Dawit N.M

How did your interest in visual art lead you to photography?

Looking back at it, it wasn't just my interest in visual arts that led me to photography; if anything, it was leading me somewhere away from photography. I'd credit my environment and the people around me for piquing my interest in it.

Photography was an accident for me. I was at Mace and Crown, Old Dominion University's student-run newspaper, when I picked up photography. Before working there, I didn't think much of it, only moving images. I reached out to the newspaper to help them with their video department, but the department was long gone due to budget cuts. However, their photo department was thriving. Zach Chavis, one of the most fly guys on campus, was the photo department leader and made photography look cool, and something that I could do.

For months, I'd take sunset and sunrise images all the time, trying to figure out the ISO, shutter, and aperture configurations. It's been a long time since I thought about those days, and I am so glad things didn't go "my way" back then.

Can you tell us about what it means to you that your images question narratives that are shaped by Western influences?

I was born in Ethiopia and moved to the States around the age of seven. After I moved out, I learned how the world saw Ethiopians and how America viewed me. It wasn't until I came to America that I realized that I was "black." Everything that I knew, learned, and believed in was challenged as soon as I went to the States. Years later, when I started to pursue visual art, a practice that came very naturally to me, a lot of my work inherently challenged the Western influences. I didn't initially start working in photo or film for that specific reason, but instead, I was making something that was instinctual, and that happens to clash with the Western way of doing things.

How do you think your Ethiopian heritage and early childhood in the country have influenced your work or the themes you approach over time?

The influence it has is evident throughout all of my work. Even my name 'Dawit' is such an Ethiopian name that even if I tried to steer away from my roots -- which I'll never do -- it wouldn’t be genuine, and the project would be a failure. Even if others looked at it as a success, I'd feel bad deep down for doing something that wasn't rooted in everything I am.

One significant influence on my entire career occurred in childhood, and has to do with not taking sight for granted. When I was living in Ethiopia, there was this tree that my mother warned me about and told me not to play on. Being the kid I was, I played on the tree, and soon after, I ended up getting an eye infection. That infection made it so that I couldn't physically open my eyelids every morning when I woke up. My mother had to take me to the bathroom and wash off the eye crust all over my eyes until I could see. That experience showed me the privilege I had, and from that moment on, I never took sight for granted.

Your images are very intimate, often focusing on details and interpersonal interactions. How is this an important part of your images?

A lot of the images I make are of close friends and family. These are the people that see me at my best and worst--and vice versa. That connection translates onto the images, as I'm comfortable with them to experiment and fail numerous times, and they're trusting in me to capture them in a light that portrays a part of them.

What has been the most challenging or daunting hurdle you've faced or overcome so far?

Many of the work-related challenges that I've faced don't seem to compare to personal life challenges I've met. This comparison reminds me that work isn't everything, and that there is a life outside of this. I think, if I overcome this hurdle in my personal experience, I can knock out this problem in my professional life.

Do you have any projects you've been looking forward to working on?

There are a couple of projects, both in film and photography, that I've been eager to work on. I'm still in the beginning stages of both of them, but in due time I'll finally be able to finish it and share it with my friends and family.

Has the pandemic and lockdown restrictions, especially being in New York, had an impact on how you do your work or what it is about currently?

It has impacted me in my daily routine, but creatively, I'm not sure. I need time to answer this question. It won't be for a couple of years to truly understand what this pandemic has done to us physically, mentally, and spiritually.

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