The beginnings of photography in Ethiopia

History tells us that Emperor Menilik II was fascinated by modernity. He was eager and very ambitious to introduce and bring about western technological and administrative advances in Ethiopia. During his reign, Russian support for Ethiopia led to the advent of a Russian Red Cross mission and he also introduced modern banking to Ethiopia through the Bank of Abyssinia.
He went on to bring about a modern postal service system, signed the agreement and initiated the work that established the Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway with the French, introduced electricity to Addis Ababa, as well as the telephone, telegraph, the motor car and modern plumbing. He also attempted, albeit unsuccessfully, to introduce coinage. Later in his reign, Menilik went on to establish the first Cabinet of Ministers to help in the administration of the Empire, appointing trusted and widely respected nobles and retainers to the first Ministries. These ministers would remain in place long after his death, serving in their posts through the brief reign of Lij Iyasu and well into the reign of Empress Zawditu.
Another modern technology that was introduced during the Emperor’s rule was photography.  Menilik II was the first Ethiopian leader to use photography in a methodical way.
A book titled “The King of kings and Photography” was presented at a conference, organized by Alliance éthio-française, in collaboration with the French Center of Ethiopian Studies. The book is about the history of creating photographs within the court, their uses, and their political stakes. The document brings a new perspective to the history of Ethiopian royalty at the beginning of the 20th century and its relations with the outside world. The book also explores the politics of images and royal power in Ethiopia under the reign of Menilik II.
The author, Estelle Sohier, received her PhD in History from the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne and the University of Naples in 2007. She is now a lecturer at the Department of Geography at the University of Geneva.
The conference was held on Tuesday May 14th at the Alliance éthio-française.