Photographing Ethiopia's Young Skate Scene

Photographing Ethiopia's Young Skate Scene

An inside look at Ethiopian skatelife from the lens of Daniel Reiter

All images courtesy of Daniel Reiter.

Jessica Fulford-Dobson’s Skate Girls of Kabul and Yann Gross’s images of Ugandan skateboarders are just a few contemporary examples of how photography has become integral to the development of young skate scenes around the world. It's interesting to see how a rebellious subculture in the U.S.–whose documentation can be traced back to Craig Stecyk's pictures of the Dogtown Z-Boys in 1970s Southern California–is increasingly becoming a means of empowerment across the globe.

In January, Berlin-based photographer Daniel Reiter fell in love with the growing skate community in Addis Ababa. It was there that he teamed up with the grassroots youth skateboard movement known as Ethiopia Skate. Soon, Reiter found himself documenting the city's skatelife and collecting skateboards and streetwear for donations.

Reiter’s pictures–over thirty of which were featured in his debut art exhibition this month in Vienna–encapsulate the hopes and dreams of young skaters in Addis Ababa. Now, with a crowdfunding campaign recently launched and a trip back to Ethiopia on the horizon, the photographer looks to take his Ethiopiaskate series worldwide.

Okayafrica caught up with Reiter to learn more about his work photographing Addis Ababa’s skate community and the wider impact of skateboarding in Ethiopia.

Jacob Roberts-Mensah for Okayafrica: Tell us a bit about yourself and what you do?

Daniel Reiter: I’m a Berlin-based photographer and one of the very few original West-Berliners living today in the former east, which is the center of creativity now. I started to work as a freelance photographer in 2002, after studying photography and digital media in Israel, but my fascination for photography goes back to my childhood.

What led you to Ethiopia?

One of my best friends travelled to Ethiopia to meet her mother after being separated for 33 years. So the main story that led me to Ethiopia was to document their reunification and to support my friend emotionally.

When did you first come across the movement and how did you get introduced to the scene and meet guys like Ethiopia Skate’s founders Addisu Hailemichael and Abenezer Temesgen?

While I was researching ahead of my journey I stumbled across and immediately got in contact with them. Abenezer was the first to reply to my mail and connected me with the youngsters of Ethiopia Skate that I met. Unfortunately both of them weren’t in Addis Ababa when I got there.

So I haven’t met them in person yet. Upcoming LA-based photographer and director Sean Stromsoe, who dedicates his life to making Ethiopia’s first skate park a reality, is responsible for their great website and most of its media. Last summer, on his way to Ethiopia he had a stopover in Berlin and met me at my exhibition in Berlin. Since that day we’ve been in frequent contact and support each other to achieve the most for Ethiopia Skate.

What response have you received from your project and exhibition thus far?

I get tons of positive response. Most visitors find the story interesting and love the pictures. The photos are printed on old school Baryta paper and look just awesome.

A lot of German and even international companies became aware of the project and are willing to donate or have already donated apparel, skate equipment and all kinds of tech stuff to support the growing community of Ethiopia Skate and to help us spread the word.

Do you feel like you’re sending out bigger messages with this project? Perhaps even a feeling that you're taking part in something almost revolutionary?

Ten years passed since my last documentary–showing a township hospital and its patients surroundings in the Cape Town area. These images were later exhibited at that hospital. During those ten years I photographed mostly commercial work, and even my free projects had a more industrial theme.

So when my daughter was born two years ago I started to miss the lightness and spontaneity of my early photographer years. One year ago I finally got the awareness that I need to change something and get back to my roots. Got a digital Leica M to work as minimalistic as possible and decided to join my friend in Ethiopia. That was exactly what I needed to regain my passion for photography and I think this simplicity is also visible in the images of the exhibition.

From being with the community, what do you think it means to be a skater at this time in Ethiopia? What is it about the culture that makes it appealing to the kids?

Skateboarding in Ethiopia started almost a decade ago, when there were only a handful of skateboards in the whole country. Today, due to its missing skate-infrastructure, skate culture is still at the very beginning. There are no skate shops–you literally can’t buy skate gear in Ethiopia, no local skate magazines and unfortunately no skate park that would spark the fire and give all interested kids a safe and challenging environment. But thanks to donations of skate gear the community is growing and the kids are getting better and better.

Ethiopia Skate is currently going through the process to become an official association. Once that’s accomplished and a skatepark is built, the skate community will grow even faster and skate culture will develop as a natural consequence.

Skateboarding is very competitive, connecting people of different ages worldwide, and provides a lot of fun. I started my board sport affinity as a twelve-year-old, skating like crazy on the streets of Berlin. During the last twenty years I’ve concentrated more on snowboarding and surfing, which turned out to be my real boarding passions and have been more forgiving to my bones. But my love for skateboarding never died. Only that the older I got, it became more and more a matter of transport. That’s why I decided to give my last skateboard to the kids. That was back in January, and as life sometimes teaches you a lesson, just a week ago I decided to ask our friends at Irie Daily to send me a longboard to satisfy my sudden need to roll on a board.

Are there people who believe it's inappropriate for kids to dream of becoming professional skaters?

Some locations of interest or buildings that would make perfect skate spots are guarded by army or police forces who normally chase the skate kids away. But aside from that, I experienced only that people are amazed by and interested in that relatively unknown sport.

If you had to choose one image to represent this mission and your experience in Ethiopia, what would it be?

I’m having mixed feelings about it. Maybe the best to represent it would be the crew image, with the kids in front of the orange wall. But my absolute favorite image is Henoks jump in black and white because it best shows how devoted these teenagers are to skateboarding and how far they’re willing to go to succeed and how they tried to get international attention through my photography–to get closer to their dream.

The final day of Reiter's crowdsourcing campaign to finance his next trip to Ethiopia is October 31st. Keep up with him on Facebook and Instagram.