A filmmaker and photographer based out of Ethiopia, Joshua Smith regularly works on assignments for NGOs and international publications while pursuing long-term projects in the Somali region. He is currently working on a feature-length documentary on modern Somali poetry and is the Multimedia Director of Ayaana Publishing Plc., an Ethiopian-based social enterprise focused on breaking the illiteracy cycle in the Horn of Africa through the publication and support of relevant and affordable literature in the major Ethiopian languages.
GPP: What led to your passion for visual storytelling?
JS: I started with visual art at a young age; it was always my passion. At university I went from studying painting to sculpture and ended up with photography. There I became disillusioned with the fine art world. It felt like fine art was mainly consumed by the wealthy elite but had little impact on everyday people, and for that reason, I was really attracted to photography and film. Both of these mediums are consumed by every level of western society.
GPP: Where did the impetus to tell underrepresented stories come from?
JS: I lived in a low income, refugee community from 2006 - 2011 and was struck by how underrepresented they were (and still are) and how many stereotypes existed about them. The area I lived in was considered a high crime area known for prostitution and a high homicide rate. But I didn't find the people matched the identity the city gave them. They were lovely - working hard to see their kids have a better life. They were kind, generous, and accepting of outsiders. I often wondered why everyone else saw them so differently. I soon realized it was because their story wasn't being shared.
GPP: How did that impact your trajectory as a storyteller?
JS: I joined a guild of photographers called Visual Peacemakers in 2011 that some friends co-founded while living in Turkey. While the news media is well-intentioned in covering wars, famines, and religious extremism around the world, it often shares these events in a way that makes them the only stories we hear about a people or a country, which creates damaging stereotypes. Our goal was to create a global network of visual storytellers devoted to breaking down stereotypes by providing a visual witness to the beauty and dignity of cultures around the world. Funding for these kinds of stories continues to be the biggest challenge. Instagram and other social networks have been able to accomplish quite a bit of what we hoped to: connecting photographers and sharing stories - the #everydayafrica movement, for example, is really exciting.
GPP: So how did you end up in the Horn of Africa, and why did you stay?
JS: I volunteered for an NGO in Kenya when I finished college. The rich history and cultural diversity of this region is truly incredible. After joining Visual Peacemakers, my wife and I decided to move to the Horn of Africa to focus on these kinds of stories. I received a small grant to work on a visual peacemaking project (Modern Nomads) in the region, and I felt we could do better work and best understand the context by living there. Now we keep finding more reasons to stay than to leave! We ended up starting a multimedia publishing company that provides jobs and creates quality products while challenging the “single story” problem in this region. This continues to be more exciting and purposeful than working back in the US.
JS: Modern Nomads is a collaborative publication featuring Somali and non-Somali writers and photographers who contribute to the ongoing story of the Somali people played out around the globe. The project came out of the visual peacemaking concept. As we met members of the Somali diaspora in the west and spoke with non-Somalis, we found that terrorism and piracy were the two most common narratives people had for the Horn of Africa. I wanted to provide both audiences with another side of the story.
GPP: What did the process of creating Modern Nomads look like for you in terms of collaborating with other visual storytellers?
JS: It can be hard for me to transform a vision into reality, so collaboration is crucial for me. Modern Nomads began with me and my wife Melissa, and the project really began to take shape after Phillip Schütz came on board - he’s trained in design and publication. We knew that the project would be incomplete without Somali contributors, and we felt it was important that they represent the cultural, religious, and socioeconomic diversity of the region. Social media has allowed us to connect with Somali artists throughout the world, and they have been essential to the depth of the publication. Our content editor, Abdi Latif, has also been amazing at helping us source new contributors and understand how young Somalis will connect with content.
GPP: Is Modern Nomads for the Somali people, or is it designed to bring awareness to the international community?
JS: We hope it will speak to both audiences. It started out as the latter, but after sharing our work with many Somali people (educated, uneducated, living abroad, living locally), we realized the journal communicated something to them as well. For the Somali diaspora, the traditional stories and work of young artists from the region connect them to their heritage, which they often feel separated from in the West.
GPP: What project are you most excited to work on next?
JS: We are hoping to have finished Modern Nomads Journal 2 by December, and I’m excited to dive into my ongoing poetry documentary, Nabad iyo caano. I have begun filming, and I'm excited to explore the story more deeply.
Learn more about Josh’s work here.
Learn more about Modern Nomads here.