As a documentary photographer, one of my main focuses in recent projects is the modern religious experience. ‘Modern’ solely in the meaning of ‘happening now’ as many of these experiences are rooted in hundreds and even thousands of year-old traditions. My main focus is always on the way that people express and live their faith today.
Recent projects of mine have centered on religious festivals and activities in Spain and the U.K., but when I first heard about Timkat (‘Baptism’ in Ahmaric) I saw many potential themes and connections with my work.
Timkat is the Orthodox Epiphany celebration of the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan. It is a very traditional celebration throughout the Christian areas of Ethiopia.
Timkat in Addis Ababa brings thousands of people to the streets in celebration. A little bit of research helps to follow the day’s events and capture the images I was hoping to find. The ceremonies start when replicas of the Ark of the Covenant are carried in procession from different churches around the city towards Jan Meda (north of the city), which is an open horse track, where the following day the main religious services will happen. Security is paramount and I was checked (and asked if I was carrying ‘a pistol’) at least three times during the route to Jan Meda.
Photographing religious festivals and events are in a way where I feel at home and was, in fact, the main reason why I traveled to Ethiopia and to Timkat in particular. After arriving in Ethiopia a few days before the festival I’d had a bit of tough time taking street photography around Ethiopia so to feel at ease during the few days of the festival was one of the highlights of my trip to the country.
Timkat in Addis Ababa was by far the largest congregation of people I’ve ever had the chance to photograph (maybe followed by El Rocio in Spain). The churches are full of life from the early hours with people decorating the interiors and exteriors; in particular the green, yellow and red of the Ethiopian flag everywhere. In fact, at times this festival almost feels like a national celebration as much as a religious festival. Although, there is no missing the explicit shows of religious fervor throughout the processions.
The streets flow with people wearing their white robes. Some are active members of the religious activities, while many thousands of others seem to be there to just enjoy the celebrations and sing and dance, zigzagging through the streets of Addis.
By far my favorite part of the festival is the gathering at Jan Meda in the early morning of the second day of the festival. The combination of the baptism, the beautiful light at sunrise, and that people are focussed on what they are doing rather than me allowed me to blend in a bit more and photograph people up close. Even though I managed to capture some photos that I’m pleased with, as with most trips, there is always a slight feeling when I leave that I could have got even more from the event if I had had some more previous knowledge of the event as a whole, the itinerary and the traditions. So here’s to another visit to Ethiopia for Timkat part 2.