"Your secrets come out in prints" – Aïda Muluneh on how the Africa Foto Fair empowers photographers

Why Aïda Muluneh's mission is to help build confidence through the power of photo printing and how she achieves this by exhibiting with the Africa Foto Fair.
The backs of two people as they stand looking at photographs displayed at the opening of the 2022 Africa Foto Fair.

In 2022, Aïda Muluneh launched the Africa Foto Fair as a platform to connect Africa to the world and the world to Africa through images. The project includes an online gallery, educational initiatives and physical gallery exhibits, including its launch event shown above. © Africa Foto Fair

Photography is about so much more than simply capturing images. Many would argue that it's only through printing and exhibiting works that you get to experience the art form at its purest. One such exponent of that view is photographer and Canon Ambassador Aïda Muluneh, who – among many other accolades and achievements – founded and runs the Africa Foto Fair (AFF).

Extolling the skill of photographers around the African continent and beyond, the AFF is the perfect showground for the benefits of printing and how it empowers every photographer involved. Through the online gallery, photography lovers can buy images and have them delivered straight to their home, giving photographers a chance to showcase their work. Here, Aïda shares what she looks for when she's curating the AFF, and photographers who have worked with her tell us about their experiences.

The inside of a gallery with photographs exhibited on the wall for the opening of the Africa Foto Fair 2022.

"The way I select work for the fair is to show a spectrum of photography," explains Aïda. "You'll have fashion stuff, fine art, portraiture. It becomes an educational tool to the larger community to see, this is what images look like from across Africa and across the world." © Africa Foto Fair


What Aïda most looks for from entrants is authenticity – something which anybody can bear in mind for other exhibition calls. "I need to be able to learn something from what you're presenting," she says.

In addition to submitting work to the AFF, there are portfolio reviews, too. "It's important that it's not just photographers, or just galleries or museum people," says Aïda. "I try to make sure reviewers are coming from different styles of image production and what we've realised is that if there's a photographer with a potential to be a fine art photographer sitting in front of a newspaper editor, it might not work out. So now we make it that they have several options to get different perspectives."

Taking part in a portfolio review is a great idea for any photographer, but at the Africa Foto Fair, photographers are also selected for awards, providing even more ways to imbue confidence. "This is a way for me to award photographers in Africa in a more organic way after three days of review – the reviewers have a discussion and decide that not only does the photographer know their work technically, but they also have this potential that needs to be encouraged and supported," explains Aïda.

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Monochrome photos by Eric Lesigne emerge from a Canon printer at the Africa Foto Fair.

"You can't have a beautiful image and the printing is horrible," says Aïda. "It's like wearing a designer suit with flip flops." She offers photographers the opportunity to print their work out on a high-quality pro Canon printer to help elevate their photographs through print. Eric Lesigne was one of the first clients at the fair to print his work, seen here emerging as stunning monochrome images, printed to the highest standard. © Africa Foto Fair

A pair of white-gloved hands rolls up a large photo print.

When it comes to the importance of printing, Aïda believes that "if you educate the market, you develop the market". By having a pro Canon printer available to photographers, they have the opportunity the print on the spot and immediately display and sell their work, learning as they go, first hand, the impact printing can have on their career. © Africa Foto Fair

Being present

Having work printed out – and not just seen on a screen – is something Aïda also believes is key to empowering photographers. "When we did the AFF last year, it was the first time I had my own machine to print the stuff out right there," she says. "When people saw the work displayed, it had this 3D effect where people wanted to touch it. There's a big difference being present. Because I have this printing facility, it gives photographers and the galleries more flexibility [as] they don't have to wait for a shipment to come in – they can do it directly and be able to sell into the market. I suspect this will be a sort of encouragement."

The real value of printing is something that is important educationally for photographers in Africa. "If you educate the market, you develop the market, those things go hand in hand," she continues. "I've been printing for so long, when I see prints coming out from other vendors not using my Canon machines, I just see so many flaws – not just colour, but things like a dirty head. The festival last year was a test run to see how this machine delivers, to understand its ink usage and all these things. It was an opportunity to show what we can do quality-wise."

Aïda uses three Canon printers – the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-4100, the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-1000 and the Canon imagePROGRAF PRO-300 – which she loves for their high-quality output. "You can put in cheap paper or expensive paper and the output is consistent," she says. "We printed a poster that's been outside for a year in the sun, the rain, the heat and the dust. The colour and everything is still intact, so I always show that to people if they want to see the worst conditioning of a print – imagine what it will be like under controlled, archival conditions."

A gallery room with photographs on display is filled with people talking to each other.

The Africa Foto Fair has proven a strong opportunity for networking and widening the community – offering new and more established photographers chance to meet others within the industry and learn from their experience. © Africa Foto Fair

A person sits atop a horse in front of a straw-like screen in a photograph taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV by Mekbib Tadesse.

"To have a continental festival on your track record definitely empowers the artist in terms of being recognised by your peers," says Mekbib Tadesse, who worked with Aïda at the Africa Foto Fair. "When an image is printed, the tendency is to stay there and be mesmerised by an artist's work." He exhibited a series of photographs entitled The Horsemen, which commemorate the role of horses and St. George in the guerilla warfare staged by the people of Awi (Sebat Bet Agew) and patriots against Italian invaders in the 1930s. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM lens at 1/200 sec, f/5.6 and ISO 100. © Mekbib Tadesse

Further education

Beyond the actual quality of the prints, there's more to learn too. "We teach photographers about edition numbering, valuation, certification and specific rules in selling prints," explains Aïda. "In that way, when they get connected to a gallery, they'll already understand how they need to function when they sell."

Aïda also believes that printing makes you a better photographer. "It gives you the ability to see where all the issues are," she says. "When you look at any photography school around the world, they will always teach printing as part of the course – because you need to know what you're outputting. What I tell a lot of photographers is that your secrets come out in prints. On the screen, you can look at the same image 10,000 times, but when you print it, you realise there is a glitch here or there. It really challenges their mindset and progresses them even further because there's a physical thing attached to it."

Three of the photographers that have worked with Aïda at the Africa Foto Fair are Mustafa Saeed, Mekbib Tadesse and Mulugeta Ayene. All have nothing but positive things to say about their involvement. "Being part of a well-established and renowned photography event has given me exposure to a broader audience – art enthusiasts, curators and other industry professionals," says Mustafa. "Being part of the community empowered me to take on new challenges and pursue photography with even greater dedication. The recognition and exposure from the festival gave me the confidence to explore my creativity further and embark on exciting projects."

It was a similar experience for Mekbib. "People see your work and they research further to see if you have other works if they're interested in the aesthetic that you have," he explains. "I've been getting demands for some of my other works. It's good to have your name out there."

The networking aspect is something that Mulugeta particularly enjoyed too. "I met with other African photographers, and among us were a lot of discussions and ideas on ways of developing the profession," he says.

 A woman leans up against a bus stop displaying photographer Aïda Muluneh's 2022 artwork This Is Where I Am as a car drives by.

Empowering photographers in Africa

Why Aïda Muluneh has made it her mission to change perceptions and embolden photographers.
A person sits in a chair, their back to camera, holding some literature aloft in a darkened room, in a photo taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III by Mustafa Saeed.

"Preparing for an exhibition like the Africa Foto Fair has pushed me to curate and present my work in a cohesive and impactful way," says Mustafa. "The process has enhanced my portfolio and presentation skills." This photograph is taken from a series called Cohesive Randomness, which forms part of his current portfolio. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM lens at 1/125 sec, f/5 and ISO 500. © Mustafa Saeed

A child nestles in a figure's lap, looking directly at the camera, in a photo taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV by Mulugeta Ayene.

Mulugeta found the opportunity to exhibit his work at the AFF a great way to connect with others from within the industry. "I found the exhibition a very interesting and important platform for networking," he says. "It was a big opportunity for me as a professional photographer to be part of the exhibition because I have met many people in the profession and [we've] got to know each other." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM) at 1/800 sec, f/2.8 and ISO 200. © Mulugeta Ayene

Mustafa has felt significantly empowered ever since he joined Aïda at the Addis Foto Fest in 2014. "It opened doors I had only dreamed of before," he says. "One of the most significant opportunities that arose from this was a collaboration on the END Fund project in 2022. Being part of this project and having my work curated by Aïda alongside other exceptional photographers from Africa, such as John Kalapo from Mali, Ala Kheir from Sudan, Meseret Argaw from Ethiopia, Sarah Waiswa from Uganda and Omoregie Osakpolor from Nigeria fills me with immense pride and gratitude. I am honoured to be part of this group of photographers and look forward to more collaborations that contribute to the world of art, advocacy and positive change."

For Mulugeta, it's a similar story which he believes applies to the wider community too. "It is very important for African photographers, especially for those young and emerging photographers," he says. "It creates and facilitates a unique platform for experience sharing as we, the participants, also go to our respective countries and share our experiences that we gained at the exhibition [with] local photographers."

The importance of printing is something Mekbib is keen to highlight. "We're so used to seeing vacation and baby pictures on our phones," he says. "When you print photos out and you see them large-scale, the tendency is for the piece to be viewed as art rather than as something you just 'like' and pass through. You stay and be mesmerised – you immerse yourself in the piece."

As well as Canon printers, Mustafa is a big advocate for Canon Premium Fine Art Smooth FA-SM1 paper. "It offers exceptional colour reproduction and archival longevity, ensuring prints remain vibrant and fade-resistant over time," he explains. "It accurately captures vivid colours and subtle nuances, making it perfect for fine art and photography prints."

It's clear that with the Africa Foto Fair, Aïda sees it as a part of creating a global community, not just within Africa itself. "It's that sense of building a tribe of like-minded photographers," she says. "In the end, this is the challenge we all face – it's the same, just in different intensities. It's a way to say we all face the same thing. Right now, I think photography is at a difficult crossroads, but it means that we need to explore further than our comfort zones or our own location to see what everybody is producing."

The second edition of the Africa Foto Fair takes place in November, 2023 in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire. Find out more at

Astrid Pitman

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