30 Questions With Shemelis Desta

January 13, 2024
4 mins read

The Critically-Acclaimed Photographer On His Favourite City, Life and Love.
Tuesday, October 2, 2007.
Inteview By Shola Adenekan
From the flamboyant and often fearsome reign of Emperor Haile Selassie to the military-led socialist dictatorship of Menghistu in the 1970s and 1980s, court photographer Shemelis Desta was on hand to capture the events of twoturbulent decades in Ethiopia.
Born in 1937, Desta worked for the Ministry of Information until appointed by the Emperor in the 1960s and he continued in his role after the deposition and execution of Selassie. He photographed visiting dignitaries and also recorded many events that appealed to him on a personal and creative level.
Having hidden thousands of negatives, he was able to preserve his archive when he fled to Britain in 1982 and it now forms the basis of a new exhibition taking place onto November 11, 2007, at the Photographers’ Gallery in London.

What is your earliest childhood memory?
My childhood memory is the scent of the countryside; trees, cattle and freshly baked injera –Ethiopian bread etc. in Ethiopia
What makes you happy?
Feeling safe, secure and having a sense of freedom makes me happy
Who is your hero and why? 
My hero is my dad who taught me the difference between right and wrong
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
Ageing – I deplore it especially when I fail to do the things I used to easily do when I was younger
What is your most embarrasing moment?
My most embarrassing moment was when I fell over while taking a photograph on an important occasion in front of a large crowd.
What traits do you most deplore in other people?
I deplore people who pretend to be what they are not.
Where will you like to  live when your turn 65?
I wish to retire in Ethiopia
What is your favourite city and why?
Addis Ababa, new flower, is my favourite city. It is only about a hundred years old, but has a population with a huge cultural diversity that live in harmony. To me Addis Ababa is little Ethiopia and is symbolic of a prosperous and peaceful and united nation.
Who is your favourite musician and why?
Telahun Gessesse, who is an all-time great Ethiopian singer along with Bob Marley who enjoyed worldwide recognition as a talented singer/songwriter, are both musicians I adore and admire – talented artists with a mission of sending a wake up call to humanity.
Why photography?
I am an accidental photographer as I never planned to be one. Destiny is the word, and is the correct expression as I enjoy being a photographer immensely.
Who is your favourite politician?
Nelson Mandela is my favourite politician – he knew his limitations and ensured the transition of his power to his successors in a civilised manner. I also admire his endurance and tolerance.
What is the worst thing anyone has said to you?
Unpleasant and irrational remarks made by some people when they fail to differentiate between an artist and politician makes me unhappy and sometimes cross.
Where do you think Ethiopia and Africa will be in 50 years time?
I hope and believe that both Africa and Ethiopia will prosper and will be free from, poverty, disease and corruption in 50 years time.
What do you owe your parents?
I owe my parents the air I breathe and for being the person I am today.
To whom would you like to say sorry, and why?
I always say sorry and apologise for my wrong doings at the time. Therefore, I have no one to say sorry to at present
Who would you invite to your dream dinner party?
I wish to invite Bob Geldoff so that I can discuss my views on solving the problems of the reality of AIDS and famine in some areas of Ethiopia.
Aside from property, what’s the most expensive thing you’ve bought?
The most expensive item I have bought besides my property was my camera.
Arts or science?
I prefer science as scientific research enhanced the progress made in art including photography.
What is the biggest misconception people hold about you?
People thought that I have retired but I always feel young at heart and have many plans that I would like to achieve.
What or who is the greatest love of your life?
The greatest love of my life is my wife.
How often do you have sex?
Sex? I think it is a very private matter. However, I think I can say that as I have been married for donkey’s years, I have lost count.
Which words or  phrases do you overuse ?
“Please” and “sorry” are the words I use most.
What has been your greatest disappointment?
The greatest disappointment of my life was the moment I left my country against my will.
What is the closest you’ve come to death?
The one moment when I was very close to death was in 1952 when I was involved in a car accident.
What single thing will improve the quality of your life?
I am grateful to God for providing me with health and peace. However, a bit more money will not cause too much harm.
What is your biggest achievement to date?
My best achievement is bringing into this world lovely and successful children who are the joy and pride of my life.
What song would you like played at your funeral?
Due to my religion and cultural background no song is required during my burial service.
When did you last cry and why?
I cried only once in my life and it was when I saw dead bodies of murdered young Ethiopians during the “Red Terror”.
Given the choice, which actor would play you in the story of your life?
The ideal actor who can play my character is Samuel L. Jackson
What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
The most important lesson life has taught me is patience and tolerance.

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