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.


Wild World of Weird Old Cameras

by Richard Perkins

I have shot many of shitty digital, point and shoot, SLR’s, disposables, and toy cameras in my now ten years of photographing. It’s something special when you go to the electronic section or a thrift store and see these one or two dollar squares (that sometimes even have film in them if you’re lucky), and picking it up and saying “I’m going to bring this thing back to life.”

Getting an old camera from an uncle or grand dad because “you’re into photography” and really actually taking it and doing something magical with it. I have a camera that talks to you, that tells you when to change the film. I have a camera that looks like a beer can. I have a camera that shoots 3D photos (which back in the 80’s was pretty much an early version of GIFs). I have a WWF slam cam from 1998 that, if you hooked up to your sister’s dial up computer, you could somehow put yourself in a photo with Stone Cold Steve Austin.

The Ghost Hunting Camera

I grabbed for 2 bucks at a Thrift Store in Virginia Beach and about lost my mind. Like, how stupid and rad is the concept of this camera? Also you have no idea where the “ghosts” are in the frame. It’s not even ghosts its just old photos of people and like, really shitty CGI skulls and shit.

Digital Pink V-Tech

Thrifted for a not reasonable price of 7 bucks, but still wanted it because I wanted to know what masterpieces it might make. Popped a few AA batteries in that thing, and it’s like shooting out of a GameCube Controller. 

Kodak Panoramic

It didn’t come out. The film expired Septemper 1997. But here’s a hilarious commercial I found for it from 1992.

Fuji Film

Duh. Walgreens. Like 12 bucks. Normal, plain, the “hey ima be cool and start shooting disposable cameras” starter kit. That and a Supreme shirt. 

Fuck that Hawaii camera.

That shit is garbo. The photos came out terrible.

Cameras are tight. No matter what they are. Just go shoot and have fun. Much love. 

Dive deeper into the world of Perkins & stay up-to-date on more strange camera via his blog,

TBT: Ranking Pretention in 1970s Sci-Fi

by Katharine Coldiron 

It’s been my observation that although aesthetics generally were at their worst in the American 1970s (clothes, home décor, haircuts), it was an unparalleled golden era for filmmaking. In no other decade did American directors so thoroughly plumb the power of cinema: Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg, Kubrick, Cimino, Malick, and even the disgraced Allen did most of their best work between 1970 and 1980. 

However, the decade’s silly side is as memorable as its serious one. And some films have a high volume of both. Particularly in science fiction, for some reason; a surprising number of sci-fi films from the 1970s are incredibly self-serious. They bear deep intellectual ideas, but are executed with overly trendy production design and cringey scripts. 

Here are five 70s sci-fi films of particular note, each ranked with a Pretentiousness Score. The higher the score, the more the film fails at getting the viewer to take it seriously. This failure specifically derives from a gap between the loftiness of the film’s ideas and the ludicrousness of its execution. 

Silent Running (1972) 

Hijinks ensue when Bruce Dern dons a caftan and looks after plants in space, to the point of committing three murders to preserve them. Few plants are left alive after the planet’s biosphere has become too hostile to them (apparently?), and the remains of Earth’s forests and flowers live in domes in space, cared for by rotating teams of white men. Also, robots, named after Donald Duck’s nephews. No women appear in this film whatsoever, not even computerized voices. 

There’s a lot of Silent Running’s DNA in Moon and WALL-E, but it’s much more static than its descendants, and Dern and his environmentalism personify all the worst jokes about vegetarianism and tree-hugging. His method of trying to get the jockish other astronauts to give a damn about Earth’s last remaining trees mainly entails shouting and nurturing resentment. Not fifteen minutes in, Joan Baez sings a preachy ballad about children and sunshine. A sincere moral conflict about comfort, authenticity, and the shortsightedness of the human race, buried under decaying hippie rhetoric and obvious to-scale models.

Pretentiousness Score: 5/5 


Rollerball (1975) 

Hijinks ensue when a ridiculously dangerous sport holds the monied class in thrall in a fascist, pill-addled future. James Caan is the champion of this sport who, because he won’t retire, destabilizes the whole society and causes the deaths of many, many people. This one’s interesting in part because the idea of a single hero is threatening to the corporate overlords who run the world. It’s an example (also seen in Twilight Zone episodes) of mid-20th-century art that presents communism as a threat in ideological manifestations that are unrecognizable today. 

Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night) made this one, and he was infuriated that, upon release, everyone loved the sport depicted in the film, because jeez, you guys, it’s an allegory. Ha. Everyone knows allegories don’t look this exciting. Aside from the actual scenes of rollerball in play, the movie drags like hell, and Caan looks constipated throughout. The fonts are wonderful, and the corporatism is familiar and troubling; the collar flaps are unfortunate, the script is tedious, and the women are sexy lamps.

Pretentiousness Score: 4/5 


Soylent Green (1973)

Hijinks ensue when the planet dries up, food sources shrink, the gap between rich and poor widens untenably, the infrastructure is stretched too thin, and no one wants to solve any of this. Not that that’s a familiar scenario. This movie is best known for the spoiler in its final line of dialogue, but there’s a lot more to it: the lure (and uses) of suicide in a dystopia, haves and have-nots, the endgame of overcrowded cities, the passion and danger of knowledge. It blew my mind when I was a teenager. 

In re-viewings, I’ve developed the opinion that Soylent Green is a serious film masquerading as a broad genre picture, rather than the other way around. It has enormous beauty and frightening implications to its ideas, but it also has chase scenes and police drama, a couple of beefy-dude fights, plastic production design, and unnecessary pretty girls. It looks and quacks like its siblings on this list, and its ideas are really big, yet its seriousness is much more convincing. In his final role, Edward G. Robinson plays the gentle, luminous man he was in real life, rather than the dozens of cold gangsters he acted so well, while Charlton Heston sweats extensively.

Pretentiousness Score: 3/5 


Logan’s Run (1976) 

Hijinks ensue when the human race, confined to domes after a vague catastrophe, restricts its lifespan to 30 years, on penalty of messy death. Michael York is tasked to leave the domes and root out a group of disobedient citizens. A scantily clad Jenny Agutter is involved, as is a T.S. Eliot-quoting Peter Ustinov and a for-no-reason Farrah Fawcett. This film can fill up a bingo card pretty well: it has lasers, teleportation, a shopping mall as a primary filming location, an all-powerful computer, and nonexistent underclasses. 

Disclosure: I love this movie. Illogically, unapologetically do I love it. I love the idea of a society constructed around color-coded stages of aging, I love the campy Carrousel ritual, I love the dumb synthesizer music and the calm female computer voice and the bizarre shiny robot bellowing “Fish! Plankton! Sea greens! Proteins from the sea!” But I recognize that Logan’s Run belongs on this list, as a movie with philosophical pretensions and lame plastic models. Would we have a better society if people never got old? I really don’t know. Better by whose standards? And does that matter more or less than the cool outfits and pretty girls? It’s hard to tell, because the ideas remain a lower priority than the flashy production design.

Pretentiousness Score: 2/5 


Zardoz (1974) 

Hijinks ensue when toxic masculinity spins out of control in a future that’s half Planet of the Apes and half David Lynch. This film is so weird, and so complicated in its premise, that I don’t even want to summarize it—I just want to urge you to see it for yourself, although I send you toward it with all possible trigger warnings. Sean Connery wears a red diaper, suspenders, and a long braid, and that is not the strangest thing there is to see in the first five minutes. 

Some people hate this movie, or think it’s great, terrible fun (on the order of Showgirls), but I do not. I know no other movie like it, and I find it a fascinating product of a time when filmmakers had exceptional freedom and plenty of drugs. Besides, unlike the other four movies on this list, Zardoz rewards investment in its ideas. It’s strange, but it carries off its strangeness, if you can take it as seriously as it takes itself.

Pretentiousness Score: Jacques Derrida 

Pretentious 70s sci-fi films belong to a time when it was possible to see in the same glance good taste and terrible aesthetics, a decade during which a morally bankrupt president established the Environmental Protection Agency. Similarly, all of these movies boast committed actors and competent, even excellent directing in service of self-righteous ideas and outlandish storylines. In their contradictions, few of them have aged well, but then, few films become more interesting outside their original contexts, whether political or artistic. 

The renaissance in American cinema during the 1970s helps these films to transcend pulp. Sort of. But having a better sense of humor about them than the films have about themselves makes them doubly worthwhile: fun, and thoughtful, in the same glance.