A decade ago, there were only a handful of skateboards in the whole of Ethiopia. Today, with the help of non-profit organisation Ethiopia Skate the scene is growing from strength to strength, creating a community and providing access to skate equipment for young Ethiopians. Daniel Reiter, who is a photographer based in Berlin and ambassador for Ethiopia Skate has been following the project for over a year, documenting the passionate youth learning to skate and sharing their talent with the world through exhibitions held in Berlin, Vienna and London. We spoke to Reiter to find out more about the scene in Ethiopia and his experience working with those that skate there.
How did you first get involved with Ethiopia Skate?
In January 2015 I had to travel to Ethiopia to document a friend meeting her mother for the first time after 33 years and support her emotionally. Ahead of the trip I was researching for a second story to document and came across their great website ethiopiaskate.org and immediately got in contact. Several emails later I was confident that these kids were for real and decided to get them as much skate gear and apparel as possible, which I brought with me and then tried to document the few skaters I met on two different occasions.
Was skating a personal interest before becoming involved with the project?
Back in 1987, I was ten years old, got my first rubbish warehouse skateboard and started rolling down all kinds of hills in my area. It took two more years until I got introduced to real skateboarding by one of my classmates at high school who had a little skate ramp in his garden. The following years I was skating like crazy on the streets of Berlin. During the last 20 years I’ve concentrated more on surfing and snowboarding, which are more forgiving to your bones, but my love for skateboarding never died.
Skateboarding is a subculture that exists all over the world, what’s different about the skateboarding community in Ethiopia?
Due to its missing skate-infrastructure, skate culture is still at the very beginning. There are no skate shops – you literally can’t buy skate gear in Ethiopia and only through donations of skate gear the community is growing. No local skate magazines exist and a skate park to spark the fire and give all interested kids a safe and challenging environment was only recently built. Now with the new skate park, our grassroots community will grow even faster and the culture will develop as a natural consequence.
What developments have you seen taking place since first stumbling upon the project?1. Obviously Ethiopia’s first skate park is the biggest achievement, but also the recent registration of Ethiopia Skate as an official non-profit organisation in the USA should be a big step that might help us to negotiate future projects with the Ethiopian government and to collaborate with other organisations.2. Individually most of the teenagers I photographed in 2015 improved their skate skills and not less important, their English capabilities too.3. Unfortunately, the growing attention our skaters get now also targets them for robberies while skating street spots like Sarbet Parking, so a lot of skateboards and mobile phones got stolen in 2016. I’m somehow happy that the skate park is located on the ground of a youth centre, which has security guards to protect the kids.
What is your most memorable experience from your time spent with Ethiopia Skate?
When I returned to Addis Ababa last March, 14 months after my first trip, the community welcomed me back with such joy and happiness. It was like being reunited with family.
Why did you decide to exhibit the series in Berlin and London?
I was so stoked about the images of the kids and how determined they were to expose their skill and style to a wider world, to fulfil their shared dream of becoming their country’s first pro skaters. So I decided to show it to a gallery in Berlin, where I’m based and that’s how it all started.
Vienna was the second city it was exhibited in presented by “Stil-Laden” a renowned skate shop that was among the first to collect skate gear donations and sent them to Ethiopia. The most recent exhibition in London was curated by Jacob-Robert Mensah who interviewed me for okayafrica.com back in October. He asked me if I would be interested to show it there, “Of course” I replied, “I would love to show it all over the world!” Next up is an exhibition about modern Ethiopia in a German Museum that will feature images out of my exhibition and in autumn my exhibition featuring new images from my second trip to Ethiopia returns to Berlin and will be displayed at Listros, a Gallery focusing on Ethiopian Art & Culture.
What are the next steps? Are you going to continue to document the skate community there?
Sure, when I was returning to Germany after my first trip I already knew that this would be a long-term project. Last March I spent 12 more days in Addis Abeba to continue and deepen my documentary about Ethiopia Skate.
Last summer Ethiopia Skate’s co-founder Sean Stromsoe visited my exhibition in Berlin and offered me the opportunity to become an ambassador in Germany alongside former pro skater Aurelio Macone. Ever since I’m doing my best to raise the awareness for Ethiopia Skate with my photography, whether it’s through having exhibitions, getting magazine features and via social media. Through all this, I raise a lot of donations for the community, mostly from European companies and skaters.
Photography Daniel Reiter