“I shot the image in Ethiopia, maybe four years ago, at The Holy Trinity Cathedral. I was looking into Rastafarianism and I visited Shashamane, where the Rastafarians live and who have come from all over the world. Going to the church, for me, was part of that research because of the significance of Haile Selassie [the last Ethiopian emperor, and messiah to the followers of Rastafari] and Ethiopia in Rastafarianism. It houses the tombs of Haile Selassie and his wife and has real historical significance for the country and its history.
When I got to the church I was walking around, and I noticed that this priest was sitting there. He was in prayer at first, then just kind of watching. It was interesting because it was just me and him in the church at that time and usually the church is really busy. I was just walking round, and I kept looking over at him. The light was hitting his face and he was just sitting there, then walking around quite majestically. So, at first, I took pictures of him from afar and then got closer and closer. Sometimes I feel like if you ask someone ‘can I take a picture of you?’ then their whole posture changes and it becomes very different in terms of capturing the image. But obviously he knew – I mean a lot of tourists go there – so he was semi-posing and I managed to get some really great portraits of him.
Afterwards, we spoke through the guide and I asked him a little bit about the history of the church. He was talking about how long he had been there and how many people come there. Of course, we didn’t talk for that long, as he was speaking in Amharic and my guide was trying to translate. As I was on my way out he was like “oh no, you have to give me a little sum-sum! [a little something extra]” I guess sitting in the church and sharing knowledge and information allows him to make a little earning as well. Ethiopians are very religious, so when we went outside there were people touching the church and praying.
It was my first time in Ethiopia, and as a young African it’s really been important for me to use photography to relearn history. I went primarily to British schools when I was growing up, so a lot of our history and literature was European. After O Level, it was only through International Baccalaureate that I learnt about African literature, but I was already 16 by the time I started engaging with it. It wasn’t until I went to college and more recently that I’ve had to teach myself African literature and relearn history. The other day I bought a book about Ugandan history, because I’m from Uganda even though I live in Kenya, but sometimes I don't even know my own history. We were taught things from a western perspective, that’s why African identity is really important to me because, as an African woman, it’s about having to find myself, and photography has helped me to explore unlearn and relearn.
Someone asked me the other day if religion plays a big part in my work and actually it does. I think sometimes people see common threads of spirituality and religion and identity – these things are actually really important for me. I am particularly interested in traditional African spiritual beliefs and further the appropriation of Christianity by many modern-day African religions/movements. I think that the appropriation of many modern-day religions to fit the African take plays quite an important part in some of my work.
Young Africans are really excited to re-learn about their cultures and histories and tell new and old stories from their parts of the continent. Sometimes I talk about ‘New African Identity’ from the perspective of the idea that, as Africans, we are telling stories through fashion and music and art with a new sense of pride and without boundaries. Redefining what it means to be African.
I think social media really did a lot to help in us sharing our stories with a larger audience, without needing the approval of any gatekeepers. If I want to tell a story that is important to me, I don’t have to wait for the media to publish my story. I can publish it myself on social media and share it with the world, and that story could inspire someone else. As a photographer, I have a tool in my hands and I don’t have to wait for anyone to tell me what to do and I don’t have to wait for anyone to be able to share it – to tell whatever story I want to tell. I think that’s really powerful. It has allowed us to reclaim the narrative.”See more of Sarah Waiswa’s work on her website and Instagram.