Sight Is Faculty, Seeing Is Art: An Interview with Dawit N.M.

Dawit N.M. is an Ethiopian photographer and filmmaker with an aesthetic that is both intimate and reticent. His debut museum exhibition, The Eye That Follows, will be on display at The Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, through August 16th. Dawit’s story is one that invites onlookers to view life honestly in Ethiopia, Virginia, and New York. While personal to the artist, these images express ubiquitous themes of community, family, and faith. Over the past few years, Dawit has released a book, earned a nod for Emerging Director at the American Black Film Festival, and continues to emerge as one of the exciting, new perspectives in film and photography. Our CEO and Marketing Director, Cam Murdoch, caught up with Dawit to talk about his debut exhibit, the sacred nature of identity, and surviving 2020.

With COVID-19 and a national uprising, how have these “uncertain times” affected you?

I kind of got used to the quarantine lifestyle because I work from home, so it wasn’t that big of a change, just my roommates are at the house too now, so I was there with them all of the time. That was a little adjustment, but for the most part it was chill. I was there for the protests in Brooklyn for the first three weeks, and out of nowhere you would just start hearing loud fireworks going off every night. Every night you would hear police sirens, for no reason sometimes. It just got crazier and crazier, and I’m hearing that it’s even getting worse now.

Other than that, I’ve been chilling. Just really focused on work and getting this show up again [the exhibit was initially scheduled for March but delayed for COVID-19 closures]. It’s been actually a needed time to catch up on some work and to catch up on some studies. The first couple of weeks I was super pressed to work as much as I [could], but then I gave myself a week of vacation, and I was like, ‘Damn, I haven’t had that in such a long time.’ The concept of not working seemed so foreign to me because of the hustling mindset I’d inherited from the people I came up from and also this society. I’m realizing all of the effects of capitalism . . . like I knew it was there, but I didn’t know how bad it was until I didn’t have anything to do.

Your work has consistent themes of community, family, and day-to-day life. Why are these subjects important for you to explore, or is it simply life captured in your style?

I’m a firm believer in just telling your story and that the best person to tell your story is you. So, a lot of my photos are usually just friends or family because I know them the most. I feel comfortable taking their images because I know they are comfortable with me taking their image. They know I’m going to represent them in a way that’s true. It’s just going to be a documentation of that moment . . . just like the image, Brad, Solo, and the Mirror. It seems like there are three people in that image, but it’s really just Brad and his child Solo and his reflection. That came from me and him just talking about how he came from a fatherless home and how he’s now a single father. We were just reflecting on that, and I just made an analogy within the photo where he was looking into the camera through the reflection.

Dawit N.M. (Ethiopian, b. 1996)
Brad, Solo, and the Mirror, Portsmouth, Virginia, 2018
Courtesy of the artist

Also, on the surface level, I’m just way more comfortable with people that I know. I’ve trained myself to find moments in everyday life [that] can look beautiful and interesting in a photo or film format. Even the stuff I did for Mereba, if you took away all of the music and the nice visuals and just imitated what she was doing, it’s really nothing crazy that she’s doing. It’s just the feelings that are present within those moments.

You and Mereba seem to have a lot of creative chemistry that feels like an extension of your previous works as a photographer.

The Universe lined it up, and it was the perfect collaboration. When I first got the email about the Mereba video, it was like the week before I was going to move into my apartment in Brooklyn. At the time, I had this job offer as an editor, and the safest route would be to take the job offer . . . but man, I would have regretted it if I didn’t take the Mereba video. I remember at the end of the first shoot, she came up to me and told me I did an amazing job. It was my first time handling a shoot that big, with that big of a crew. At that moment, I feel like that trust was really solidified. I think that’s when we realized that we wanted to keep working together. The reason I’m doing this is to help people, so if someone has that same purpose, I think I would have a connection with them. I mesh well with people who are super genuine and genuine about their craft.

Tell me if you agree. Learning something as a craft comes from a place of love for that thing, whereas some learn in order to commodify and sell their skills who may not have a love for the craft.

I don’t want to work with anyone that doesn’t have a purpose, and I’m starting to question that whole notion because I feel that everyone’s purpose should be to just . . . help one another. It’s just a matter of figuring out how you can go about helping someone. I used to ask myself what my purpose was in life, but then I started to ask how I can help someone. Right now, it’s through the format of film and photography. For a long time, even now still, Ethiopians are misrepresented in the media. That’s why I did the photo-book, Don’t Make Me Look Like The Kids on TV. Even while working with Mereba, not only was I presenting her in an amazing way, I was also showcasing a different narrative that people weren’t used to, especially for someone with an Ethiopian background. The main reason I became a photographer or filmmaker wasn’t really for a love of the craft, it was more a love of the people, a love for preserving the culture, and archiving it for future generations.

With everything that’s going on today with facial recognition, monitoring, even wearing masks outside, there seems to be a new emphasis on the intimacy of seeing someone’s face. Have you thought about that in comparison to your stylistic element of obscuring the face in your portraits?

It’s a cliché statement but a true statement, the eye really is the window to the soul. Also, . . . I had this eye infection when I was younger, so I’m always curious and careful about eyes and not so much in the face. A lot of my photo work revolves around hiding the face because when people were taking pictures of Ethiopia during the drought, they didn’t respect the people’s identity. They would just take these photos of people and just plaster their face[s] everywhere. That motivated me to find ways in which I can hide the face while still showing the person’s presence.

Dawit N.M. (Ethiopian, b. 1996)
Still from Mereba’s – Planet U music video, directed by Dawit N.M., 2018
Courtesy of the artist

I always wanted to push the portrait world a little bit further, and I was kind of bored at looking at the portrait standard way of image-making. One of the ways was to distort the face. When I’m editing, it’s really just changing the colors up a bit, and that’s about it. So, I try to do all of the effects in the camera . . . so I’m still documenting the moment, and I’m not altering the image in any way—it’s simply how I captured it. I’m still a documentary photographer, but I go about things in a very “fine art” way.

Even though this year has been wild, it’s still important to look forward. What are some things that you are looking forward to with the world attempting to reopen?

I’m looking forward to seeing how I balance out work and life. Now I’m getting a better understanding of being more disciplined. During the restrictions, I built up a level of discipline, and with them lifting some of those restrictions, I want to see if I can uphold the same discipline in whatever world we live in next. I’m interested in what kind of stories are going to be told now, even how things are going to be shot within film and photography. I feel like there’s a big change coming in the world, and I’m interested to see what comes next.

Thank you to Dawit N.M. for the opportunity to conduct this interview. Preview some more of his work below, and be sure to visit The Eye That Follows exhibition currently on display at the Chrysler Museum of Art through August 16th.


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