Meeting The The Emperors Photographer

I am looking at The Emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie surrounded by venomous soldiers. He is  about to enter a Volkswagen, the car commonly known at the time as a Herbie. 
There is no irony in this unceremonious and undignified escort through the capital city to prison and certain death.   The photograph is taken on a rollieflex camera by Shemelis Desta who up until moments before this shot was the court photographer, of the Emperor. He  is sat with me now, surrounded by his pictures at The Photographers Gallery in central London.  

It’s an emotional photograph. In the space of days the photographer  was forced to serve the dictator Mengistu.   To take a picture with a rollieflex one must bend down the head to peer into  into the  camera box. Take away the camera, in this picture,  and the posture  would be a dignified bow to  the Emperor himself.  I imagine a hidden tear hitting the black bacolite cover of the camera as he takes this picture.   For a man who venerated  and served The emperor as his personal and public photographer from 1962 to this day in 1974, this picture not only a perilous moment in Ethiopia’s and Africa’s history but the terror of the photographer. (cont…)



(l to r) Makonnen Wodajeneh, Shemelise Desta and myself

The picture is taken on the steps of Jubilee Palace as indicated in the comments below. The Emperor promoted education as key to enlightenement and modernity.  Little did he know that it would be the programme of development  that would give rise to Mengistu, the  man who would  end his life  and plunge Ethiopia into what became known as  The Red Terror. 

Mr Shemelis Desta was born in Addis Ababa and grew up in the twon of Jimma-Kaffa Province.   In the year of his birth 1937  The Emperor was exiled  in England due to The italian five year invasion.  When  a teenager a plane crash occurred near to his town.  He took a picture  with his first, quote, “cheap  camera”. After some research I surmise this to be  the flight of John Robinson known as The Brown Condor. I took this  from the following information In 1954, Robinson died as a result of burns and injuries he received in a crash while on a voluntary mercy flight to carry whole blood to a critically injured Ethiopian
in an outlying town.

Mr Desta  was merely eighteen years old at that time and  his uncle suggested he send the picture to a newspaper in Addis the capital where it was published. Desta’s relationship between camera lense, eye and the public was forged.  Desta was invited to work as photographer in The Ministry of Information and travelled to Addis, the capital.  In 1962 he became The Emperors court photographer up until his reign ended in 1974.  The Emperor was never seen in public again and died in August 1974.

Mengistu the dictator reigned with a rod of steel.  What became known as The red terror was a time of the murder squads who would enter homes and drag people never to be seen again. Bodies were strewn in the streets as warning to others.  The slightest rumour of descent was used as excuse for these dark actions and a climate of fear quickly descended on the country. The increasingly paranoid dictator raided Shemesta’s home three times. If the archive footage had been found Shemelis Desta faced certain death.  Sensing the increasing danger Desta hid seven thousand negatives in a plastic bag and sank them in the water system of his house where they remained for eight years. he fled into exile.  The photographs span the grandeur, pomp and ceremony of Royal protocol and the grandeur pomp and ceremony of the stalinist Mengistu.   In England Years later  after paying some individuals to return the negatives  to him Desta did not believe that he would actually see them again.

But here they are. Hundreds and hundreds of them.  But of all the grand ceremonious pictures Desta has taken between 1962 and 1982 of heads of state ranging from Tito to Castro,  his favourite photograph is  of The Emperor and his dog Lulu while his guest looks on.  “There are two men sat facing each other” Desta says  “and lulu – the chiwowha –  runs into the room. His majesty showers Lulu with love and affection and tickles her neck. The other gentleman is informally leaned forward in his seat, smiling awkwardly while the emperor is lost in affection.   It is a truly natural picture of The Emperor.  The gentleman in the other seat is Herbert Humphries the vice president of The United States of America.

The interview for the BBC World Service ends.  As I leave the I see the photograph of the
Emperor with the Shah of Kuwait. In the backfround is a boieng 747 emblazoned with the  Ethiopian Airlines logo. The pilots and air hostesses are stood in the doorway on royal protocol. Their faces  are barely visible behind The Emperor and the Shah . My father was a pilot for Ethiopian airlines and a co pilot on some of The Emperor’s flights.  “That could be my father I said to Desta.”. He nodded wistfully.

6 thoughts on “Meeting The The Emperors Photographer

  1. The columns and palace steps you mention are not in fact those at Addis Ababa University. Addis Ababa University (formerly Haile Selassie I University) is located at the former Guenete Leul Palace, which the Emperor handed over to the University back in 1961 to serve as it's main campus. The columns and the steps in the picture that shows the Emperor's removal from the throne are from the Jubilee Palace (now known as the National Palace) accross from Africa Hall. The Jubilee Palace was the Emperor's primary residence after he gave up the Guenete Leul Palace, and was the site where he was dethroned by the Derg.

  2. Many thanks for your corrections. I have received other corrections, Mr Desta hid seven hundred not eight hundred photographs, and I shall amend my blog so that it correlates with facts. Many thanks.
    Lemn Sissay

  3. Greetings, and much respect for this stimulating article. I came to it via a link that told of a forthcoming exhibition in London of these photographs. Are you able to confirm with us any details?

  4. Hi Hugo
    I am not sure which details you are wanting to confirm. However due to various inputs the article is now factually correct at the date of this comment.

  5. hi Lemn. thanks for your reply. i was actually just wanting to know about the exhibition (when/where) but thankfully i managed to get there. I was hoping to get an interview for the radio where I have been working (OX4fm oxford community radio) but that hasnt materialised yet.
    However, I do hope to yet get such an interview in time. And if possible, coincide it with another exhibition, perhaps in Oxford, or Bristol, or both. Having already spoken to Shemelis, do you feel he would be interested in putting on another such exhibition if we could arrange it?
    Also, I was intending to chase up contact through the photographer's gallery, but perhaps you still have contact details?
    respects once again.

  6. Hi Hugo
    |The photographers gallery is your best bet. They will be able to put you directly in touch with the exhibition people. You should also get in touch with Mark Seally of ABF, who will be able to help. They are based at Rivington Place in East London.

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