For Doug and Marcus Raboy, the Secret to Advertising Lay in Ethiopia.
By Doug Raboy
So what are two Jewish boys from New York doing in a country like Ethiopia? Our journey began a few years ago when I was working at DDB as a copywriter. I had met my future wife, Yadwa, who was born in Ethiopia and spent the first part of her life there. We decided to get married in 1999 and planned on having two weddings, one in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, and one in New York. But what I saw in Africa changed my life forever.
Besides the obvious excitement that comes from getting married, my brother Marcus, who is a filmmaker, and I saw the wedding in Addis as an opportunity to take some unforgettable pictures. Photography has always been a passion of ours and a creative outgrowth of our work. We knew that we would be seeing and experiencing things that few people back home had ever seen before. And we knew that we would have to document all of it to share those experiences.
It was our first time in Ethiopia, so we didn't know what to expect. But from the moment we stepped off the plane, we began thinking of what kind of photos we would want to take. From the churches carved into the rocks of Lalibela to the shanty towns lined up across the street from the Emperor's Palace in Addis, we knew that we could shoot images that were both beautiful and haunting. The trip was a success on all fronts, we all had a blast at the wedding, my wife and I received 14 wonderful goats as a wedding gift and the whole wedding party got the chance to travel and explore this incredible country.
But from almost the moment we got back to the U.S., Marcus and I started planning our next trip to Ethiopia and conceptualizing the kind of pictures we would take. On the first trip we captured pictures from a tourist's eye; on our next trip, we knew we could capture Ethiopia through an Ethiopian's eye. We had developed close bonds with our new family that gave us a completely new perspective. Now we were hungry to explore what everyday life was like there. We had many questions in our minds, like what aspects of pop-culture had reached Addis, Hip-hop, Reality TV, The Internet, What did people do for fun over there?
Last year, we decided to finally make that trip happen. And that's when the creative process really began. Ideas began flowing and a shot list slowly emerged. We started getting excited about what would work, what was interesting, what was realistic in our time frame. We talked about photographers who inspired us, we thought about what we experienced the first time in Ethiopia and we came up with our best game plan for a six-day family vacation halfway across the world.
Our concept was to go all over Addis Ababa and make friends using a camera. In our minds, the best way to do this was to shoot Polaroids. That way, we could get an instant reaction to the shots we took. What's more, we wanted to capture the incredible spirit of the Ethiopian people in their natural surroundings. Sometimes, we would wait patiently and let people come up to us. Often, we would set the camera up with a trigger chord and let people snap their own picture.
Every day, when we first set up the camera, the Ethiopians would look very cautiously at us. Some had never seen a Polaroid picture before, so they were curious as to what we were doing. But once one person took their own picture and then found out they could keep it, they were literally lining up to snap a shot. Some just wanted a memory, while others saw this as a way to get a passport photo they otherwise couldn't afford.
A perfect example of what would happen took place one afternoon in the middle of town near the national soccer stadium. The stadium itself is run-down and had become a gathering place for bikers. We came across an area that was so packed that it seemed like everyone who had a motorcycle in Ethiopia hung out there.
We spotted a biker who we thought would make a compelling subject. When we approached him and asked to take his picture, he simply looked at us, then hit the throttle and drove off and left us in his dust. Undeterred, we found a whole bunch of other bikers who were thrilled to have their pictures taken. But just as we were wrapping up, who comes back? The first biker begging us to take his picture. After making him sweat a little, we did finally take his picture and it turned out to be one of our favorite images.
Many of the people who have seen our pictures have said there's an incredible honesty to them and that they show a true understanding of the people, lives and culture we were trying to capture. Since I've been back in the U.S., I've tried to bring this spirit and attitude to the advertising I create. The best advertising makes friends, just like we did with our camera, and it's simple. It shows an understanding of the audience and it has a clear, honest message. And hopefully, you won't have to go all the way to Ethiopia to find that out.