As with photographing inhabitants anywhere in the world, it is essential to be able to communicate with them in their language. I set out to do this task with slightly expected challenges and luckily, used my mother – a fluent Tigrinya speaker – as a crutch. After eating the spongy, lightly flaked trademark cakes of Sweet Asmara Cafe and three servings of boon – prepared at a traditional coffee ceremony held in Eritrean homes – I directed everyone outside.
It was an afternoon to remember. Half of my mother’s side of the family was present including my grandmother and cousin’s who I last saw at eight years old. So, it was the first time they all had been under one roof and I aimed to bring that into play.
An simple gesture completed with a DSLR resonated with nearly everyone involved. Some, more than others. A boy cousin in his teens with shoulders like a stallion preceded to remain natural in front of the lens, and began to throw up peace signs against the *mendek behind him. One leg up. Talk about having a ‘feel good,’ moment.
Of all businesses in Eritrea, one that seems to be promising is the photo industry. We stayed in Maekel Ketema, which roughly means the middle of the city. The environment exposed me to the city’s daily foot traffic and pastry and cappuccino shops – another booming business in the country. What seemed like an endless list of options to select when choosing to where to take your picture, ‘Photo Heaven’ and ‘Photo Asmarino’ were the closest to me, knowing that my family would rather be in front of my camera filled me with deep veneration.
Before the photo shoot, I was only a guest in my aunt’s home and the photos allowed me to ‘give back,’ somehow. It was my way of letting them know how grateful I had been.
Their impeccable care consisted of never having to fix a plate of food or wash my own dish. Not a day past where I hadn’t eaten three meals and drank tea in addition to the mid-day snacks at the time of our traditional coffee gathering in the evening. They adamantly refused to let me cook my own food or wash my clothes. Foods like lentils or *ga’at or egg panino are commonly eaten before ten o’clock. What I listed also is a staple among homes in the diaspora, however, breakfast tends to be made in an abundance for everyone to eat it all at once.
As the photographer, I had a vision of how I wanted the characters to respond or develop from the first select to the final. Also we had optimal lightening now. Since the light indoors is dim, unreliable, and often substituted with a flashlight anyway, the outside space created boundless background opportunities. When about to snap, my aunts and grandmother covered their heads with a *mindel right before leaping into the family photo. Already aware that having possession of the camera already rewards you with great responsibility. I struggled a little with providing these directions, 1) When they should get close or leave space in between one another, or 2) When to look ahead or pose sincerely. Working with body language, as I had done, would’ve been heavily emphasized had my mother been elsewhere. Inherently, holding a camera commands respect. It is telling the subject you are there to do your job but also be the teacher of the shoot.
When photographing your relatives or anyone else who speaks a different language, learn the basic. How to say ‘left,’ ‘right,’ ‘move,’ and ‘by yourself.’ This session undoubtedly compelled me to buy a book and start brushing up on beginner’s language. For now, I knew words that could be useful inside the home and out in the street. With my mother as a language crutch, it wasn’t a thorny task to give direction to family. She stood beside me the entire photo shoot and filled in the gaps where I couldn’t. If this gathering happened at another place or time, I may not have appreciated it as much.
*ga’at= the porridge dish with butter juice and crushed jalapeno powder for its center