Let Me Tell You About Koshale… by Art Zaratsyan

Let me tell you about Koshale…

To get there you need to leave Arba Minch early in the morning. Then you drive for five and a half hours, two of them on patchwork of gravel and asphalt till you reach Geresse, a sort of a district center. After Geresse it's just dirt, blasted rock, occasional stream crossings, and—sometimes—no roads at all. At around noon you're there, but you only have about two hours until you need leave—to make it back to Arba Minch by nightfall.

Koshale, pronounced koh-sháh-leh, is a village in the lowlands of the south of Ethiopia, not too far from Kenyan border. It's far, it's hot, it's dry, and it's the home of a few thousand Ethiopian families. First thing that comes to your mind when you arrive is "why would anyone want to live here?"

Ethiopia is Africa's second most populated country: the latest figure is 98 million people—half of them under 18. For me that translates to the following: anywhere you go, people live there. Pick any direction, drive for hours, you'll still run into a bunch of kids, who will pop from behind some tree or pop up on some rock, screaming "Faranji, faranji!"

The reason I took the long trip to Koshale (twice) is water. There isn't much of it in Ethiopia in general, even less here. For generations the people of the village have walked for hours a day to the nearest stream to bring water to their homes. But all that changed last December. 

With the help of HOPE International Development Agency the people of Koshale completed a big water project, laying over 15 km of pipeline to bring clean water from a capped source on the nearby mountain down to the village. The project is impressive in its scale. The community provided the labor: digging the trenches, laying the pipeline,  mining materials like sand and gravel. HOPE provided the pipes, the know-how, the cement and all the materials unavailable to the area. The result: clean water available to the whole village—right in the village. And me, photographing this modern day humanitarian miracle, wishing I could be there to document the project as it was being constructed…

See the "Water for Koshale" gallery in the "Stories" section for more photos.

Rooms: Hot Shower Optional by Art Zaratsyan

Remember the last time you stayed in a hotel. What did your room come with? Internet access? Air conditioning? A television, a mini-fridge? Did it have hot water, running water, electricity? A telephone? How about a working toilet? Clean towels, clean sheets, toilet paper and soap?

“Well, yes of course!” you’ll say. These things are all a given.

Now, imagine having to choose between having only some of these “givens”. Which ones would you give up? Can you stay in a room without most of these? How about none of these?

If you answered yes to the last question: you should consider a career in humanitarian photography!

I’m kidding of course—but only to a point. Staying in hotels in different corners of the world has taught me to appreciate certain luxuries. The farther you go from urban centers, the deeper you enter the less traveled areas of the developing world, access to these obvious to us hotel room comforts begins to get spotty. And, as they gradually drop off, new, life-saving features begin to make an appearance, like mosquito nets or ceiling fans, strong fences decorated with barbed wire and manned with armed guards…

I’m not trying to scare anyone, it’s just the way it is.

So, it occurred to me that it would make a fun little series to describe on this blog some of the rooms I’ve occupied while working as a humanitarian photographer.

I’ll start with the most recent one: a room in the heart of the little town of San José De Ocoa, Dominican Republic, where I stayed for two weeks this June while covering the work of ADESJO, a local development NGO.

The hotel I stayed at the first night in town was nice. A popular location, it had the largest pool in town and a big restaurant/nightclub—lost on me, but hey, it was there! The rooms were clean, comfortable, but I had to leave nonetheless… No wi-fi. Correction: there was a wi-fi signal, but it was dead, no connectivity to internet. I’m a Westerner who speaks only a bit of Spanish, in a town for two weeks all by myself. Faced with a choice of wi-fi over anything else in such a situation, I will always choose wi-fi.

In the morning I moved to the second hotel. Right downtown, three blocks from ADESJO offices, it was a perfect place to stay. The wi-fi was solid. The room was 700 Dominican pesos per night, roughly $17 US. I liked it right away: no bugs, old but clean sheets, had luxuries like a television, a mini-fridge and air-conditioning, not counting necessities like a ceiling fan to keep mosquitos away at night—a must-have with thechikungunya epidemic running wild in town, even though it makes one feel like they’re sleeping in a wind tunnel. A nice little family-run place with a restaurant downstairs. What’s not to like?!

Only that evening, when I came home after a long, hot, exhausting day of shooting in the mountains and stepped in the shower looking forward to a relaxing evening, I realized what I had given up for it: hot water… I could only sigh and shrug. Or was it me shivering? Hard to tell.

Were two weeks of cold showers worth having a solid wi-fi connection? You bet!

Privacy and Ethics by Art Zaratsyan

When should one put down the camera and leave those going through a hard time alone?

I came face-to-face with this question in Santo Domingo, the capital of Dominican Republic, while covering the work of Asociacíon para el Desarrollo de San José de Ocoa (ADESJO). The organization had just delivered a truckload of medicaments and supplies donated by HOPE International Development Agency to the Hospital Traumatologico Dr. Ney Arias Lora, a large national hospital specializing in trauma, and we were invited for a “tour”.

As we reached the ICU waiting area in the Emergency ward, as you can imagine, things got harder and harder to take. The emergency staff here handles over 250 trauma cases per day, most of them from traffic accidents (Dominican Republic is one of the countries with the most deaths caused by traffic accidents in the world). The waiting area was full with people with sadness and concern all over their faces, tears in their eyes. One of them, a young woman, just stood there with an absent expression on her face, with her bloodshot eyes fixed at an empty stretcher. Instinctively, I took a picture, and as I did so, a man next to her turned around and glared at me. His anger at my act of invasion of the privacy of their sorrow was righteous. I felt ashamed. I mustered a weak smile and moved on.

The experience still feels raw, burnt into my mind. Yet, as a documentary photographer, covering things as they are is a big part of my work. Reconciling that with the realization that I was a rude intruder in this scenario, is something I still have to do.

What would you do? Feel free to leave a comment below if you’d like to share your thoughts.