INTERVIEW with artist Freminatos Estifanos
We have for you today an amazing photographer: Freminatos Estifanos. He believes that photos have the ultimate power of challenging the unstoppable time itself by confining occurrences, reactions, happenings and sensations.
Here follows a glimpse of our conversation.
- STICKING HIS NOSE EVERYWHERE
I was born in Dekemhare, but I was literally raised by the EPLF. Dekemhare was one of the earliest liberated areas and a stronghold of the EPLF, so there were many freedom fighters there. They took on several social endeavors; education for children being one.
I studied painting at school. My very first teacher was an amazing one. His name was Haile but he was known as Haile Artist. When I joined Keyahti Embeba I met him there again. I was both happy and surprised to see him as a freedom fighter. Every artist in Eritrea knows about him, Martyr Haile Artist was the greatest… my mentor.
I joined Keyahti Embeba at eleven years old. It was a cultural troupe composed of children and youth. We studied and learned arts and we used to travel for tours. We then relocated from Dekemhare to Nakfa and there I became a freedom fighter.
Soon after our military training I was assigned to the EPLF’s political HQ’s and from there to the Media unit, the photography branch, to be specific. There I met with Hilal, a French comrade who at the time was head of the branch.
Maybe if I tell you now the front was probably the strongest in documenting you wouldn’t believe me, because you would naturally think if they were there to fight why bother with photos, motion pictures, a monthly magazine and a radio station?… We had big underground bunkers where we had our darkroom and whatever is needed to print thousands of pictures. Atop of the mountain there was our radio station delivering our voice to the people of Eritrea and to the world.
But the truth is that the front was extremely complex, our freedom struggle was not about killing enemy’s soldiers; the actual struggle of development we are currently carrying is a continuation of the struggle we started in 1961. Yesterday and today, we struggle to lay a base for a perpetually strong Eritrea. And this is why documenting events in forms of photos and motion pictures mattered a lot.
- So you worked in several units?
Because I was young I was curious about everything. I stuck my nose in almost everything. Working in the political HQs, then at the EPLF’s political HQ’s and then the photography branch allowed me to acquire a clear vision of what the front was about. So the artist in me was eager to grasp the emotions, values and virtues of young freedom fighters and their epic journey.
In 1982 I was appointed to the front’s motion pictures branch but I refused. I love still pictures more. There is a huge difference between sequences of pictures making up a motion film directing your imagination to a preset point; that is not the case with pictures. A photo is 1000 words and 10000 more, and it doesn’t abuse the spectators’ imagination. It gives the mind the right to interpret whatever it’s perceived in ways the conscious part of our brain would not understand. I hope you understand what I mean…
I refused to stay with the motion pictures branch and joined what we called the Slide Unit; one of our main tasks was to prepare exhibitions. Back then there was no Photoshop or anything of the sort. Therefore we used to prepare grand exhibitions of massive posters and thousands of pictures, all, with paper, glue, sprays and cutters.
- THE FIRST SHOT
In 1987 there was a public festival. Eritreans from all walks of life gathered with the freedom fighters and spent a whole week together. I was a novice photographer, so I was told to take pictures of the general public. They thought they gave me a simple job, but not for me. It was a massive task. I told myself that I was going to seize in the photos the emotions of the people when coming together with the freedom fighters. I aimed for facial expressions, gestures of joy… I went around with my camera choosing the best angles.
One of my photos made it to Sagem’s front page, which was the front’s monthly magazine. My parents were in the USA. For years they knew nothing about my whereabouts.
They thought maybe I had died in the armed struggle. They saw my photo in the cover page with my name and realized I was still alive. The photos in the magazines and exhibitions were the only thing they had of me until after independence. After that I took part in several fairs and won six prizes.
- 1000 WORDS AND 10000 MORE
Along with my compatriots in the photography unit we would run to capture the miracles of our compatriots. You wouldn’t understand, but those guys were not human. A young girl or a boy would run straight forward to a tank with an explosive and burn with it. Humans would not normally do that, but my compatriots did, and they did it with the biggest and the brightest smiles I have ever seen. Some other would run into a burning house with no protection to bring out civilians and they would go in and out over and over again until they’d be the only one buried under the flames. Others would overpass enemy’s front lines to provide education and health services to civilians. It’s an ocean of God knows what it was we were doing.
We would organize exhibitions and showcase them in liberated areas of the country and abroad. We take photos that tell how our days were: our struggles, our front, our hospitals and the roads we built and our society’s situations. We would also provide pictures for the articles on the magazine, we were extremely devoted to match the message of the articles, and we’d discuss intensively with the writers and make an impression every time!
- NOT A WRITER, BUT DEFINITLLY A STORY TELLER
I wake up in the middle of the night and try to make sense of the ideas I get. I normally tell my wife, because some of it I can’t even remember in the morning. Some of it doesn’t even make sense. I don’t like writing, I can’t express myself in words, and I’d rather draw or better yet take photos and put them together to tell stories through different lines and angles.
I normally would sleep in the dark room looking at the pictures. Because I was young, I was extremely loved and my older brothers and sisters –my compatriots, looked after me. So when I told them I wanted to make a photo book they encouraged me greatly. I worked on it for eight months and I had collected a mix of a sequence of collages and compiled some 250 pages. However, I hadn’t written a single caption. I took it to Yemane Gebreab and he was like “What about the caption?” I told him I had no clue, and then he picked a pencil and showed me how to give hints without giving away too much. I understood the technicality of what he told me to do but I was still out of words, in fact it took me another month to complete the captions. In some parts I simply put lyrics of some songs.
- NATIONAL SYMBOL
Your picture is now the official emblem of the Eritrean Currency, Nakfa…
Don’t call me the owner. I am not. The glory goes to the young guys in the picture, and all of my friends I left buried. It gives me pleasure that that photo is now on our coins and banknotes, but that’s how far it goes.
But technically speaking I like photos depicting youth, and young passion: I take shots of parts of their body where you can feel the strength of youth; like curly and crazy locks of hair, legs and a small angle of a sincere smile. Just like you can see in that picture.
Many young painters come and tell me that they use my angles to portray youth. I hate using front shots or portraits. It seems fake. And so when young artists tell me that they try to make great expositions of youth through other angles and not the front, I feel proud and thankful that they are using a technic I particularly use.
- Why don’t you teach?
As in stand in front of a class and explain what photography is? No. I can’t even talk properly, how can I possibly explain? But whenever young people come to me and ask me for tips I give them gladly.
- THE RIGHT MOMENT
How do you do it? Capture the right moment?
Instinct. I think how to go beyond what the eye perceives and express lines which are invisible to the eye. Normally we see things at eye level but art surpasses that and brings new edges. Like I said before, because I worked in several places and with amazing people I was able to gain many ideas from different perspectives. So how do I do it? I can say it is because I had amazing mentors.
It is the name of Dawit’s daughter. It literally means ‘My Eyes’. Dawit is a remarkable man. He was one of the students whom threw a student riot in 1958. He was tortured for it, and he then became a freedom fighter and lost his sight in the war of Keren. After independence he started a family and named his daughter Ayney, meaning his sight. Ayney then went to Sawa and started doing her national service; a sequel of the independence her dad struggled for, it is called the struggle for development. These are the stories I tell in my posters and exhibitions. Aren’t these stories all of us Eritreans have in every house hold? The Eritrean narrative…
It takes me days to cut and glue. I sleep on the big posters and collages. I think and rethink of ways to better express my ideas. I sometimes trim the photos in half and drive the spectator crazy. It can be annoying to some, but hey I just want you to imagine and ultimately feel the emotions encapsulated in those pictures.
- Which one was the most expensive exhibition you ever presented?
The exhibition I presented at the 10th anniversary of our independence.
- And which one was the most challenging?
I was told to make the poster for the referendum in 1993. I thought over and over again about it. I couldn’t come with a clear image of what I wanted to do. I was born and raised in war I didn’t know what peace was. I was raised to sound of bullets, bombs and destruction, and there I was in a free country going for a referendum… I was confused.
- A MESSAGE OF ADMIRATION
Anything you want to say at the end?
Because your page is coming out on the international women’s day, I would like to take this opportunity to talk about Eritrean women. I actually did prepare exhibitions for their 10th and 25th anniversaries. The Eritrean woman I know is the emblem of strength, love, patriotism and endurance. They are the pillar of all of the great Eritrean accounts. The Eritrean community has profound respect for them. I mean, we even address our country as a ‘she’; we call her our mother… an evident example of how we respect our women.
‘Happy women’s day, we admire you’.