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ZAAF: Made in Africa

March 22, 2021 //  Commissioned Work Back to posts

A behind the scenes documentary showing the grueling but gratifying times together working on this project.

Our crew climbed an active volcano, camped for days without electricity, and yet we somehow managed to photograph an advertising campaign in one of the hottest places on Earth. This project for ZAAF Collection will go down as one of my top 5 favorite photoshoots of all time- a special project for both the overall vision as well as the journey creating it.

The documentary above is a raw look into the journey as filmed by the our local crew- both the grueling aspects as well as the camaraderie among our team that kept positive spirits during the entire journey. Now that we have premiered the photo series and documentary at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC, I can finally share the final series with you here. Here's how it all began...

Abai Schulze, my friend of 6 years, and I came together to create this campaign for her incredible brand ZAAF- a premieum lifestyle collection made entirely in Africa. I see Abai as a hero of mine. She grew up in an orphanage in Addis Ababa, but by her own willpower managed to grow into a successful Ethiopian business woman. After being educated in the United States, Abai decided to return home and preserve the unique qualities of her homeland.

Model Gabu Fords clutching one of Abai's bags on the summit of Erta Ale volcano. Afar Region, Ethiopia

Model Mihret Engda standing next to the crater rim of Erta Ale volcano.

Since Abai first started ZAAF, I kept close watch and offered to help in any way possible. Years crept by. Finally, the opportunity arose for us to shoot something together. When we were brainstorming concepts, she told me something that resonated deeply. “When people think of an Ethiopian brand selling handbags, maybe they think the advertisement should be a traditional local woman sitting at a sewing machine. Why does it have to be like that?” Abai believes in seeing her continent's own potential instead of relying on foreign handouts. Her high expectations have shifted other people's perceptions of her homeland. I love that Abai is an optimistic, unapologetic voice of Africa's next generation. 

We developed a crazy idea- let’s shoot a luxury brand campaign for ZAAF in some of Ethiopia’s famous landscapes using all African models and crew. Let’s show to the world the unique qualities that her country and culture has to offer, but in a high end way without the cliches of the way “developing nations” are usually presented. 

It was my job as a photographer to translate what Abai was trying to say with her work into a visual medium. As the only non-African person on the crew, I felt a tremendous honor but also burden to do a good job. The advertising work I photograph always emulates the way I shoot personal projects. My place as a photographer has never been in the fashion world, so rather than try to emulate a style I am unfamiliar with, I wanted to shoot it the same way I would approach anything else. I envisioned the photographs as part reportage, and part environmental portrait. Our subjects were beautiful Ethiopian models, so there was no point in hiding their natural beauty with excessive makeup or accessories. This allowed us to focus on Abai’s bags and the greater vision, but also for me to preserve photographic motifs present in all my other personal work, and keep it cohesive.

Beyond the documentary film posted above, I am happy to share with you Abai's journals from the trip which capture some other details in her account of the journey. 

Ethiopian models Betty Woldemichael (left), Kiya Tadele (center) and Mihret Engda (right).

Abai’s Journal - Day One: Addis Ababa to Erta Ale. We all gather at the Addis Ababa domestic airport for our early morning flight to Mekelle, not knowing what awaits us. Our crew of eleven selected from across the African Continent (and Joey!) will be traveling to one of the most remote places on the planet. From the airport, we drive for 6 hours to Erta Ale, an active volcano in the Danakil (or Afar) Depression. This area is one of the lowest and the hottest inhabited places on earth. At more than 100 meters below sea level, it has an average temperature of 35°C/95 °F but can reach up to 50°C/122°F.  The twelve of us are accompanied by four drivers, two cooks, and two security personnel. Once we arrive at the volcano base camp around 4:00PM, we start shooting to take advantage of the light and unique landscape. Our cook makes a delicious meal that we devour aggressively after the shoot. After eating, we pack our gear onto the backs of camels and start the hike to the top of Erta Ale. It is an active volcano that last erupted in 2017. We make the three-hour hike up the 613 meter high rim after dark to avoid the suffocating heat during the day. We arrive past midnight, and our guide hands out masks to filter the air. This is definitively an adventure. Almost all visitors are travelers or scientists, and none spend more than a single evening at the volcano. We will be here for two nights and three days in order to capture the other-worldly beauty for our photoshoot. We attempt to stay at the campsite with its makeshift structures, but the wind is strong and the sulphur gas is too intense even with our masks, so we move a bit downhill to sleep under the stars on thin mattresses.

Abai’s Journal - Day Two: Erta Ale. We rise at 4:30AM to start our first shoot of the day. The view is incredible as we position ourselves on the edge of the smoking volcano, exploring the breathtaking rock outcroppings that hang over the crater. We shoot until 9:30AM, by which time the heat is too much and we retreat to the campsite to wait it out. The evening shoot is intensely windy and we get blown around, but we are able to capture striking images that blend the beauty of the scenery, the models, and the ZAAF pieces and clothing from the new collection. We return to the campsite where the team enjoys a well-earned dinner and some sleep. As I begin to drift off I hear a rumbling sound and I feel the ground move. Our guide tells us the next day that he was preparing to have us immediately descend if a second such event occurred. This really is an extreme photoshoot.

Abai’s Journal - Day Three: Erta Ale. We get to our location on a different part of the rim at 3:30AM. On the way we observe a newly formed fissure- likely what I felt and heard the night before. We finish and descend in the heat of the midday. It is only 40°C/104°F, a mere hint of the temperatures that await us at our next destination, Dallol. After a six-hour drive, we arrive at our campsite to get some rest.

Stylist Sylvia Owalla helping the models get ready early one morning at the Dallol campsite.

Abai’s Journal - Day Four: Dallol Sulphur Springs. We rise at 3:00AM to get ready and drive to the edge of the hydrothermal field. Joey photographs our models as they get ready. How our models have managed to look so great in intense heat and no available showers for days is simply an amazement. They prepare each other’s hair as we travel over dry salt flats. When we arrive we enter a whole other world. The landscape is covered in fluorescent yellows, deep greens, and bright orange. The primordial hot springs of all sizes spew forth hot gasses as they continuously blend sulphur, ferrous chloride, iron hydroxide and other minerals to create the exotic colorations and topography. Our guide warns us not to come into contact with any of it- the deceptively beautiful ponds are filled with acids and other dangerous compounds that can instantly burn through skin. We have to tread carefully in his footsteps to stay safe. The rotten egg smell of sulphur at times is overpowering.

We arrive at our location and start shooting. The images are unreal. No one will believe these are real backdrops. As a designer, I am inspired and engrossed by the colors and textures. The spitting mineral formations of the hot springs only add to the already extreme heat of this arid depression. Again, our models look like they just walked out of an airconditioned dressing room, and the ZAAF pieces stand out brilliantly.

By the time we finish at this location and load our gear onto camels to make the journey to an evening shoot at the salt flats, the temperature is at 46°C /114°F. Our evening shoot stands out as my favorite. Wide, uninterrupted salt flats as far as the eye can see. Camel caravans and their handlers join us to capture yet another set of dazzling images. Every evening salt is loaded onto the majestic looking camels and taken to the highlands in long caravans. The shiny reflective surface of the wet region of the salt flats we are in make it look as though camels and people are hovering on the surface of a vast white sea. We return to our campsite for our last night.  

Abai’s Journal - Day Five: Afar Salt Plains.  A final early morning wake-up at 3:00AM. Today we are doing something a little different- a photoshoot with a motorcycle on the dry salt flats. ZAAF has an identity as an adventurous brand; the movement and freedom of a motorcycle in the vast landscape completes my vision for this photoshoot. It’s not just my vision- the whole team has taken ownership of this extreme and demanding drive to showcase the riches of Ethiopia- people, places, and fashion. Joey is a world-renowned photographer. He is a master of light and has picked the times and techniques to create unparalleled images. The models have cheerfully endured grueling conditions which no other engagement could possibly compare to. Our guide and his staff have given their all to keep us safe, well fed, and well briefed. We all feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment. Throughout I have been thinking of my highly skilled team in Addis Ababa and our partners across the Continent who work tirelessly to produce beautiful contemporary practical designs that draw from rich ancient patterns and traditions. The new collection has now been showcased in a way I still can’t entirely believe is real. Soon these precious images will be shared in a myriad of ways and will grace the recently opened ZAAF boutique in Washington DC and our showroom in Addis. Without any exaggerations, this has to be one of the best experiences of my life.

Mihret rides with Kebrom Nigus, a motorcycle taxi driver from the Afar region.

Betty and Mihret in the Salt Plains with Afar security guard Yabmi Mohammed Tayir.

When the final work was displayed in the Smithsonian alongside other African treasures from the past, I saw Abai’s work as a contemporary version of this historical African art. If another civilization were to dig up Abai’s bags hundreds of years from now, I believe they should be placed alongside the great craftsmanship of other ancient cultures we know today.

Portrait of Abai Schulze, the founder of ZAAF

Client: ZAAF Collection @zaafcollection

Photographer: Joey L. @joeyldotcom

Film Narrated by: Abai Schulze @abaischulze, Joey L. @joeyldotcom, Yonas Tadasse @yonas_tadesse

Models: Kiya Tadele @bosslady_tenu, Gabu Fords @gabufords, Betty Woldemichael @model_bettyw, Mihret Engda @mihretendga 

Other subjects: Kebrom Nigus, Yabmi Mohammed Tayir

Styling: Kevo Abbra @kevoabbra2,  Sylvia Owalla @sylvi0_0walla

Production / Tour Company: Nibret Adem @nibby_travels - Hamerland Tours @hamerland_tours

Lighting Assistant: Nebiyu Bekele

Behind the Scenes Video: Abenezer Zenebe @abenezer.z, Yonas Tadasse @yonas_tadesse

Documentary Film Edit: Joe Accardi -  Big in Japan

Photography Post Processing: Joey L. and Ryan Cleary -  Luminosity Retouching @luminosityimaging

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