopped. What makes all of them special to me is the deep trust transmitted through the direct eye contact between the photographer and the subject. I tried to find these kinds of pictures in Germany or in other places, but honestly I think his photographs always stand out.
ifa: How would you explain the title of the exhibition, 'With different eyes'?
Assegued: The title is about the photographer who came from a different country to photograph Germany from his point of view. It could be confusing because the images are not about the differences of people but about the similarities. He was actually connecting with those he photographed as if they had known one another for a long time. He documented human beings with their individual uniqueness regardless of their colors, cultures or countries. Perhaps he saw himself or people he knew in many of the people he photographed.
ifa: The visit to Germany was an official assignment. How independent was he in the selection of the places he went to?
Assegued: They didn't tell him how to do it, but his trip was planned by Inter Nationes, an organization founded in 1951 in order to promote Germany's image abroad. They provided hotels, transportation and somebody to assist him. But he visited some places he was not assigned to go, such as Alversdorf, a small village in Lower Saxony that was going to be lost to coal mining in the 1970s. He also went to East Berlin for one day. I will never forget his story about that day: Near the border he met an Iranian driver who drove him across the border. He had always wanted to find out how 'the other side' looked like and if the stories he heard about were true, such as being arrested for taking pictures. But he finally could take all the pictures he wanted.
ifa: In 1964, the result of his visit was shown in the exhibition 'An Ethiopian sees Germany' in Addis Ababa. Why wasn't it shown in Germany before?
Assegued: The exhibition was actually supposed to be shown in Germany in the 1960s, but that didn't happen because the responsible Ambassador moved to a different place. Another reason is that Johannes was very skeptical, because one person who had promised to make an exhibition disappeared with a lot of his photographs. Even though he was being asked by the Ethiopian government or the Ethiopian tourism sector to do this exhibition, he has always refused to do it.
ifa: Until in 2012 he changed his mind and asked you to do it. You selected 84 out of 700 negatives. How did you make a choice?
Assegued: It was very hard to select the best ones because from my point of view they are all fantastic. In my opinion he was spotless. Every shot was taken as if it was the final image. Every photo stands for itself. It took me months of going through the images before I made the final decision. I then laid them down on the floor for several days walking around and looking at them to understand and select the ones that caught my eyes. I organized them chronologically by subjects such as the environment, gender, the rural area, cities, families, children, buildings etc. Once I did my final selection, I started researching each the photographs through the street signs, building names and other cues.
ifa: Unfortunately Johannes Haile passed away in April 2016. What kind of relationship did you have with him?
Assegued: I knew Johannes Haile since I was a child. My father and he were close for many years. I remember going through his photo albums on his coffee table filled with selected images he took during his travels in various parts of Ethiopia. Some of them were photos of him taken by others; a few were portraits of families. He was one of the most famous and talked about photographers in Addis Ababa. Although I was privileged growing up with him and his photographs, I did not fully understood the depth of his photos or his profession as photographer.
ifa: When did this feeling change?
Assegued: I guess experience, maturity and doing this exhibition gave me an opportunity to learn about what photography meant to him, although there are still many unanswered questions. He never got married nor did he have children. His whole life revolved around photography. And this made him special: I remember when we went to his hometown Harar in eastern Ethiopia because he wanted to show me his birthplace. We could have taken the plane, but he was so worried about the checkpoint x-ray detectors at the airport damaging his 35mm negatives that we took the car and drove eight hours.
ifa: Late in the 1940s Johannes Haile became the official photographer of the United Nations. Every so often, he took photographs at the court of the Emperor Haile Selassie. To what extent were his photos politically influenced or biased?
Assegued: Although some of his images dealt with political documentaries he was very sensitive about politics. In 1963, during the formation of the African Union, he used to be commissioned to photograph these events and became friends with a lot of the African politicians including the new presidents. But he purposely separated himself from any kind of political movement, yet had his personal views and opinions. In 1960, there was an attempted coup d'état against the Emperor, in which one of his friends was involved. That friend was condemned to be hanged in public. Johannes did not only witness it but also took a photo. I think it was his way of questioning the Emperor's policy.
ifa: Some people might remember the photographs of starving children when the Ethiopian famine came to international attention in 1984. How did he deal with the growing international pressure on the Emperor and the regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam that followed?
Assegued: When you are in the midst of a political heat, where everything is broadcast on television, the radio and the newspaper, there is another whole part of life that nobody is paying attention to. That is where Johannes was. He was not a photo journalist who took pictures of dramatic stories. The political uprisings, hotspots and conflict areas were covered by others. Johannes took pictures not exactly of the famine but of people's lifestyles in the midst of it. He preserved history in his own way. For instance, he would go to villages and take pictures of the people moving their homes or of their reactions to something new such as a helicopter landing on their farm land.
ifa: Some of these pictures are part of the exhibition. What was the most challenging moment doing this project?
Assegued: The most emotional point was his sudden death. Although he was physically healthy he knew the end was near. He often needed to rest and feared about losing his independence. I sometimes wish I had done this exhibition a year sooner so he could actually be here and enjoy it. But we can’t fight nature. I have still many ideas in mind and tasks to realize. For example, someday, I would love to include the color images, and the portraits of so many Ethiopian families in the future exhibitions.
ifa: So there might be a second part of 'Johannes Haile'?
Assegued: I think there are going to be many parts, not only curated by me, but by many others and photo institutions. My wish was to bring it out to the world, now it is up to others to continue. Personally, I really would like to see it traveling around Germany as much as possible. In the future, I also would like to include a more elaborated catalogue with additional photographs and more research.
ifa: We are looking forward to see it travelling to more German cities. Thank you very much for the interview!
Memories | "Being photographed by Johannes Haile implied sophistication and culture. [...] He was a disciplined gentleman with high ethics and generosity." Read more about Johannes Haile in Meskerem Assegued's memories.