Philadelphia Printworks: Sosena Solomon Speaks on Documenting Subcultures, Story Telling and Cultura
Interview By Lissa Alicia
When I stepped into the loft apartment, that is located on the edge of Center City, I immediately felt a wave of peacefulness run through my body. Maybe it was because of the natural light that washed over the many plants and tiny trees that decorate Sosena’s apartment. Maybe it was a combination between the aforementioned and all the textures and colors that created so much “drama” in the room. “Drama”, not just a word, but a way of life that I soon realized was fundamental in Sosena’s very existence. Not the kind of drama that you find on a VH1 reality TV show, but the kind that an individual creates to invoke beauty in their surroundings. Sosena made sure that there was drama in the presentation of herbal tea and yellow watermelon that she prepared for the interview. When filming “Merkato”, a documentary about the biggest open air market in Africa, Sosena made sure to capture the drama in the lives of the merchants as well as the bright colors and soundscapes of the market.
Can you tell me a little bit about your background?
I was born in Nairobi, Kenya and I came here when I was seven. My parents are Ethiopian, so I was raised in a traditional Ethiopian household in the suburbs of Maryland, but I identify as Ethiopian/Kenyan/Black/ based on my experiences growing up in these different places.
What are some of the customs and traditions that are associated with a traditional Ethiopian household?
There are certain custom rituals and traditions from my childhood that have shaped the way I live my life today. Our coffee ceremony is an important one. The first thing that my mom does every morning is roast coffee, light dramatic incense, and bless all the children. I find myself doing this every morning before I begin working on my projects. My family was also very conservative in certain ways, very focused on education. It was the reason we moved here.
Being that you came from a household that emphasized the importance of fundamental education, how did your family feel about you deciding to pursue film as a career?
In high school my father asked me what I wanted to study in college. My first response was film. He responded by asking me “what else?” So I I opted for journalism as something that still has to do with documenting stories and images, but still commercial in a sense. So he was ok with it. I kind of cheated my way through. All of my professors were filmmakers at Temple, and even though I was studying traditional broadcasting and TV production all of our assignments involved shooting films. So I had a hands-on film experience by default and I feel like that was the universe putting documentary filmmaking into my lap. That is how I got to do my first documentary on sneaker culture. The experience opened up doors for me. I think that I had to do it to convince them and myself that this is a path that is worth taking and pursuing. I then decided to go to to SVA’s MFA Social Documentary Program; I’ve always craved the film environment. I’ve never had the proper film training and I wanted to be around other filmmakers to get proper critiques. I think after seeing my work my parents were convinced. I kind of won that battle.
When I first stepped into your apartment, I saw your collection of shoes and I only saw one pair of sneakers and I wondered “How did she end up making a documentary on sneaker culture?”
I love subcultures. I love going into intimate spaces and languages and learning why people love to live a certain way. Sneaker culture is a big thing in Philadelphia actually. There are some huge sneaker heads. I find it fascinating that it has become more than just an accessory to people--it is a lifestyle. Just like Hip-Hop itself, there are many intricate layers, and I wanted to know more. It was really fun exploring where this passion came from. In turn it opened up a passion within me to tell stories around different subcultures and communities.
When did you first fall in love with filmmaking?
In high school I was busy taking all of these science classes - I was all up in the bio department. It felt like I was sleepwalking through school, and it just didn’t feel right. One morning my teacher told me to go down to one of the main offices to deliver a note. Our morning announcements were filmed in this studio. It was way back in some hidden hallway; somewhere I’ve never been before. I walked in and for the first time I saw a real production crew. “What is this?” I’ve never seen something behind the scenes before. It looked so empowering. I was so mesmerized by this idea. They were capturing something and holding it still. They had the power of how it would look. I went crazy. You watch TV but you don't often see what it takes to create these images. I am just so fascinated by the power of that and what it can do as a platform. That’s what opened the idea of documentaries and image making.
What was the first thing that your created with a camera.
I didn’t have access to cameras as a young child. I wasn’t one of those filmmakers that got to play with cameras at a young age. The first thing I filmed was in college - it was a piece called Elevator Rush about a guy who runs a hotel elevator and all the different people that come in and out of the elevator. It was a dark comedy, not a documentary, and it was all improvised. It was my first time playing with the camera; getting to look at it, to hold it, to understand it.
Where do you find inspiration?
I am fascinated with stories and personal storytelling. When I hear someone tell their story it inspires me. Everyday emotions like how we feel when we are hurt, when we are in love. All of those feelings I try to embody in my work because that is our universal language. What inspires me is what influences people. I love the process of uncovering what drives someone, and I think that these forces are unique for everyone. No matter if I am doing a film on sneaker culture or a an open air market in Ethiopia, I always want to know the people behind it and what drives them to live. I would say everyday people inspire me. Personal story narratives are really important to me because I think that it draws a connection with the viewer, it allows you to identify yourself in someone else’s story. Emotion comes from that. I really advocate for visual storytelling. People often underestimate the power of visuals, but for me, every frame has to be a photograph. Visual composition is an important layer of storytelling that holds a lot of power. How do I want to tell this story visually? Is it a black and white portrait? Is it something that is very blue? Color therapy is something that inspires me as well and inspires my choices.
What did you learn about Merkato while filming the documentary?
I feel like people there see their job as what they do and who they are--they are empowered by it. I learned a lot about the vendors and their interesting work ethic. It was very inspiring to see how people create a life around their work and simultaneously preserve their culture. At lunchtime you break and eat with everyone. You eat the cultural food with everyone and you share – it’s a very collective community.
I also learned a lot about myself as a filmmaker. It was a really hard project because Ethiopians can be conservative in certain ways. When they see cameras they should act in a certain way. Yet that is not the type of filmmaker that I am. I don’t want you to just give me statistics. Breaking that wall with people is difficult but important because they become more open and personal in front of the camera. I think Ethiopians tend to be a little bit suspicious. “What are you going to do with my image? Why is my story important? Why do you want to do this? What are you going to do with it?”
Why do you think that is?
I think in the past, foreigners came in with their own agendas and produced stories that have been very demoralizing. I think people in Ethiopia are not used to empowering narratives - personal narratives. It’s rare. Ethiopians are very nice in nature, but I had to build a lot of trust to make the work.
In what ways has Merkato changed?
I visited Merkato for the first time when I was 20. That was nine years ago, I visited just after college. I love open-air markets, every place I go, every country, every city, I go to the market first. That is how I get to know the culture of any place. That is how I navigate. I just remember feeling like this is its own world. I fell in love with it. I fell in love with the chaos - all the people, all the haggling, all the sounds of it - so colorful and vibrant. But that’s when I also noticed that they were transitioning a little bit. Malls were being constructed right in the market.
It is the largest open-air market in Africa. I haven’t even seen the whole thing - it’s that big. It’s amazing that in every corner of every section, someone has come to sell their butter and make a living from that. It kind of like Wall Street, but it’s for the people. You can literally go with anything, some onions, and make some money. How empowering is that? Every year I go back there are less floor vendors. I decided to document this before it’s gone. This is my history and my culture and it’s a time capsule that I wanted to preserve and share with everyone. I think it will be gone one day. That inspired me. And when the opportunity came to make a thesis film - Merkato! Absolutely.
When did you begin filming?
I started filming Merkato at the end of 2009. It is not a theatrical film. I am more of a documentary film artist, so I think that my work really lives in installation form. I love creating a multi-sensory experience with the the narratives. How can I give someone an experience, a memory? I don’t want to just have a short film up on the screen. How can I create a dialogue that will really impact people? I am very selective about how people are going to receive the film, because it’s not something to just consume in a theater. The film inspires discussion and interaction, so I want people to view it in an environment that facilitates that engagement. With the grant money and support from the Leeway Foundation I was able to create an installation of Merkato in Philadelphia.
The installation will also travel going to Brooklyn and LA – and hopefully DC. The installation itself is built like the market. Walking in, you see all the different vendors, you see the jumpsuits everywhere. You are in the market. I also brought in goods from some of the characters in the film and set up their sections. I collected hundreds of plastic bottles, because in the film I work at the recycling section of the market. Audiences are interacting with the photography and the soundscape and then they watch the film. It’s kind of like three-dimensional art. The tour will kick-off this year, and then I will have the film available online.
When interviewing people, do you find that you get a more honest response out of the subject when there is not a camera in their face?
The point of the film is to put you in the experience of the market place. The format of interviews can force an audience to think a certain way when they see someone looking into the camera and talking. It is a different style of communication. For this film I wanted to place the audience in the market and let them find their way. The most thrilling kind of cinematography for me is cinema verite, meaning that you are a fly on the wall capturing something as it is. You let people be and cinematically capture them without telling them what to do - you are capturing life. In Merkato the stories of vendors are told over images of them doing different things and interacting in the market. The set up is invisible. I didn’t want you to know that we were stepping outside to talk. I didn’t want you to feel disconnected to the experience.
Who were you favorite characters in Merkato?
I narrowed it down to four. I filmed more individuals but I think they were the strongest characters. I could have kept going. I love them all for different reasons, but I will say Hawa is going to stay with me for the rest of my life. She doesn't know how old she is, but she is probably in her late 90’s. She shows up to the market everyday at 5AM and sells her incense. Hawa has seen the evolution of Merkato in transition. The voice of Merkato is embedded with hers. Her resilience, strength, humor - she is everything. She is also very witty, and in the film you see her outsmart a bargain. She inspires a lot of people. In the film, Hawa states that she is not one of those people that sits around and lets life happen. Her work is who she is and that is so inspiring to me. I also want my work to speak of who I am.
What makes you select a topic to film?
It’s just so intuitive—it’s a feeling. I feel drawn to a certain person or place. For instance my recent project, Mizan, is a portrait that I am shooting on a singer. She is an up and coming pop sensation. She is an independent artist but she is navigating the process of getting signed without letting herself get packaged into something else. Her life is about to dramatically change, but she is holding on to her truth. Mizan is very interesting to me, and I am trying to preserve the space of this transition. I was drawn to her music and what she stands for. There is a story there. I was drawn to her portrait and to capturing her in this very raw space.
I think that there is a story everywhere. For me, it’s all about that feeling of connection. It’s as simple as that. I like capturing something before it transitions or transforms into something else. That is the amazing power of photography and film--you are documenting and capturing something in the moment, that will never be again.
You mentioned in a previous interview that you feel naked without this ring that you have on, your shield ring.
Where did you get the ring and what is the story behind it?
It’s so funny. This ring is actually a choker necklace. I just fell in love with it. I didn’t wear a lot of jewelry as a kid, I didn’t have that much but I always felt like I want to protect myself with something. Jewelry is like my armor. So I went to this guy in Ethiopia and I asked him to give me a bigger handle and make this necklace into a ring. I feel like it is my shield and it really is; this is a symbol of the old shields from the Ethiopian/Italian War. It’s called a gasha. So if I don’t have it on I feel like I need to protect myself. I think it’s an energy thing. I’ve been wearing it for so many years and it makes me feel complete in a weird way. I can’t leave the house without it. It’s like piercings or tattoos - it becomes a part of who you are. You can take it off, but I would rather glue it on to my finger. I think we develop relationships with accessories in interesting ways that identify who we are. I feel lucky with it. It reminds me of where I come from. It is also passed on from my grandmother. it has her energy and ancestry in there.
What is your astrological sign and do you feel like you are true to your sign’s traits?
I am a super Pisces. I am dreamy, intuitive, creative and most importantly I just like to go with the flow. I think that is a very Pisces thing.
What was the greatest struggle you faces in Kenya? What was the greatest struggle that you faced once you moved to the states?
Kenya, honestly those were the golden years for me. I really can’t say that I experienced any struggles. I was really young, maybe thats what it is. I do remember vividly that my neighborhood was so colorful and international. We lived in a very international compound. I just remember playing with everyone. I loved that. We had a mango tree and would eat mangos all day. Kenya was bliss. I used to love going to the safaris. We did all that. It was so exotic. I thought giraffes and zebras and elephants lived everywhere. It was like I was living out of the jungle book. I wished we stayed sometimes, but then I don’t because I would have had a different path. It was really where I was really free. It wasn’t until I came here that I struggled with fitting in and being different. I had a crazy accent mixed with everything. It was Swahili, Amharic, and English all mixed together. I had to go to ESOL and I felt very isolated. When I moved here in middle school I felt very lonely. I wasn’t making friends as a kid. It was really isolating. But I think in those years I became more inclusive; I got to know myself a lot. I spent a lot of time by myself. It was a huge drastic change from Kenya.
What gets most of you attention besides filmmaking?
I spend a lot of time making coffee, doing my rituals, going to the market, buying food - I love cooking. Those things are meditative and they actually help me do what I do. Making a beautiful salad is inspiring. Instagraming. It sound crazy but I get so much joy from that. These things seem very day to day, people just do them, but I take so much pride in how I create, present and connect with people. I spend a lot of time watching videos on youtube, staying connected to the world. These things keep me inspired and in the present moment.
After watching your short film, Lost In A Dream, I was thoroughly impressed with it’s delicateness and elegance that seemed to triumph over the saddening subject matters of infant mortality and the loss of a loved one. Being that filmmaking is essentially an art, how do you manage to create such beautiful imagery and narrative with subject matter that can often be seen as ugly or painful?
Because its honest, I feel thats the key to making something that transcends any emotion. Its an honest authentic experience that drives the work to unfold the way that it is. It also drives me to do it. I think that was the first time that I ever documented anything personal to me. Doing that really really deepened my awareness around storytelling. Its almost like I had to put myself in that position to understand what its like. I think the key is making good work is to be honest. When you have an honest conversation about it the beauty is then inspired. When you have an honest response its so beautiful. Its like an opening. It goes hand in hand. I think I had to be really honest with myself about how I felt about it. Its something that my mom never talks about so it was something, when it came out, it was new to me to hear how she felt about it. It was a very opening experience. I am someone that sees beauty in everything. People see Merkato as a very dirty Market, like its not beautiful in terms of what it looks like physically. But it was so beautiful to me because it kind of has that honesty - its real. When you feel it you are able to capture it. Thats why things are beautiful, because things are so real.
In your Instagram bio you identify yourself as a Cultural Preservationist, what does that mean to you?
Being able to document something in a certain place or time and preserving it within any culture. Its like creating a time capsule of anything, anyone, any story. Cultural preservation for me is capturing this type of visual narrative. I am kind of honoring a culture in that way. Its forever - it lives forever because I am documenting it.
How would you describe your personal style?
Art is everything - its what you wear, its what you eat. For me, fashion is art. It represents how you feel. When I wake up I ask myself how do I feel and I want my outfit to reflect that. Its not so much about brands, it no so much about what's in or out. I always like to reflect how I feel through color and texture. Like a leather sleeve with a cotton hoodie...that is art . Clothes really represent a way for me to express myself. I don’t really pay attention to it, it comes naturally because its so much fun. I love painting with my clothes. How I live is not really for presentation, its for me. These things inspire me. How everything looks around me is just a reflection on how I see the things. As an artist your work is also apart of how you live your life. Its something you create.
The MERKATO installation tour kicks off with a viewing November 8-9th 4-7pm @ the Ethiopian Community Association 4400 Chestnut St. Please send inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org. Sosena's Reel can be viewed at https://vimeo.com/100716926.
Melissa "Lissa Alicia" Simpson is a freelance journalist, media & marketing specialist, event curator and amateur model. Her interests include binge watching Dr. Who, writing creative nonfiction and street art. Find out more about Lissa at lissalicia.com.