The Power of Portraits: Clay Cook's Look at Ethiopian Youth

The Power of Portraits: Clay Cook's Look at Ethiopian Youth

On one side, we have advertising photography, where everything is contrived and meant to look a certain way. It might as well be a painting with how planned out each step is. On the other, we have photojournalism. As the opposite, true photojournalism should never be staged, posed or "created." The idea is to capture what is and has happened. Unlike a painting, photography has the power to show real time exactly how it is with no artistic interpretation. What captivates me is when those two worlds collide to create art with purpose, and that is exactly what Clay Cook has done with his portraits of impoverished youth in Ethiopia. 

Clay’s series revolved around the foundation by the name of Youth Impact. This organization provides the children of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia with the basic needs for survival, like shelter and food. As you see through the images, the project exists to dignify and shed a positive light on the situation in Addis Ababa. Cook said: “the city isn’t the Africa that I had first been introduced to.” Cook did a project for the Waterboys Initiative in Tanzania last year. Noting the contrast between the two countries, he said: “Ethiopia is more developed, but more crippled.” The reason that this project has the impact that it has is because of Ethiopia’s current demographic. Almost 60% of Ethiopians are under the age of 18 due to the war and famine that have stricken the country. 

Let’s look at some of the images that Clay and his team created during their journey. 

Clay was kind enough to provide a few images of the gear used as well. He even gave us some details in regards to the process behind creating the portraits. It’s an interesting lighting setup, designed for ultimate mobility. A Profoto B2 head inside a 46” Photek Softlighter was suspended on the end of a monopod in order to offer an assistant the ability to be more precise with the location of the light. 

The background was a hand-painted canvas suspended on various pieces of scrap found near the Youth Impact building. With Manfrotto Super Clamps and a Manfrotto Crossbar, the backdrop was attached to the scrap in order to provide a simple, yet elegant portrait setup for the subjects. 

Clay's team also created a promotional short film highlighting the livelihood and culture of Addis Ababa’s youth and how Youth Impact has affected the children of the Ethiopia. Alongside the short is a behind the scenes video of the creation of the film and one of Clay’s First Person Shooter BTS shorts showing some of his photographic process.

Alongside the short is a behind the scenes video of the creation of the film and one of Clay’s First Person Shooter BTS shorts showing some of his photographic process.

With the portrait series specifically, Clay pointed his camera towards many of Addis Ababa’s youths that had benefited from the help provided by Youth Impact. From runaways to orphans, many of the subjects went on to become educators, students, and college graduates thanks to the guidance of Youth Impact. The stories that they each had varied, but the end goal was the same. The aid and guidance provided by Youth Impact helped to change the lives of these young adults and culture of Addis Ababa. Through this series, Cook was able to bring attention to an issue, what is being done to help, and what potentially can be done in the future. Photography has the power to provoke change like nothing else in the world, and Clay has made a perfect example of that. 

Spencer Lookabaugh's picture

Spencer Lookabaugh is a lifestyle and portrait photographer located in Columbus, Ohio, as well as an employee of Midwest Photo Exchange. He is a firm believer in printing, shooting film and digital, and the power of photography. He also shoots landscape work in his spare time.

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Quietly excellent. And I'm intrigued by the set-on-site

Me to! It's such a cool idea.

Thank you Martin!

Thank you so much Sean! It was a real honor to have the opportunity to tell the stories of these youth.

I really like this style of photography. I want to do something like this eventually.

You absolutely should, thank you Dave!

Hello, everyone. Can anybody tell me about the lighting Mr. Cook used? Am seeing what appear to be two brackets on top of the monopod, and am wondering if he's using speedlights inside the Softlighter. How can such an arrangement be put together? Thanks in advance.

He used a Profoto B2 system attached to the monopod! The monopod would need an adapter to take the 3/8th" screw to the 'standard' light stand stud that the B2 mounts to. I hope that helps!

Spencer nailed it!