Jemal Countess wants people to think when they see his photos of massacre survivors. (Photo: Jeff Propulsion/Jeff Pearce)

Tears and Consequences: Jemal Countess wants people to think when they see his photos of massacre survivors.

So, here I am, watching Jemal Countess—armed with a boxcutter—trim a large poster of his work. I watch him slice away the tiniest piece of white from the poster’s bottom, something probably few visitors to his new Tears of Wollega exhibition would notice. But he sees it. And it speaks to the man’s fastidiousness. Details matter, just as facts still matter.

When it comes down to it, this whole traveling exhibition—now in Toronto from September 7 to 12—is because it’s too easy to ignore some core truths about the war in Ethiopia.

Jemal regularly files shots with Getty Images, the top photo supplier for major media brands around the world. But “if people don’t have an interest or they’re ignoring them intentionally, they just get lost in the megabyte universe, you know. So, they don’t get seen. They get seen by editors who ignore them if it doesn’t fit their agenda or what they’re being told to publish or what they’re making a decision to publish.”

He believes this special collection of photographs “needs to be seen by the people who it affects, the same ethnicity. It needs to be seen by humanity at large because it’s an ongoing crime.”

Wollega, for those who don’t know, is in the Oromia region, in the western part of Ethiopia. The area was the scene of a horrific massacre by Oromo extremists only days before the outbreak of the war with the TPLF, and more than a year and a half later, Wollega captured attention again with another massacre. That one saw the death toll climb in reports to more than 1,500. As if those tragedies are not enough, you have to factor in all the other massacres of Amhara before, in between and after.

While the TPLF cynically launched a campaign right on November 4, 2020, ludicrously claiming a genocide began on the very first day of the war it started, there has been a genuine genocide going on for years intent on exterminating the Amhara people.

Jemal Countess went on three separate trips to a camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Jirra, photographing the victims and survivors of attacks by the Oromo Liberation Front who have an alliance with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.

“In this camp alone there were 1,300 when these pictures were taken,” he tells me. “Over 500 children it was said, children and teenagers, and some had recently arrived a few days before. And… in the past year, people had been arriving from different massacres that have been taking place at times almost on a daily occurrence in Wollega.”

He has concentrated on faces. There is a subtlety of technique here that might easily be missed, because unfortunately, war photography has evolved into its own macabre genre. It goes back to the U.S. Civil War when photographers revealed new truths with a glass-plate-negative, things that no paint brushstroke could capture. That continued right into the age of Robert Capa and his infamous shot of a Republican soldier getting shot in the head during Spain’s own civil war. We expect frozen spectacle. We anticipate grotesques. There are none to be found in Tears of Wollega. Instead, what you get more often are portraits. Faces.

Was this deliberate? Jemal says yes.

“Because I want these people to speak for themselves, and granted, it’s only through expressions and eye contact. This is really about their tragedy, their story, their struggle, and it’s often neglected in numbers. People just breeze over 1,300—‘Oh, there are 1,300 IDPs in this camp outside of Hayk,’ but they don’t talk about exactly why they’re there. These people came from backgrounds established over two or three generations in the Oromia region, where they lived alongside fellow Oromo, but it was with the rise of extremist ideas and the seeds planted by the TPLF, the seeds of division of the [1994] constitution that they’re now being genocided.”

Of course, we live today in a world where we can and often do settle for being damn passive and even lazy about how we accept our journalism, our culture, our art. We sit like quadruple and even cognitive amputees, blank-faced stoners, armchair zombies, taking in movies, games, Instagram shots. Here you go, piggie. Forget the trough, we’ll just pour it into you. How much do you bring to the effort? We’re all guilty of the same answer… not much.

But besides having to get off your ass and go down to the locale, it’s my theory that Tears of Wollega expects you to either do some reading or bring your curiosity.

When I put this notion to Jemal, he answered, “I want things to be simple, but I want people who have a certain level of visual IQ to take the work in.” He uses the example of one of his compositions resting on a table, waiting to be mounted on its wall. “Okay, here is a guy looking very intensely at you, he’s in this situation, this serene looking environment, but he’s got a terrible story. Then there are other images where you can see the pain on everybody’s face, and I think the person who really cares will want to know, Well, why is the pain there? What is the source of pain? To be quite honest with you, I’ve interacted with some people who don’t really have experience in reading photos—I think it takes a little something—but I think these are simple enough and direct enough for you to actually just read the eyes and the faces if you’re human.”

In these shots, I believe a harsh reality is on display: that after you as a victim have cried, after you have mourned the loss of loved ones or home or village, you remain stuck with the dull but insistent, even downright bleak mission of survival. For what else is there? But to go on and survive. Not because your life may have hope of getting better, but because there is nothing else you can do. Find food, shelter, safety.

Contrast all that with the infamous shots of Finbarr O’Reilly and his Tigray child soldier porn for the New York Times. There is no denying that his shots were technically impressive. But if you recall, those who rushed to congratulate O’Reilly and reporter Declan Walsh over their story were so oblivious to what the work really said that they got caught right in the act, with no defense, when the outrage broke. And O’Reilly had to rush to do damage control on Instagram as the Times removed his photos from the website version of the article.

Besides the implied racism that Black children should be glorified as warriors and not seen as innocent victims—something a newspaper photo editor wouldn’t dream of trying to pull with the war in Ukraine—O’Reilly’s shots virtually screamed propaganda. And Walsh shamelessly wrote his story with the attempt to sell such victims as willing volunteers and heroic underdogs.

This brings us to the other admirable quality about these Wollega photos and in the very idea of the exhibition. There is no political message here, except that these people are being targeted. By whom can’t be deduced from the shots. The unspoken message is that yes, they were targeted by someone—OLF—but the villain is not found in the compositions. And this again, is work for you as the viewer to go do yourself if you choose to care.

This is what lifts the work, in my humble opinion, to art. But Jemal resists this characterization.

“For me, it’s journalism,” he insists. “It’s reporting in extra layers exactly what’s happening, the uncertainty the people face, and what the result of an ethnic-based constitution will bring you.”

Is he looking for an emotional response from viewers?

“No, I want people to really think about it,” he says. “I want people to think about the consequences of blindly following leaders. I want people to think about the consequences of not questioning these monolithic concepts, such as the constitution or an idea like ethnic federalism. I want people to think about how they can go about and claim prosperity and praise a god while they cheerlead the beheading of children. I want people to think about the hypocrisy of it and maybe come to what we refer to in the Orthodox faith and other faiths as a sense of repentance. And seek the change and work to correct, right the wrongs. And if they don’t want to do that then it’s obvious as to the true nature of their spiritual condition and how far away from the God that they claim to worship they are.”

I asked Jemal what he has to say to those who might accuse him of being exploitative.

“Well, first of all, I spent days with these people,” he replies. “We’re still in touch with these people.” His efforts to gain oral and visual testimony were done with the permission of the elders in the camp, who keep track of things “for their safety and the camp’s safety… The elders are there. Other people are there from the community, and they step up and they talk to you because they want to.”

“You’re not preying on them,” I say, “they’re volunteering.”

“Yeah, because they’ve witnessed things that need to be spoken about, things that are unheard of. Complicity by individuals who should not be complicit. There are people still on the payroll today, this very day, who were in charge of their woredas [districts] when they were being massacred.” And the victims and survivors “are like, ‘I need to tell this, because it’s atrocious.’”

As I finish the interview, I say to him, “I still think it rises to art.”

Jemal shrugs at me. “Eshi, okay.”

I’m betting Jemal’s work gets that kind of recognition in the future for two reasons.

One is that the mainstream media in the West has worked for close to two years trying to smother all dissent contradicting its narrative. It keeps on selling its own “image” of the war, which can’t help but be a sterile one. You want a shitty creative product? Hire a committee. And cue the Finbarr O’Reillys and Lucy Kassas.

I mention Lucy Kassa here because like Declan Walsh’s reportage, I don’t think her work is intended as serious journalism but as a form of “war erotica.” I’ve written and got paid for writing the regular kind, so I know what I’m talking about here; its purpose is to entertain and arouse. Now consider that for porn, it’s always a matter of individual taste. But no informed Ethiopian can believe what Kassa writes. No, her articles are perfect for getting off the TPLF cultists who want to believe every horror, no matter how implausible. And her regular servings scratch that itch. Even better if you’re in on the joke, knowing some of these atrocity reports are downright ridiculous at face value. But if you’re a regular TPLF propagandist, say, Cameron Hudson or Lauren Blanchard, you can pass ’em around openly.

Unfortunately, after the initial thrill of the O’Reilly/Kassa peep show… ho-hum. The parade of shocks and drummed-up atrocity outrage eventually lost its impact because of their numbing repetition. Martin Plaut and others are still trying to recycle past articles, having not learned the lesson. And the so-called Tigray Art Collective keeps clapping itself on the back, proclaiming it’s doing well and including links to articles in Bitcoin magazine and BBC.

But I doubt we’ll see its offerings much in the future. Everything about its website, everything about its efforts and “works” announces how it’s soulless and manufactured.

Take a look at this for example, which I swiped from the collective’s website (and before trolls try to stop me using it, there is an accepted, good faith practice of reviewers utilizing such images for artistic commentary). Besides the fact that the compositional skills are on the level of a six-year-old, it’s just horribly bad in every other sense. It has all the subtlety of well… again, porn.

It doesn’t make you think nor does it want you to. It wants to get you off on your own narrative biases, but it can’t even do that.

A certain Christian Brewster who wrote a suspiciously fawning article for the Black collegiate newspaper, The Hilltop, gushed, “Tesfay’s art contained haunting detail in the facial expressions of the victims he portrayed. Whether it was the piercing eyes of a child losing his family or the overwhelming sadness of a mother losing her children, Tesfay’s art captured a feeling of loss and fear that was palpable.”

Is he kidding? The figures aren’t even in proportion, and the artist can’t draw feet or hands. Yes, you can take liberties with anatomy if you’re going for a Chagall-Fauvist thing, but this clearly isn’t that. If you want to go back again to the Spanish Civil War, consider how we remember Guernica. Picasso knew how to draw. The fact that he made his figures into blocks and cubes and with a distorted horse hits us in a way that this phony, didactic “realism” never will.

And that brings us to my second reason: I don’t believe true art necessarily has to be subversive, not even deliberately so, but Tears of Wollega is quietly, humbly subversive in telling others certain truths about the human condition they may not be ready to see. Instead of “haunting detail” and “overwhelming sadness” (gimme a break), there is still dignity in the subjects being portrayed. And that tells you something about the mission of the photographer. He is not trying to catch people vulnerable in their worst moments, he seeks to find the truth of how they cope with those moments.

And wisely, you are left as the viewer to make your own judgment over how well they do. But if you’re smart, you’ll skip that and stick with plain empathy.

The Tigray Art Collective has a whole section on its website for “Protest Art”—and you can see for yourself its lifeless results. It would have been far more intellectually sincere to merely call it “Political Art.” It wouldn’t provoke more interest, but at least it would show more self-awareness.

What is there to “protest” when you have the entire machinery of the U.S., EU and UN, as well as the Western media carrying your water for you? You’re not creating art, you’re making wallpaper.

Sadly, none of these stillborn products will go away any time soon, and certain things are inflicted on the public whether they want them or not: the Kardashians, the remake of Red Dawn, Malcolm Gladwell, the Heritage Foundation, the notions that Neil Young and Bob Dylan should sing their own music. Ugh. The list goes on. And so it will with the Tigray genocide of good taste.

The more interesting question is what comes after Jemal’s show in Toronto? Discussions are underway for the exhibition to move to Germany and other parts of Europe, with organizers preparing for a show in Australia. But Tears of Wollega needs company. By this, I don’t mean someone else doing a photo exhibition (and you can just bet, as the TPLF has never had an original idea in its head, it will try to mount its own show; its online trolls have already tried to steal and distort Jemal’s images).

No, I mean it would be nice if Ethiopian and diaspora artists of solid talent, not just political conviction (or worse, zealotry) tried to interrogate this conflict and come up with something dazzling of their own. You can’t summon such creations. First, the artist needs to be genuinely moved, and then they need to work at moving others. We don’t require propaganda, but provocative art is always welcome.

What could a brilliant Ethiopian sculptor do with the theme of Mai Kadra? What would a talented choreographer from the diaspora make out of the reports from IDP camps? The way forward is not simply to reflect the pain many are familiar with, it is to give us insight into those traumas.

For now, go see Jemal’s photographs. Don’t go for confirmation of your positions. Go there to be troubled and don’t look away—then take a second look and be enlightened. Think about consequences.

Source: Jeff Propulsion: Jeff Pearce - Historian, novelist, career surrealist. Author of Prevail, Lady With a Smoking Gun, Winged Bull and The Gifts of Africa



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