The day my girlfriend Audrey and I were leaving for Rediate and Fitsum’s wedding, I stopped at my bank. The teller greeted me with the usual small talk and casually asked, “Got anything exciting going on today?” To which I replied, “Just leaving for Ethiopia.” As those words slipped through my grin, I realized, wow, I have the best job in the world.
Anyone that knows me knows I’m obsessed with traveling. It’s no surprise when I tell people that the main reason I shoot weddings is to be able to afford to travel. So when an old high school friend of mine calls me and tells me her plan to get married back in Ethiopia, you’d better believe my ears perked up! Rediate moved to Ethiopia on a soul searching, life changing adventure and ended up working along side her future husband, Fitsum. Although Rediate’s parents are Ethiopian, she grew up in the United States. Her respect and love for her country’s culture and beauty left only one option: to have the wedding in Ethiopia.
Having spent over 2 months in Thailand, I thought I had an idea of what I’d be getting myself into when we landed in Ethiopia. After welcomed smiles and hugs from Rediate, we packed her tiny SUV full of our luggage and took off into the capital city of Addis Ababa. Within the first minute of driving, I immediately had to reevaluate my assumption of what Ethiopia would be like. The traffic was seemingly without rules. We dodged cars coming the wrong way down our side of the highway, weaved through cattle and had to honk at cars who had their headlights off. We arrived safe and sound at the house we were staying at and got some sleep to fuel us through our upcoming 10 days in Ethiopia.
We woke up to the sound of Orthodox prayers and dogs barking as the warm sun kissed our room. We found ourselves tucked away on the newer, wealthier end of the city. Just beyond the gates were farming communities, still tightly holding onto their land. We couldn’t wait to explore. Although we stood out like sore thumbs, we had to see the areas that were untouched by modern society. We wandered through the hills, stopping to occasionally take pictures. When the opportunity presented itself, I would take pictures of people and then show them the pictures as the simplest way to bond with someone you can’t speak to. After a few days in the city we were anxious to get out and explore the countryside. After Rediate’s family made dozens of phone calls, we found someone willing to take us out to Awash National Park about 5 hours from Addis Ababa. We were looking forward to some relaxation before the upcoming 5 days of wedding events began. Along the way we saw dust devils the size of small tornadoes, many overturned trucks and dozens of villages dotting the barren landscape.
As a big fan of National Geographic, I only had one perception of Ethiopia. I expected to see impoverished villagers everywhere. This wasn’t the case. As a matter of fact, the one village boy I ran into introduced himself in perfect English as “Jon.”
As soon as we arrived at Awash National Park, we found out if we rushed, we could catch hyena’s leaving their cave at dusk. So with that we took off with a man with a gun (to protect us from animals) and waited patiently to see them.
We stayed the night in these beautiful huts, tucked deep inside Awash National Park. After dinner with new friends we made from Sweden, we went to bed. We woke up the next morning with the best french toast we’ve ever had while looking out over crocodiles in the river. Our expectations were blown away, topped off by the ostrich greeter.
After 5 days of seeing different parts of Ethiopia, we began to realize we were witnessing a big change in culture. We experienced first hand the beginning stages of what a developing nation looked like. There were construction projects everywhere. Two of them were Ethiopia’s firsts: a light rail that will stretch across Addis Ababa and a new super interstate that connects Addis Ababa and Nazereth. Two projects that will forever change the landscape and economy of a rapidly changing country.
I rarely ask strangers for their picture, but when a man approached us for some bread, I felt inclined to offer him a trade. Bread for a photograph. Judging by his smile, I think we both thought we got the better end of the deal.
We made it back into town for Wednesday’s dress rehearsal. After following the bridesmaids around all day as they tried on dresses and made alterations, we took off to the town where the wedding would take place, Nazareth. We arrived at Fitsum’s family’s house in the afternoon for some lunch and of course, buna (coffee). We were spending a lot of time with the bridesmaids who happily took us in and put up with all of our constant questioning. Three of Rediate’s four bridesmaids live in the United States, but all are Ethiopian. This meant they all spoke the native language, Amharic, which sure made traveling easy and fun.
The next day the families partook in my favorite new tradition, Tilosh. Tilosh is where the groomsmen go to the bride’s family’s house and offer them gifts. What once was a formal gesture, like dowry, now has become more of a fun tradition and a way to break the ice with the groom’s friends and family. The groomsmen present fancy garments, shoes and jewelry as gifts for Rediate. The family intensely questions them about each item, proclaiming “These aren’t good enough for my daughter!” or “And just what exactly would she use this for?” The nervous groomsmen ended up having a lot of fun once the celebration began.
Friday, the night before the wedding, the bridesmaids all got together for one more fun get together before the wedding day began bright and early. The wedding day was going to be unusually long since they were having two ceremonies. One was in Addis Ababa at Rediate’s families house and one was 2 hours away at a church in Nazareth. Because of this, their hair appointments started at 4:00 a.m. Saturday morning! And so began my first international wedding.
Audrey and I arrived early that morning after Rediate’s appointment. From there on out, we were pretty much just along for the ride. There was a coordinator and a videography team that would lead the day through the dozens of traditions. It made my job very different. I quickly switched from my usual position of being an organizer and directing the day, to turning into a photojournalist and doing my best to capture all of the moments as they were unfolding. Luckily, we had been briefed several times on what the series of events were going to be, otherwise the language barrier would’ve left us completely clueless on what was going on.
Rediate ended up having to shoo the videographers away a few times so we could spend a few moments capturing the images she knew she wanted from me. These brief moments of me being able to organize the shots allowed me to be creative and capture the scene as I witnessed it. For me, it was important to bring attention to the things that were different about this wedding and not try and “hide” the fact that we were in Ethiopia. I found myself arguing (through the bridesmaids) with the videographers a few times when I would say I wanted to take them to the alleyways to get pictures. They thought I was crazy for wanting to get the true backdrop of the lifestyle, but I knew it was my job to capture these scenes.
Being westerners in an Ethiopian culture, we learned over and over that time wasn’t really a concept Ethiopians adhered to. This was solidified when on the wedding day, Fitsum and the groomsmen arrived 90 minutes late because of the overwhelming amount of traffic between the two cities. It really wasn’t a big deal as the party was commencing anyway with great food and music.
The arrival of the five white Mercedes Benz’s sparked the beginning of the celebration. This was one of my favorite parts of the wedding day. While Rediate secretly looked onward from atop a balcony, Fitsum approached the front gate of the house. As is Ethiopian tradition, the family was there to block the groom and his party from entering. The groomsmen had to pay a fee and push their way through the family to get to Rediate. It’s really a beautiful gesture and was extremely emotional for Rediate. She watched as her groom pushed his way through the crowd looking like a prince, beaming with the passion of getting to his bride.
Their first look was followed by the family’s first look.
Another one of my favorite moments was when the bride and groom kissed the knees of their families. It was an extremely emotional tradition, where the bride and groom show their gratitude for raising them. It’s one of those moments as a photographer where you realize how important your job is. It’s that “I can’t miss this shot” feeling that shoots through you as a beautiful scene unfolds. I have to be cold to the moment so as not to be wrapped up in the emotion and miss the shot.
We finally caught our breath as we left Addis Ababa and made our 2 hour journey to Nazareth. In this moment, I sat and soaked in the first half of the wedding. As we were driving through Addis Ababa, it really caught up to me how fortunate we are. Not only the opportunity to shoot this wedding, but I got a global perspective of my fortune. This picture represents that pretty well. Here you see the couple in a Mercedes Benz driving past shanties that you can see in the reflection of the window. It’s a pretty accurate depiction of the stark contrast you see all throughout Ethiopia,.
Halfway to Nazareth, we finally got to stop and get the first real look of the whole wedding party together. I had scouted this beautiful spot on the way back from the rehearsal a few days before. The mountains made for a stunning backdrop off in the distance. Since we were hours behind schedule, we wrapped up the shoot as quickly as it started and continued down the road.
We got to the church 2 hours late. This didn’t seem to phase anyone as the music was already in full swing as we pulled up. It was a truly epic moment as the full choir stirred up heavenly songs that echoed through the town.
Again, having turned full on photo journalist this wedding, I had to step out of my own comfort zone. Having to “compete” with the video team, I learned if I wanted to get the shot, I was going to have to do things that would never be proper at a wedding in the United States. At one moment, I stood directly in front of the couple and shot the whole church in the background. Although extremely taboo in the United States, I was fighting for that spot before the team of video cameras blocked that view, too. It was a winner-takes-all event, so I had to play along. I surely didn’t fly halfway across the world to sit on the sidelines!
The rest of the night was full of dancing, singing and cheering. Lots and lots of cheering! I’ve been to probably one hundred weddings, but none where all the attendees participate as much as they did here. There were traditional dances that lasted until almost midnight. They cut the cake and after 15 hours of shooting, we called it a night!
The next day was a “smaller” get together. A traditional celebration called Melse. This is where everyone would be dressed up with traditional clothes and hair styles. It was a shocking and beautiful transformation! So after a restful nights sleep, we were right back at it, doing wedding number THREE in two days!
This wedding goes down as my first international wedding. I think the realist in me would’ve always pictured my first international wedding to be somewhere in Canada or something close to home. I would’ve never guessed it’d be anything as incredibly different, beautiful, exciting and full of surprises as Ethiopia. We owe the biggest thanks possible to our new friends we made along the way. From all the girls in the wedding: Molly, Joanna, Betselote, Beza and Lidia for always translating and putting up with our constant questions. Rediate’s wonderful parents, Dr. Deginesh Worku and Dr. Tekeste Teclu, who made us feel right at home. Then there were friends of the family that would drive us around and take us where we needed to be all the time. My biggest thanks obviously goes to Rediate and Fitsum for trusting us to make this journey with them. I knew it was going to be an adventure, traveling to Africa and shooting a wedding… I had no idea it was going to lead to so many great friendships, so many memories and a computer full of once-in-a-lifetime photographs.