Of trees and men

Published in the dossier of December 2019

In Ethiopia more than elsewhere, people and trees are closely linked. Ramparts against desertification, places to meet and trade, a construction raw material, etc., trees are one of the pillars of the time-honored lifestyles of the different ethnic groups photographed by Juan Manuel Castro Prieto. These traditions are being shaken up by the modern world.
Today, Ethiopia is concerned about its trees: a major tree planting campaign is underway, which reached its height on July 29, 2019 with almost 350,000 trees planted in a single day according to government figures. The aim is to achieve an additional four billion trees by the end of October. The effectiveness of this kind of campaign remains to be seen: during previous reforestation efforts, most of the trees planted died due to lack of maintenance. Whereas half a century ago, Ethiopia had 40% forest coverage, it currently stands at only 15%.


Juan Manuel Castro Prieto began taking photos in 1977. He is self-taught, studying the work of the masters at length in books and exhibitions. He takes photographs in complete freedom, preferring to work on the themes of his choice, which he then proposes to magazines. His only condition before accepting a commission is to have carte blanche to shoot the given theme as he pleases. Because he likes to devote himself to long-term projects, he is constantly working on several projects at once. Some take him ten, twenty, even forty years…

Analog photography to capture Ethiopian light

Juan Manuel Castro Prieto

wasn’t initially interested in trees but people, as he was fascinated by traditional ways of life. However, trees naturally caught his attention. First of all, for environmental reasons, because deforestation is one of his major concerns. But also for artistic reasons.

“Their shapes create a singular personality,” he observes.

Ethiopia is not new to the photographer. He has traveled there many times and this report falls in line with a much larger body of work on the country, shot between 2005 and 2017: “People’s on-going relationship with their environment — trees in this case — is essential to me and a source of inspiration.” While it was virtually impossible to talk to the people photographed due to the language barrier, a strong, empathic relationship was nonetheless created through glances, smiles, and short phrases.

“What surprised me most,” he highlights, “is that beyond customs and lifestyles, the fundamental ‘core’ of indigenous people is just the same as ours. There are no major intrinsic differences.”

Juan Manuel Castro Prieto also has a somewhat “traditional” side: he only works with silver film, using a large-size classic camera
(20 x 25 cm) when he has the time.

“Color photographic film lets you obtain much more beautiful shades,” he explains, “especially with this specific camera, which offers an extraordinary range of colors.”

He then scans the negative to give it the final shade.The results are striking: incredibly beautiful photos that bear witness to a way of life that is slower, more peaceful, and more communal than ours. As well as its fragility.