The Salt Miners of the Danakil

EmilyGraceGoodrich-Ethiopia

One of the things I’ve learned from shooting wedding photos is how to edit and compose on the fly. Unfortunate exit sign in the church? Duck down and hide it behind the bride’s head, or turn a little to the left. Chain link fence blocking the view of the forest behind the happy couple? A soft focus blurs it into the rich green leaves of the background, erasing the unsightly gridlines. This false idealism is the theme of the day, and for the most part, we all play along. Travel photography often purports to tell a raw story, but the truth is that editing lives there too, or at least in my experience. Even in the remote salt pans of Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression, there are realities to crop out.

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This spectacular part of the world is painted with wide white lakes of nothingness, ringed by hazy mountains. There, the salty brine pushes up from the earth and leaves behind a thick, deep crust of dirt-laden salt. As far back as anyone can remember, men with camels have walked 75 km-100km from the nearest large towns, Berahile and Mekele, to this strange barren desert. There, still more men work to cut uniform bricks of salt, which they sell to the traders with camels. These men stack and load them onto their animals, about 30 blocks each, and carry slowly away from the desert. In town, their value increases from 2 Ethiopian birr to nearly 15 birr per block. For both the traders and the miners, it is difficult but good work- a part of their culture and identity. Nearly all of Ethiopia’s salt comes from the lakes in that region.

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The desert is sweltering and dry and uncomfortable, legitimately one of the hottest places on earth. Even the workers live there only seasonally, in the cool winter months of November to March, when the morning temperatures hover around the mid-80’s. Standing in the wide open center of it, I couldn’t imagine anywhere more isolated. Yet we were part of a large tour group, a caravan of 9. A few other chains of vehicles ringed the worksite in the distance. We stood in a group, snapping photos and asking questions through our translator, ducking out of each other’s viewfinders and waiting for the moment when the other guy wasn’t standing in front of the camels. I’ve never really traveled in a tour group before, and when I realized how much I was editing, I stopped to consider the absurdity of the situation. Now and then, through the rest of the trip, I remembered to turn my camera and capture another sort of reality. The longs lines of clicking shutters as the camels walked off into the sunset, the Ethiopian pilgrims snapping photos with their smart phones to commemorate their long journey to Lalibela.

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There are virtually no places left on earth which remain untouched by technology and rapid change. In the Danakil, radio towers bring communications, and new roads mean accessibility for entrepreneurs and developers. In this case specifically, there are talks of opening a new salt factory that will process salt locally and make the camel traders obsolete. At the moment, travelers to the region must be accompanied by armed security guards, but if tensions with neighboring Eritrea ease, the new roads will bring more vehicles, tourists, and entrepreneurs to the region. The camel traders worry that their days are numbered. Does tourism increase the chances for their vocation to survive, or diminish them? Would new factories improve their income and opportunities or leave them destitute? I’m not really certain.

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Reality in the Danakil, then, is not a land or a people untouched by time, as the salt pans may appear at first glance, as our images pretend to capture. The truth is that it exists in the space between two worlds, or really one changing world, and waits uneasily to see what tomorrow will bring.