As a practicing artist as well as a force in the photography world (she is the founder and director of Addis Foto Fest as well as a sought-after juror, curator and educator) Aida Muluneh has a unique perspective on the landscape of the medium today. After leaving her home country of Ethiopia at a young age, Muluneh lived in Yemen, England, and Cyprus before heading to Washington D.C., where she worked as a photojournalist for The Washington Post. Many years after her initial departure, Muluneh moved back to Ethiopia in 2007.

As one of the leading experts on photography from Africa, Muluneh has been on the jury for the Sony World Photography Awards 2017 as well as the World Press Photo Contest 2017. We are thrilled that she has agreed to join us as a juror for this year’s Exposure Awards. Read on for her thoughts on the necessary steps we all have to take in order to shift the diversity in the photography world as well as her advice for emerging photographers—

The 99 Series, Part 7, 2013 © Aida Muluneh

LensCulture: In the past, you said that “truth is either black or white…Black and white is the foundation. Color is tricky.” And yet, much of your art—The 99 Series, The Wolf You Feed—features striking, bold color. What inspired this shift in perspective?

Aida Muluneh: I still stand by this statement, especially in a world where Instagram has become a validating point for emerging photographers. But I think it’s crucial to master the basics, even if the accessibility of filters and so forth allows for manipulation at the touch of a button. As a photographer who started in the darkroom, my education in photography started in black and white. Some photographers disagree with my passion for black and white, but I do believe that it is the foundation for photography students, because you must first understand light before you can explore other elements, such as color.

Hence, in my earlier personal work, I consider my black and white photography as the start of a sketch, much like a painter. At this phase of my career, I have progressed into color. This is one of the main reasons why I mostly work with primary colors.

LC: Can you expand on that? What do those colors, in particular, add to your work?

AM: I work with primary colors because this is the beginning of my exploration into color. I find that primary colors add strength to the messages I convey in each piece. Also, looking at references within my own culture—through artifacts, clothing and also the wall paintings in Ethiopian Orthodox churches—these are the same colors that are the foundation of my roots.

My country gives me a great deal of inspiration; I don’t think I would have the same perspective if I were living in the monotony of the Western world.

LC: I read that you lived all over the world (Cyprus, London, the US) before returning to Ethiopia. From the outside at least, it seems like your photography is strongly tied to place. Did returning to your birthplace impact your photography?

AM: I don’t think I would have produced the same work if it wasn’t for my choice to return to my birthplace. I have spent most of my life imagining, dreaming and engaging in dialogue with Ethiopia. My mother always made sure that we remained connected to our birthplace, regardless of our disjointed immigrant life. Because of this, my return did not only impact my photography but also how I view the rest of the world.

My country gives me a great deal of inspiration; I don’t think I would have the same perspective (nor type of work) if I were living in the monotony of the Western world.

Strength in Honor, 2016 © Aida Muluneh

LC: You’re a practicing artist in addition to being the founder and director of Addis Foto Fest. How does your experience as a frequent jury member/curator/educator impact your fine art practice?

AM: The main thing that I have learned in the past few years through my participation in the various parts of the photography world has been the need for more diversity—not only in the production of images, but also in the overall industry. It has been interesting to be confronted with the fact that the photo market is still male-dominated.

In the context of international media, especially in the case of images from Africa, the foreign gaze is still the prevalent voice for stories that are often based on an undeniable bias. Hence, what I have learnt is that in order to shift the lack of diversity, the foundation of this movement can only stem from establishing educational institutions not only in photography but also for media and communication.

LC: Was this part of why you decided to found Addis Foto Fest? Has your initial reason for founding the festival changed at all over time?

AM: Addis Foto Fest came about as a response to realizing that deepening a diverse engagement with photography isn’t only a matter of educating photographers to produce images—we also need to educate the general public on the role and applications of photography in Ethiopia.

Sai Mado—The Distant Gaze, 2016 © Aida Muluneh

As the first and only international festival in East Africa, my goal remains the same: to bring together photographers from around the world in order to create a global network and partnerships. Through these exchanges, photographers from Africa (and those coming to our continent) have an opportunity to build on a different visual dialogue that is not based on the cliché of mass media. In a sense, my ultimate goal is shifting the perceptions of Africa and contributing to diversifying the global photography industry.

LC: You’re a member of the jury for our Exposure Awards. Is there any piece of advice that you’d like to pass on to early-career photographers that they might not have heard before?

AM: My advice to emerging photographers is to look at works by photographers from around the world, to understand the power of an image beyond its commercial application.

We hold the power to shift perceptions, to support ideas, and as witnesses of our generation, each photographer should find his or her purpose. We are living in a global world, and the new generation should be part of shifting the photography world so that there is a global voice.

Song of David, 2014 © Aida Muluneh

LC: Finally, can you pick one of your photographs and walk us through it? What does it mean to you? What do you hope it communicates?

AM: From my new collection “The Distant Gaze,” the piece “The Return of a Departure” is a reflection on the current state of migration in Africa. The fact that many Africans are being sold into slavery from Libya and other points is deeply disturbing, and the lack of engagement by various leaders questions the progress of our humanity.

The Return of a Departure, 2017 © Aida Muluneh

The image was shot in a lake in Langano in Ethiopia. The process was an exploration for me on the history of slavery and the number of people who perished on the shores of the past and also the present. With the current situation—not only in Africa but globally—the plight of black people resonates not as progress towards our human rights but a regression to a state of oppression.

—Aida Muluneh, interviewed by Coralie Kraft

The LensCulture Exposure Awards 2018 are now open for entries! Submit your work now to have it seen by our distinguished jury panel, including Muluneh, editors from The Guardian, The New York Times Magazine, Foam, and many more.