A natural explorer and an award-winning photographer, Aziz Ahmed’s career as an Ethiopian wildlife photographer started early in his life. Having showcased his stunning pictures in several local and international showcases and involving as part of several international wildlife media projects including those with national Geographic, Aziz’z name has for long been synonymous with Ethiopian Wildlife (which understandably is Aziz’s handle on several digital platforms). He has also published a wildlife photography book recently titled ‘Wildlife of Ethiopia’s National Parks’. As a man who has dedicated his life to wildlife, it is incredibly rare to find Aziz hanging in town. LinkUp Addis’s Tettemqe had a chat with Aziz in one of his brief trips to Addis. Enjoy this inspiring interview.
As a pioneer in the field, your name has become interchangeable with Ethiopian wildlife photography. Before all that, what got you into photography?
My father used to take me to all sorts of places when I was a kid. He loved the wild, he’d take pictures with his little camera and would let me have a go at it as well. You don’t become a photographer at will, your mind trains your sight to look at ordinary things from unique angles and perspectives. Through time, you learn to uncover gems hidden in plain sight.
In an Instagram post, you’ve said that your father is a big part of why you are invested in capturing the beauty of nature. Tell us more about that; how was your relationship with him?
However cliché it sounds, my father is my role model. We’d take a trip somewhere, usually Langano, on Friday nights and spend the weekend. This had been a tradition ever since I was a 4 year old. It’s on these trips that my young self fell in love with the wild.
“I’m a different Aziz when I’m in the wild. I don’t know if I can label any experience scary; the wild has no room for fear.“
You have had an interest in Ethiopian culture, landscape, and wildlife since a very young age. If you had to pick, what’s the single greatest place you’ve visited in Ethiopia?
Every place has its flavor. I feel at home in Langano, I love the lake. I love the lions in Awash and Afar. I’m fascinated by the tribes in Omo Valley. Every time I go to the Bale Mountains, I feel like I stepped into a scene from Avatar. It’s impossible to pick a single favorite place because every destination absorbs me entirely. There’s no room for comparison when you’re fully immersed in the beauty of the present.
Ansel Adams’ famous quote “You don’t take a photograph, you make it” can be seen all over your website and even made a cameo on your exhibition at the Best Western. What does it mean to you?
I have taken over 450,000 pictures as a professional. But if you were to show me a picture I took 15 years ago, I’d remember how windy the day was, I’d remember the emotions I had at the time. You take a photograph by clicking a button on a camera; you make it by connecting yourself to what’s around you. As a wildlife and landscape photographer, connecting with nature is where all the work lies for me.
What’s a typical day in the wild with Aziz Ahmed?
Out there, I usually don’t even know what day of the week it is. I wake up in the morning, cook breakfast, and get to work. It’s like I’m stuck in a dream where the days keep counting and I’m oblivious to it all. I could stay for a month in the wild and think I’ve been there for a couple of days.
‘A world in a nation’ is how you described Ethiopia for its diverse wonders of nature. Despite all the good things that come with mother nature’s diversity you also spend a lot of time outdoors in very harsh weather conditions. How do you deal with that?
I remember this one trip to the Bale Mountains. We were by the Sanetti Plateau and had to walk 20 minutes to the camping site. To compound the harshness of the freezing weather, torrential rain came down on us relentlessly. Not until later that night could we make a fire to dry ourselves up. That’s the most difficult time I’ve had in the cold parts of Ethiopia. Working in heat, now that’s a more complicated story. I could work for 2-3 hours in the scorching Dallol sun with no problems at all. When I’m out in nature, my body tolerates a lot. But on a sunny day in Addis, I get fatigued just running some simple errands. This just goes to show you how passion and love can manifest themselves physically.
Your work brings you face to face with some of the fiercest creatures on earth; what’s the scariest Ethiopian Wildlife experience you’ve had on the job?
I’m a different Aziz when I’m in the wild. I don’t know if I can label any experience scary; the wild has no room for fear. But I have put myself in risky situations where things could have easily gone wrong. About 6 months ago, I finally found lions in Awash Park after 3 years of unsuccessful searches. I got out of the car and stood out there in the open just gazing at these two lions that were chilling in the shed. I was two leaps away from them and there was no escape route had they decided to attack. But right there at that moment, none of that mattered. There was not a hint of fear in me. It’s only after I got back in the car that I realized what kind of a risk I had just taken.
You have an impressive body of work on terrestrial animals that are endemic to Ethiopia. As we are blessed with rich aquatic wildlife as well, do you plan on diving into the world of underwater photography?
Underwater photography is a venture I had flirted with for a very brief period. I went diving in Mexico with a crew from National Geographic. We took some underwater shots and, I can’t lie, it was a little terrifying. There are still plans for me to go to Djibouti with a team next year and do some aquatic camera work, but that is not my forte. I am more of a lion guy.
The Abyssinian Wolf is a great example of endemic species endangered due to poor conservation habits. What role do you think photographers should play in bringing awareness to Ethiopian wildlife conservation issues?
What we can do is educate. This is the very reason I published my book Wildlife of Ethiopia’s National Parks. By disseminating them to several schools and parks, I have tried to let people see that nature has trusted us with unique gems of creation. It is not easy doing all this alone though. My work would make a much greater impact if the government was to lend a helping hand.
You have had little expeditions with famous personalities like Rophnan, Danayit Mekbib, and Amleset Muchie to name a few. Whose personality in the wild has impressed you the most?
All of them were great, but I have to give a shout-out to Danayit. She is an assured, fearless woman. She is also very down to earth. Kids in the most remote places would recognize her, and she would always give them hugs and shower them with love. I respect her for that and her bravery in exploration.
Do you have pets at home?
I wish! I live in a condominium where pets are not allowed. I would love to have an eagle, though. I love everything about eagles. Their blistering speed, incredible sight, their adventurousness, and even the sounds they make. I’d also love to have an owl. But again, I do not know if I would be okay with confining these animals into such small spaces. I would feel like I have imprisoned them. I usually capture animals that I’m fascinated with, study their behavior for a week or two and then let them free. Lastly, I want to have a lion but now is not the right time.