In Ethiopia, One Photographer Captures a City From a Bustling Underpass

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Ethiopia© Osma Harvilahti, Courtesy of Libraryman Books

Osma Harvilahti’s new book is a vibrant study of a capital city in flux

It’s a strange yet recurring phenomena that some memories – of trips, or places, or seasons, or even people – are permeated by a single colour, as though seen through a tinted lens. For Finnish-born, Paris-based photographer Osma Harvilahti, Ethiopia was a dusky purple.

“It was this one colour which I’ve always spotted, this very beautiful purple,” he explains. “I wanted to create a visual story around this, and study the meaning of that colour.” This same shade has since become the common thread which binds his new book, titled Ethiopia – the third in an ongoing four-part collection of books, Seasons Series, by Antwerp- and Stockholm-based publisher Libraryman. The series takes as its inspiration South Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-Duk’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring – and Harvilahti’s view on autumn is a natural fit.

Harvilahti created the series at the tail-end of a two-week trip to Ethiopia, to which country he travelled with a good friend, to visit her family. “What I tend to do on holiday is disappear somewhere with my camera, and then I’m not really resting or spending time with people – I’m just in my own world,” he explains. On this trip, however, a tight schedule meant that his time outside with his camera quickly became very limited. Instead, he took two days out before leaving to explore Addis Ababa, the country’s capital.

It was a surreal experience, he continues: “I had this strange feeling that I had been here or seen something like this before. Then, after a day, I started hearing stories about how the economy works in Ethiopia – it’s completely funded by Chinese investment, so that becomes a dominating force. You see and breathe it all around the city.”

As a result, Addis Ababa’s landscapes take on a strange contrast. “At street level you can see what you’re expecting to see – people with their tiny, mini businesses, or makeshift stalls selling food, vegetables, leather goods and whatnot.” Hanging over these scenes, however, are towering concrete skyscrapers and “this metro line which is kind of like a sky train. It crosses the whole city.” It’s a strange juxtaposition, he continues – of Asian and African influences, new and old. Soon, Harvilahti’s attention turned from his shade of purple to the way this influence permeated the environment.

Drawn by the relentless power of the traffic coursing through it, he chose to shoot mostly from one intersection under a bridge on the metro line, in Meskel Square. “Something about the energy and the density of traffic always inspires me,” he says. “It’s like a complex creature moving through rules that are only obeyed by some. What I saw there was stunning. These huge shadows, the dusty air, and then people running under the bridge to work, to buses, to cars. In my mind it became very poetic.” The poetry came in some part from the lack of street names in this area, he says; instead, locals navigate the city by its landmarks, which are ever changing.

The resulting images are shot through with vibrant bolts of colour – as has become a signature of Harvilahti’s bold work – from the vivid red plastic of a chair to flashes of fabric against a blue sky. The restrictions of time and scene became the lifeblood of the series, he says – by relinquishing control to the environment he found himself in, the photographer became, instead, sensitive to the the scene itself.

Ethiopia by Osma Harvilahti is out now, published by Libraryman.