Raising awareness through art: Aïda Muluneh's WaterAid project

A woman in a red dress and holding a blue umbrella walks through shallow water dragging a chain of jerry cans behind her.
Ethiopian photographer Aïda Muluneh was commissioned to create a body of work highlighting water scarcity. This shot, The Shackles of Limitations, represents the cruel irony that Ethiopia has vast underground water reserves yet limited access to clean drinking water because of a lack of irrigation. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM) at 102mm, 1/125 sec, f/14 and ISO100. © Aïda Muluneh

In 2018, WaterAid and the H&M Foundation commissioned Ethiopian photographer and artist Aïda Muluneh to create a body of work on the topic of water scarcity and the impact it has on women in Africa. Aïda is also a photojournalist, but for this project the Canon Ambassador designed fictional scenes in an attempt to engage new audiences.

"I think WaterAid was interested because I'm an exhibiting artist, able to take this work to different places," she says. "I didn't want to do it in a photojournalist style because I figured the general population has become numb to those kinds of images."

Featuring theatrical staging, body paint and billowing bright blue and red dresses, the images are groundbreaking in the way they communicate this environmental issue while avoiding the clichés we often see in the way Africa is represented by aid organisations and the mainstream media.

A woman sits on a black-and-white striped carpet with a red sheet billowing around her shoulders. The moon is partially visible in the sky behind her.
This was the last shot Aïda took for the project: Star Shine, Moon Glow. "It's about how something that's part of our natural process as women has become a hindrance to our self-determination," she says. "The moon refers to the menstrual cycle, and the wings are red to symbolise life and blood. One wing and the moon were added in post-production." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 88mm, 1/125 sec, f/16 and ISO100. © Aïda Muluneh
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How did you decide to approach the WaterAid commission?

"I rarely do commissioned work and I'm selective about what I engage in, but WaterAid gave me complete artistic freedom, and it was a really positive experience. I asked them to provide me with information about the issues around water security, especially in Ethiopia. People in the Western world often don't realise how water impacts everything. I realised a lack of access to water affects women, not only with regard to health but also education. During menstruation, for example, girls often choose not to attend school because of the lack of proper facilities. I decided to use each image to address a different topic."
Two women in red dresses and wearing blue headscarves stand either side of a set of blue steps with a black-and-white striped structure on it.
The structure in Steps represents a toilet, with a raised red door to indicate lack of access. Aïda and her team brought half of the steps to the shoot and digitally replicated the rest in post-production. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 125mm, 1/125 sec, f/14 and ISO100. © Aïda Muluneh
A woman in a long blue dress stands on a rock with a chain of jerry cans behind her. Another woman in a red dress sits on the side of the rock.
This shot, Knowing the Way to Tomorrow, is a tribute to the women, particularly in rural areas, who bear the burden of water transportation for their whole families. "The woman on the left trails a chain of jerry cans, while the woman on the right carries an insera, a traditional clay pot for carrying water," explains Aïda. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 105mm, 1/125 sec, f/10 and ISO100. © Aïda Muluneh

What is the significance of the colours, costumes and props you've used?

"Viewers always notice the colour in my work, but there are many layers within it: the cultural references that Ethiopians recognise instantly might spark foreigners' imaginations in other ways. I started working with primary colours because I love their intensity, but I've since realised they are the colours of the Ethiopian Orthodox churches I grew up around – so that's a subconscious influence.

"The yellow jerry can, which features throughout, is a symbol of water transportation across Africa. You can be driving in the middle of nowhere and you will see women – never men – carrying yellow jerry cans back and forth. Body painting is also an integral part of my artwork. I'm fascinated by the way it appears in cultures around the world that have no historical connections. In terms of costume, I'm inspired by the clothing styles you see in archival Ethiopian portraits from the '30s and '40s: perfect afros and flowing capes – the subjects look incredibly regal."

A woman in a blue dress sits on a red bench in the desert wearing a mask made from a jerry can. Another woman stands in the background.
This image, The Sorrows We Bear, is filled with symbolism relating to the impact of dirty water on health. "The red bed resembles the type of stretcher that would be used to treat and transport the sick in rural areas," explains Aïda. "The mask, constructed from a jerry can, evokes the illnesses caused by drinking unclean water." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 70mm, 1/125 sec, f/10 and ISO100. © Aïda Muluneh
Two women in blue dresses with flowing trains stand in a desert landscape.
In Distant Echos of Dreams, Aïda imagines the boredom that must come with travelling great distances carrying water and the dreams of a better future women have for themselves and their children. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 120mm, 1/125 sec, f/11 and ISO100. © Aïda Muluneh

What challenges did the location pose?

"I wanted to shoot in Ethiopia because we have amazing locations. I decided to go to the Afar region, where I'd shot a music video for Malian musician Fatoumata Diawara. My biggest concern was how my gear would cope: it's very hot, 45-48°C, so we had to be set up by 4.30am. The location is also quite remote, so we had to be well organised. The extreme sun and hot desert wind can be challenging, but visually it's a photographer's dream."

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Why did you choose the Canon EOS 5D Mark III and Mark IV?

"I shot the first collection for WaterAid in June 2018 with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III and have since been back to shoot more with its successor, the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV. On both occasions the camera held up well, with no glitches. I'm glad the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV now has the option to select a square [1:1] aspect ratio – on the first shoot we taped over the back of the screen to get the framing right.

"I tend to finish 90% of the work inside the camera – the only post-production I do is for creative effects, such as doubling the character in the frame, or cleaning up small issues with makeup. It's really important my camera accurately captures what I'm shooting, without distortion. The colour retention and balance on the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV is great. I've used other cameras in the past and none has produced the results that Canon does. It's also just a brilliant workhorse. It has a long battery life, the lenses are good, it's reliable, solid, and can handle whatever I throw at it. That's important when I'm travelling, not just for my artwork but for my photojournalism too."

A woman in a red dress and holding a blue umbrella stands in shallow water holding a white jug. Another woman crouches behind her, filling her water jug.
Burden of the Day is inspired by the ways in which women who meet at water wells chat, help each other out and form friendships. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 155mm, 1/125, f/14 and ISO100. © Aïda Muluneh

What are your key lens choice considerations on a shoot like this?

"I used a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens because of the quality of the glass and the results you get. Most of my work has no shadow, and I like to flatten the image as much as possible, and this lens makes everything appear crisp and clean. I normally shoot with available light; it wasn't until a few years ago that I finally got strobes, which is a testament to the quality of the lens. Also, as a photographer who prints a great deal, I appreciate the precision of colour that the lens captures. I want those very specific reds or blues I see to be replicated as accurately as possible when I'm exhibiting large-scale images."

How much of your creative process is planned and how much is spontaneous?

"I go into production like a filmmaker, with characters, costumes and a storyboard. But the magic of creativity cannot be calculated scientifically – it's like a spiritual manifestation. Sometimes I sketch out all the shots, go through the whole exercise and it doesn't work, so we have to change things on the spot. You can't plan the model's gaze; I'm searching for a special intensity in the way she looks at me. Everyone on set gets excited when we have that shot."

A woman wearing face paint and a red dress sits in front of a complex pattern of water pipes and disconnected taps.
In this image, Access, the pipes represent the urban water grid, and the tap symbols disconnection from it. "Some areas in Addis Ababa can go for weeks without access to clean water," says Aïda. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM lens at 70mm, 1/125 sec, f/14 and ISO100. © Aïda Muluneh

What do you hope viewers will take from this series, and from your work more broadly?

"I'm at a stage in my career where I want my work to have a bigger impact. I've realised art can be a form of advocacy. I find it interesting that people react differently to my work based on their own experiences. In Ethiopia, sometimes a barber or tour operator will lift one of my images from the internet to use in their shop window. We contact them and say that isn't ethical, but it's fascinating to me that they found beauty in my work and decided to use my image rather than a celebrity portrait.

"I'm happy my work is being seen by the wider public. I think art should communicate with everyone, regardless of class or geographical location. I'm not on a mission to save the world, I'm just here to make my contribution for my country and my continent. I've seen how one-sided journalistic depictions of Africa can be, without any regard for the complexities of history or what life is actually like here. I'm offering another perspective – and we need as many perspectives as possible."

Written by Rachel Segal Hamilton

Aïda Muluneh's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

Canon Ambassador Aïda Muluneh looks through the lens of a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV on a tripod.


Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

No matter what you're shooting, be assured of uncompromising image quality and a thoroughly professional performance. "The colour retention and balance are great, and It's also just a brilliant workhorse," says Aïda. "It has a long battery life, the lenses are good, it's reliable, solid, and can handle whatever I throw at it."



Canon Speedlite 430EX III-RT

Take a new approach to lighting with a Speedlite flash that's powerful, versatile and portable. Radio-frequency triggering makes off-camera flash easy to do, and opens up new ways to get creative with your photography. "I am a big fan of this little wonder," says Aïda. "It has great features and can be used in many creative ways outside of just mounting it on the camera."

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