Born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, photographer Andarge Asfaw has lived in the U.S. for almost 40 years. He came here as a young teenager, attending high school in Ithaca, N.Y., then Cornell University and the Hallmark Institute of Photography. After Asfaw completed his studies, he planned to return home to Ethiopia, so his birth country could benefit from his education abroad. That plan was thwarted in 1974: a Soviet-backed military junta deposed Emperor Haile Selassie and established a communist state.
"At the time we had no choice of going back," said Asfaw in a recent interview with the Advocate. "The generation that came from Ethiopia at the time, we were pretty much expected [after getting an education] to go back and provide service. But once the government changed, everything changed."
Asfaw's photography career blossomed as he settled into life in the United States and strove to "live the American Dream." For over 25 years, Asfaw has maintained, with longtime business partner Donna Jones, F/Stop Studio, a Washington D.C.-based commercial photography studio. His work has been featured in Newsweek, Vanity Fair, Esquire and the Washington Post; he teaches at the Washington School of Photography, the Art League School and the Metropolitan Center for the Visual Arts.
Despite Asfaw's success in the U.S., the thought of seeing Ethiopia's breathtaking countryside again was never far from Asfaw's mind. "As a photographer, I think it's always your dream to go back and do something about where you came from," said Asfaw. "I remember such a beautiful country, with animals running around, and people down south running around naked& When I was young and driving with my dad in the countryside, you'd have to watch out for deer, leopards, zebras, giraffes—and the monkeys owned the road."
In 1994, the first year since the 1974 coup that Ethiopia held multi-party elections, Asfaw returned to his home country. What he found, however, barely resembled the country he had left almost 29 years earlier.
"I arrived to find an unfamiliar Ethiopia," Asfaw wrote in Tadias, an online magazine for the Ethiopian-American community. "The trees had disappeared. Wildlife that had crossed the roads not far from the region where I grew up was absent… Unemployment, relocation, political differences and health concerns had reshaped the lives of the population. Devastated, I didn't know where to begin documenting my dreams."
As Asfaw traveled deeper into the country, a plan slowly emerged. Inspired to document the effects deforestation had wrought on the environment and the wildlife, and the rapidly decaying infrastructure of Ethiopia's cities, Asfaw traveled to many different parts of the country. Since then, he has returned to Ethiopia as many times as possible, recording change and capturing the fleeting beauty that still remains in his native land. The result is a trove of photographs that Asfaw, with help from Jones, has published in the book Ethiopia from the Heart.
Asfaw didn't stop there—he's using his art to help create a solution for the country in crisis. Asfaw believes fuel is the root of the problem: without alternatives to burning wood in cooking fires, in the span of a few decades, Ethiopia will be a barren desert. The deforestation has caused massive erosion which in turn has caused massive losses of topsoil—over 2 billion tons per year.
"The country was 80 percent forest until 30 years ago. Now it's down to five percent& People cut the trees and burn them for coal," said Asfaw. "When they run out of trees, they start digging up the roots to burn& In the last 10 years, everybody in [the United States] has become aware of global warming, and that's making a big difference here, but in most African countries, to cook and build homes, they still have to use wood."
Asfaw works with Trees for the Future in partnership with Greener Ethiopia, who to date have planted some 2 million trees in Ethiopia's Gurage zone. Twenty percent of all sales from Ethiopia From the Heart—which costs $55—goes towards planting new indigenous trees in Ethiopia, in an attempt to rejuvenate its habitat and save plants and animals from extinction. Asfaw has also, with a group of professional artists, formed The Mechale Group whose mission is to "facilitate environmental stewardship through fundraising, art, education, alternative technologies, tree planting, and photo-ecotourism, beginning with Ethiopia."
The group hopes to improve the country one village at a time by providing jobs and alternative ways of cooking, starting with the Dendi region (where Asfaw's mother hails from), which boasts a large lake and rich soil. The cyclical plan consists of hiring villagers to build a road and raising the money to buy the materials. This accomplishes two goals: it provides local jobs and improves infrastructure. Asfaw is also negotiating with solar companies to donate solar cookers. In order to receive the cookers, which harness the sun's energy rather than relying on wood or charcoal, families would have to plant a certain number of trees.
While he's aware that repairing Ethiopia's ecosystem is a daunting task, Asfaw remains optimistic about the future of his homeland. "If enough trees are replenished and the new ones stay safe," said Asfaw, "nature and Ethiopian culture will be here to stay."
Digital prints from Ethiopia From the Heart are on display through Sept. 21 at Gallery 85, Hallmark Museum of Contemporary Photography, 85 Ave. A, Turners Falls, (413) 863-0009. Copies of the book are available at the museum as well as by logging on to www.ethiopiafromtheheart.com.