Kristian Leven’s Superb Street Photography in a Challenging Environment

All images by Kristian Leven. Used with permission.

“I’ve definitely returned from that trip with a different outlook,” Kristian Leven tells us as he speaks of his time in Ethiopia. A country with widespread poverty, Kristian visited with the good intention of documenting what he saw. However, unlike a normal day in London, Ethiopia brings plenty of challenges for a street photographer. “People would see you, stop what they’re doing, and crowd around you.” During a trip which made him feel privilege and guilt, whilst giving him unwanted attention, Krisitan still did what he does best; he created quality street photography.

A well-traveled street photographer, Kristian is no stranger to different cultures. But was there something about this trip that impacted him more than others? Would the sheer magnitude of culture shock impact him more than ever before? We caught up with him to find out…

Phoblographer: You speak about how your first few days in Ethiopia were somewhat of a culture shock. Were you able to get out and shoot during those days and how did it influence the way you approached your street photography?

KL: Absolutely, I went out with Guille Ibanez, Jure Maticic (whom I traveled with) pretty much as soon as we got there. Not ideal as it was baking hot and the middle of the day!

“I certainly got the impression there that our presence wasn’t very welcomed in places…”

I remember this feeling as if all the attention was on us; that we would stop conversations and turn a lot of heads. I initially found it all a bit too intense to be honest, as I haven’t been in an environment like that before. It meant that I didn’t feel as comfortable as I normally would when walking around and shooting by myself. It took me a few days to get my confidence up.

Phoblographer: The country is described as a “none camera friendly country,” did you have any confrontations when shooting there?

KL: Erm…one or two! I definitely have never had as many ‘no photos’ in my life. One local said it was because some people believed every picture was like an X-Ray on their soul, another said it was because some were suspicious, thinking we could be working for the Government. Whilst others, I can imagine, just didn’t like tourists walking around their neighbourhood taking pictures of them, which I totally understood and respected. I think the area where it felt most tense was in Dire Dawa. I certainly got the impression there that our presence wasn’t very welcomed in places, and it turns out a few days after we left a riot broke out between people who opposed the Government and the military, and the area became unsafe to visit again.

Phoblographer: What is it like shooting street photography in Ethiopia compared to somewhere like London?

KL: A world of difference. For starters, I couldn’t blend in, as people are always aware of you. In London I sometimes like to find a nice background or a shaft of light where there’s a lot of footfall, and wait for something to come together. Because of all the attention, we would get, that was pretty much impossible. Plus you’d have kids running into the picture giving peace signs!

“I can’t see myself doing a trip like that again unless it was to highlight a cause…”

Phoblographer: In terms of shooting, did you just go with an open mind to making photographs or did you want to come back with a certain narrative from your time there?

KL: Our original aim was to photograph Timkat, the orthodox celebration of Epiphany, after which we would head to Dire Dawa and Harar and explore. There wasn’t a narrative as such, we just wanted to keep an open mind and see what presented itself.

Phoblographer: The white western man with a nice camera in a poor nation can bring a sense of guilt, something you’ve touched upon previously. How did you overcome that?

KL: With great difficulty to be honest. I remember being in a taxi, heading back to the hotel a few days in, asking myself what I was doing there. It was a very different shooting experience to ones I’ve had in Cuba and Colombia for example, and it’s mainly due to the level of poverty that’s there. Addis Ababa and Harar were fine, but one instance in Dire Dawa really shook me and it did make me feel very uneasy being there. I’ve been in fairly similar situations in India, but that’s distorted because you see a lot of Western tourists around, and there’s also so much wealth there as well. I’ve definitely returned from that trip with a different outlook, and I can’t see myself doing a trip like that again unless it was to highlight a cause, for an NGO or a charity for example.

Phoblographer: What were the highlights of your trip to Ethiopia?

KL: Probably the time we spent around Harar. It was peaceful, colourful, and very welcoming, as were the villages we visited in the area as well.

“On the street there’s the challenge of capturing something funny, unusual, beautiful, chaotic or enigmatic…”

Phoblographer: You’re a wedding photographer. Which is more satisfying to create; a great street photograph or an awesome wedding photograph?

KL: Great question…..I’d say on the one hand I take enormous satisfaction from creating a great photograph at a wedding. Not a great ‘wedding’ photo, but a photo that stands on its own merit, because you’re having to work within the confines of the day. If there’s this beautiful light outside, but all the guests are inside, well, tough luck! Also you haven’t got the luxury of time, of just waiting in one spot for ages. Having said that, it’s generally a lot harder out on the street – on a wedding day people expect to be photographed! On the street there’s the challenge of capturing something funny, unusual, beautiful, chaotic or enigmatic, and doing so in a public space, in a situation that is completely unplanned and unposed. It’s doing this knowing that the majority of the time it won’t come off, but also knowing that at any point something very special might happen.

Phoblographer: You’re well travelled. Where next for you to shoot street photography?

KL: I’m heading to shoot the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico, at the end of October with the 8 Street Collective, and looking further ahead I really want to capture England more. It’s such a wonderfully eccentric country, and I think there’s real gold to be had here, especially in the type of events we put on.

Phoblographer: Finally, which is your favorite image from your Ethiopian journey?

KL: Probably the one with the girl dressed in a green hijab, with the boys resting on the bench behind her. I remember walking into that village and being surrounded by a load of excitable children, thinking, well there goes any chance of getting a good, clean photo. So we just walked around with them, and enjoyed the experience without the pressure of getting a killer photo. We got to their school, where they all started playing up to the camera in the playground, and it was at this point I looked over my right shoulder and saw this serene moment amongst the chaos. I managed to crack out a few frames before one or two of the kids ran in front of my camera, in full Black Panther ‘Wakanda Forever’ guise.

You can see more of Kristian’s work by visiting his website.