PROFILE

Aïda Muluneh

A head-and-shoulders shot of a woman in white body paint, with red painted hands holding her face. Taken by Aïda Muluneh on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III.
Canon Ambassador Aïda Muluneh says she has been driven by a desire to change the way the world views Africa. She describes this image, Inferno, as being made of history: "Not only national but also of the self," she explains. "Of exile, of bloodshed, of loss, of mourning, of bitterness, of broken hearts and broken wings." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM) at 105mm, 1/60 sec, f/8 and ISO100. © Aïda Muluneh

Canon Ambassador and Ethiopian photographer Aïda Muluneh is the founder and director of Addis Foto Fest, East Africa's first international photography festival, and is also a celebrated artist with permanent collections held at the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

Driven by a desire to change how the world views Africa, the photojournalist and fine art photographer not only generates her own imagery, but also supports and mentors emerging talent. "I am addressing the impact of misrepresentation that photography has contributed to; how my continent is viewed, and on a global platform how people of colour have often been marginalised by the foreign gaze," Aïda says. "I'm not here to save the world, I'm simply here to make my contribution in addressing the lack of diversity in the photography world, and how this has a major impact on perpetuating negative stereotypes."

Canon Ambassador Aïda Muluneh.


Location: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Specialist areas: Fine art, photojournalism
Favourite kit:
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM

Born in Ethiopia in 1974, Aïda left the country at a young age. She spent her childhood in Yemen and Cyprus and settled in Canada in 1985 where she first began experimenting with photography at high school. After graduating from Washington DC's Howard University in 2000, with a major in film, Aïda became a photojournalist at The Washington Post. Over the next few years, she invested her spare time working on personal projects, exploring different genres of photography, and in 2004, a selection of her work was acquired by the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of African Art. "I found a new visual language that gave me the freedom to delve into various topics that I couldn't express through photojournalism," she says.

A woman with her face painted and wearing traditional Ethiopian clothing stands in front of three woven baskets. Taken by Aïda Muluneh on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III.
Aïda was inspired to create this image, City Life, by the women that come from rural regions of Ethiopia to work in Addis Ababa as household maids. "They belong to a traditional culture which has faded in the city," she says. "The background is woven baskets, which symbolise our culture; regardless of how modern we think we are, our heritage remains or is pushed into the background." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM) at 105mm, 1/10 sec, f/2.8 and ISO800. © Aïda Muluneh

In 2007, Aïda's new-found creativity resulted in her first trophy: the European Union Prize at the African Photography Encounters biennial, in Bamako, Mali. "The work that I do is a visual diary of my experiences and thoughts over the years, hence I chose portraits because it is a journey exploring various topics through each model," she says. "I want to share humanistic stories, to find things that create communality as opposed to differences, and to share a perspective that questions our own humility regardless of our backgrounds." More success followed in 2010, when Aïda was crowned winner of CRAF's International Award of Photography in Spilimbergo, Italy.

A profile of a woman with a large afro wearing blue face paint and a red dress. Taken by Aïda Muluneh on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III.
While living in Addis Ababa, and organising Addis Foto Fest, Aïda came across many archive pictures of Ethiopia, which inspired this image, Strength in Honour. "One of the most impressive things for me was how regal they looked, and their afros were so perfect and beautiful," she says. "This recalls that period: the pride, history, culture and dignity. Today, images that you see from the continent are often of strife, war, famine – the usual clichés that don't show the complexities of our society." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 1/125 sec, f/4 and ISO100. © Aïda Muluneh

Later that year, Aïda released the book Ethiopia: Past/Forward, and launched Addis Foto Fest, held every two years. "I am so proud of the festival," she says. "I have been teaching photography since 2008, but I realised that it wasn't just about teaching photographers but also teaching my community, through the festival, on the application and perspectives of photography. Over the years, I have begun to understand that if we are to shift how the world sees Africa, we need to develop new African talent through education."

As well as the Smithsonian, Aïda, who has now moved back to Ethiopia, has seen her work selected for New York's MoMA, exhibited worldwide, featured in heavyweight editorial publications including The New York Times and Elle magazine, and on TV networks such as the BBC.

Two women with their faces painted white, one sitting and one standing, are pictured behind a black-and-white striped table, drinking coffee from a traditional Ethiopian pot. Taken by Aïda Muluneh on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III.
This image, Amusement at the Gate, features the traditional Ethiopian coffee pot, the 'jebena', and is based on the concept of a person who gives a 'gift' and later wants it back, or who expects something of equivalent worth in return. "Aid in Africa has become a trend that limits our ability to be self-sustainable," says Aïda. "Many NGOs work with the idea of helping us, but in reality they are only helping themselves. What we need to move Africa forward is not handouts, but opportunities to develop entrepreneurs and an improved education system that helps us to find better solutions for our problems." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 70mm, 1/100 sec, f/11 and ISO200. © Aïda Muluneh

What is your go-to technique?

"I often shoot f/11, 1/125 sec and ISO100. I mostly use flat lighting to emphasise the graphical element of the piece, and remove all shadows unless they're intentional. I have used both studio and natural light, but the key element is to maintain these settings in order to flatten the image."


How does being an artist help you as a photographer?

"I was a photographer first and have been utilising the tool of photography as a form of self-expression. A great deal of my inspirations are based on the various photojournalism assignments, so one inspires the other."


What are you trying to create with your fine art work?

"Images that, regardless of class, geographical location or education, can be understood or, at a minimum, provoke a question. I am not a photographer who likes to over-theorise my process nor my work; if I cannot create a connecting point with my audience then my purpose is pointless."


How do you direct your subjects?

"In all my images, I keep a uniform visual language. I often work with the same models, but for directing it is about building a relationship with the sitter and therefore the process changes as I adjust to them."


Where would you like photography to take you next?

"As a film graduate from Howard University, my ultimate goal is to return to my filmmaking roots. In each phase of my career, the key objective is to experiment with images, whether still or moving."


Instagram: @aidamuluneh
Twitter: @aidamuluneh
Website: www.aidamuluneh.com

One thing I know
Aïda Muluneh

"Emerging photographers are often in a rush to get into fine art photography, when it is important to first develop their storytelling skills. I started out as a photojournalist and it was important for me to first define my purpose as it relates to my photography work. Eventually, when I began working in the studio, it was clear that the skills that I had amassed from the years of being a photojournalist would be the foundation for my artistic works. So, first develop your basic technical skills and then you can find your style."

Aïda Muluneh's kitbag

The key kit that the pros use to take their photographs

Aïda Muluneh's kitbag.

Camera

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

This latest iteration of the popular 5D series includes innovation such as Dual Pixel RAW and 4K video, making it a camera for all occasions. "A great camera for both my photojournalism and studio work. Its sturdiness is also quite amazing," says Aïda.

Lenses

Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM

The successor to the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II lens that Aïda loves. "The majority of my work is produced using this lens, which offers superb image quality that translates well when we print the image," says Aïda.

Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM

The successor to the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens that Aïda uses delivers stunning image quality with advanced image stabilisation and is favoured by those wanting to carry a single lens on location.

Accessories

Canon Speedlite 430EX III-RT

Take a new approach to lighting with a Speedlite flash that's powerful, versatile and portable. Radio-frequency triggering makes off-camera flash easy to do, and opens up new ways to get creative with your photography. "I am a big fan of this little wonder," says Aïda. "It has great features and can be used in many creative ways outside of just mounting it on the camera."

Laptop

Aïda says: "No photographer should be without a high-end laptop, especially when you're printing your work. It's vital to have a better sense of colours, which is something this laptop screen offers."

Tripod

"I have used this tripod in many locations and situations. It's small enough to take anywhere but sturdy for all the shoots," Aïda says.

Bag

"I have had the same bag for the past seven years and it has endured the various terrains that I work in while keeping my gear safe," says Aïda.

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