Imaging aid programmes across Ethiopia’s Tigray region with CRS

Visualising aid programmes across Ethiopia’s Tigray province for multinational humanitarian NGO, CRS. Back in 2019 I was lucky enough to help CRS and their communications team as they visited CRS-driven community support programmes across Tigray, Ethiopia’s northern-most province. After a short bumpy but flight from Addis to Mekele, and with gear stashed in various car boots, roof-racks, and foot wells, we travelled the hundred or so kilometres to Adigrat, the last town before Eritrea.

Dawn over Adigrat

The following day we took to the off-road for a couple of hours to reach remote villages and homesteads, often having to backtrack to find alternative routes that weren’t blocked by floods or landslides. From these highlands we could see the borderlands with Eritrea to the north and over to the far east could just make out the volcanic landscape of the Danakil depression. Laying between us stood high rocky plateaus towering over fantastically dense valleys, green vegetation now in full bloom from heavy but sparse annual rains.

En route to Adigrat, a Tigrayan woman sorts through her produce for sale in a local market.

A Tigrayan woman sorts through produce for sale in a local market.

I’m not exaggerating when I say these places are hard to get to, where a four or five-hour drive followed by a three-hour trek down the side of a mountain with no path was not unusual and often required to reach just one homestead. Support programmes regularly see CRS construct water pipeline 5km from natural springs at mountain peaks down to the ultra-remote homesteads hidden amongst valley creases. Not only serious feats of engineering but a true testament to the devotion and dedication CRS embody as a humanitarian organisation. The results spoke for themselves as I emerged from a dense forest of fruiting cactus trees to a terraced mountainside covered in newly grown crops irrigated by CRS’ handywork.

CRS pipeline carrying essential fresh water to the lower reaches of remote Tigrayan valleys

CRS have been maintaining a vast network of support programmes across this region since the 1960s alongside many other county-wide programmes. They focus on women’s empowerment, health and nutrition, crisis planning and management, livestock husbandry, agricultural methodologies, business start-up support, the economics of livestock rearing and terraced farming, community infrastructure management… the list goes on and is expansive as it is inclusive. Frankly it needs to be – many communities in remote areas of Ethiopia are often neglected, existing so far off the beaten path that without support from iNGOs like CRS their future would be bleak at best.

A Tigrayan farmer secures a harness to his donkey.

A Tigrayan farmer secures a harness to his donkey.

The content we would collect during the expedition would allow us to help build a photographic archive of the programmes and to help guide CRS in the recording, validation, and post-production of participant interviews. From an equipment perspective I opted to use Shimoda’s outstanding Action X50 camera backpack, offering a super comfortable fit for long treks with ample room for a couple camera bodies, 5 lenses, portable lighting, and audio recording gear. Packing required a lot of careful planning (what bag doesn’t?) as I couldn’t afford to carry anything by hand – sheer cliffs and thin air with heavy gear require free arms to fling about to keep your balance!

All images were shot on location with Nikon bodies and a combination of Nikkor and Sigma Art/Sport lenses (Nikon D850 / Nikon Z6 / Nikon 910 Speedlites / Godox 910 battery pack / Sigma Sport 70 – 200 2.8 / Sigma Art 35 1.4 / Nikkor 14 – 24 2.8). It was a good opportunity to the Z6 through its paces and I was pleasantly surprised. Fair to say the start-up lag was too long for professional use so I kept the metering and AF active all the time meaning batteries needed changing a lot. The AF was great in good to decent light but not up to the standard of the D850 with the Z6 taking too much time to acquire focus in semi-difficult conditions. The controls were a bit fiddly for location-based shoots in extreme weather conditions, but the weather sealing was excellent and tested very much to its limits during the rainy-season downpours. It did amazingly well though for its cost and size and for all its quirks performed admirably indoors where manual, compact, and silent shooting was essential. I still smile like a child at the reality of silent shooting and cannot wait to see where mirrorless will take us next. The flip screen was a game changer, as it was on the D850. I combined the Nikon 910 Speedlites with Lastolite’s excellent Ezyboxes for super portable and localised light softening. Charging equipment is always a challenge in the outer reaches and with power cuts a regular occurrence I opted to take along four 26800mAh QC/PD lithium-ion battery packs from Charmast to keep my Surface and camera batteries topped up. All interviews were recorded on a Zoom 6 portable field recorder using both onboard XY mics and standalone wired shotguns/lapel combo. I just don’t trust wireless out here… yet. All channels were cleaned, normalised, and merged in post and bounced at 48k to WAV. I always take great care to ensure the noise floor remains as low as is possible on location, meaning the recordings are both great for archiving and, along with the independent channels, offers the ability to extract content for varying needs.

See below for a small selection of the images CRS picked for use in their global media outreach projects. All photography samples are copyright of CRS. All rights reserved, no unauthorised use without prior consent.

I hope to hang out with CRS again in the future, perhaps to visit more of their support programmes and to continue imaging and recording for archive, print, and digital media. You can see more of the invaluable work undertaken by CRS in Ethiopia over on their website.