How churches are saving forests in Ethiopia
The following is an edited transcript of our recent podcast with Scottish photographer Kieran Dodds.
Paul Glader: Hi, I'm Paul Glader with Religion Unplugged and we've got a photographer in our studio today, Kieran Dodds, who's from Scotland. We're going to learn about his career and about his recent project here.
Tell us what brought you to New York this week.
Dodds: So, I came in on a plane for an exhibition opening and the project is called Hierotopia. And it's about the church forest in Ethiopia. And it's a project I've been working on for about four years whenever time and money allows.
Glader: Tell us about the project. How did it start? How did you get interested in Ethiopia and what is Hierotopia?
Dodds: Well, hierotopia means sacred space. I'm going to explain that a bit later. But it's really about these forests that surround church buildings. In Ethiopia, most of the forest, 95%, has disappeared in the last 100 years. So, the last remnants are around these church buildings, and they actually become part of the church building. They are the clothes of the church as the people see. How it came across (Hierotopia) was by chance. I was looking at the wider world, I do a lot of projects overseas, a lot of stories, and my interest is in environmental issues. In particular, my background is in zoology. And I was looking at Ethiopia, it must have been five years ago, and noticing it was on the rise. The economy was booming, and the industry was growing. I was interested in that. To be honest, Ethiopia is known as this basket case, where there is famine when I was growing up. That was what it is in my psyche, and still is [considered that] today in the West.
I just asked the question of what is bearing the cost in the environment in Ethiopia? I was expecting as ever to be quite depressed. You know, the environmental stories are often pretty bleak. But then again, I stumbled upon in the scientific literature, these church forests. The more I dug, the more I was amazed. Then I looked in Google Maps, and you could just see these little green oases across this brown landscape. I was just captivated and so I thought I need to go there. And that was the start of it.
Glader: Ethiopia has some interesting Christian history. Tell us a bit about what you learned. Which are the groups that started planting these forests around the churches?
Dodds: Well, these buildings are from the Middle Ages, so like, 1200-1300. That was when the whole area would have been covered in the forest. So, in a sense, they weren't planting it, they just weren't chopping it down. As progress has taken hold, and different land rights with the communist Derg, the forest has been lost. So in a sense, both the people doing it are the Tewahedo Orthodox churches, they've been there the longest. And, the Protestants are quite new to the country. [Protestants’] booming is a huge growth in the church there.
Glader: These churches that were preserving those forests, where they practicing theology of ecology, or was it more random in terms of why they did it?
Dodds: It is a theological landscape. They are living out their faith on the land, they see them as gardens of Eden. They see them as essential to the dignity of the building, as well. And people look at them as a gift from God. It's something to be protected and guarded. It's something very intentional that they protect them. But there have been changes politically, over the years. During the Derg, there was a land grab, people redistributing land. The church lost some, but they also lost the walls around them, which protect them. There's been a big change in that. And so, I’m working with the scientists there, trying to reeducate people about how to protect them. The knowledge has been lost, but other people still desire to protect the forest.
Glader: This project was featured in National Geographic. Where else has this been featured?
Dodds: Just this year, it started to be published and it's taken a while to come to fruition. Then, it won third prize in the Sony World Photo awards as well. That is bringing a new audience too, and, in some ways, it's different from other stories I've worked on because it's not just about the public publication. It's about getting the word out there and in particular, getting the word to the people in Ethiopia. This is their treasure, and I want them to cherish it.
Glader: The National Geographic piece talked about ideas on how to save those gardens. Since you documented this project has that been happening?
Dodds: We call them conservation walls, just to avoid any confusion in people's minds - these walls are good to build. It is to keep cows out, not people. They have built some in the last few years and they have incredible effects very quickly, the plants burst forth. It just stops cattle getting in, and it makes people remember whose the land is. They respect that, and they move on. They don't walk through it, or chomp at the edges. That's ongoing and it's something I've actually just put a website up (churchforest.org), and that is just to direct people to support the work and learn more. But also the needs if they're able to build more of these conservation walls. We're trying to get the 38 most biodiverse protected. I think about 10 have been done so far. So, if there are hundreds of these forests, it's just trying to start small and create this movement towards conservation.
Glader: How did you document the landscapes and what were the challenges of documenting the landscapes?
Dodds: I started off just amazed by the time skills involved, like the centuries that they've endured and the way that the people have worshiped under the same canopy as their ancestors. So, I wanted to show that photographically, like a passing of time. So that was one aspect of it. Showing the transition, and the permanence of the forest. The other was trying to get this tension between the aerials, which I've been drawn into, and also get a sense of the people on the ground. The people who are actually protecting and not just the physical shapes on the landscape, but the people whose ideas are making these shapes.
In a sense, I got inspiration from the book of Genesis, because you've got those two angles in Genesis One. There is a transcendent God above things, the aerial perspective, and then the imminence walking in the garden. So, you've got these two angles, intention in the Biblical story, as far as I can see it, and I wanted to show that and try and integrate those together. So I started off on the ground, just going into forests where I can get permission. They're quite private people. I went to ones that had walls, I went to some that didn't have walls. Sometimes you were just passing by, and you thought, let's go have a look. So, there was some structure to it. But there was also just general providence and curiosity. The first trip I had enough time to meander around. The first trip was about a month, the second trip was shorter, and much more focused.
Glader: So you used drones for the aerials, were they DJI, Chinese-made drones?
Dodds: Most are Chinese drones, and they're very good for that.
Glader: Did the eagles attack the drones?
Dodds: So, I used a local fixer, and he was great for spotting potential risks out there. There is very little air traffic, and you're not getting that high anyway. But eagles were the ones that you had to watch for, because they attack drones. Whereas vultures just circle around. Pigeons actually were the nearest encounter, just some pigeons thinking they had one of their own. So, they would fly around as well.
Glader: I was wondering why in the project there are images where there wasn’t forest surrounding the churches?
Dodds: I was trying to show the progression because they are dying. If they're not protected by the conservation wall, then they get offed at the edges, and they die from the outside in. So, I needed to show the full canopy. If you get around the lakeside, where there's no access by humans or animals, almost to all [forest] has totally disappeared. So, there's some in the book that sure, some large trees are around but everything else is gone. I don't know if you could save them, to be honest.
But there's another image, which was this gleaming white building. The earth is darker, with a couple of paths through it. And actually, that is a new church building, because the population is booming in Ethiopia, its doubled in about 30 years. They're actually planting new church buildings to cope with that. So, what you'd expect is an increased population to destroy the forest through more agriculture. Here you have a new church building that’s been planted to look after the people's spiritual needs. The locals have got together and said, this is the land from which the forest can grow. Even in a few years, you can see it's darker than the farmland. You can see shoots of green coming through. And so, if the land is given back the forest, it becomes a forest quite quickly. Assuming it's got another one nearby to see to that.
Glader: Have you seen other denominations in Ethiopia grasping this idea, and what about other parts of Africa? Is religion saving the forest?
Dodds: Not Yet! Now as far as I'm aware. There are sacred groups I know of in West Africa. They tend to be for when you bury the dead. So, this theological connection between preserving is not just for a functional, burying people but actually, because it's God's gift to them. I have not seen that anywhere else. It's something which isn't really known in Ethiopia, to be honest, that's why I'm so delighted when I was showing this in London last week at Somerset House. The Ethiopian embassy came along and did a short interview with me and it was so nice because the staff from the embassy were just delighted. There's a guy from Bahir Dar, which is the city nearby, and he was working in London. But he was just like, “This is amazing, you know, we need to tell my people about this.” I'm hoping it might inspire the Protestant churches and the Catholic Churches. Or anyone else in Africa or even in the Western world to see the link between looking after the environment. It’s a care for your neighbor, and it’s an act of worship as well.
Glader: Where can people go if they want to see the images and learn more about this whole project?
Dodds: Yes, so the best place to start might be churchforests.org. That's the little website I helped put together and then on that, you've got a link to my website If you want to see the pictures and that’s Kierandodds.com. You probably can't spell that. There is this beautiful, immersive story on nature, just google “nature church forests”. That's got a lot of links and facts in there as well. Just some beautiful images, that's probably the best places to go.
Glader: I want to hear more of your background?
Dodds: I studied zoology at the University of Aberdeen. And my final year project there was in Malawi. This is 18 years ago. I was studying the monkeys in the trees, and the fish. In Malawi, we lived on this mountain for two months and it's an incredible sight. No one's really documented it and, and we could see firsthand the destruction that comes when there's no protection. So, people just go cut down trees and disappear. During that time, I found it frustrating, and it was perplexing. And actually, the way I was able to process these questions, was through my camera. My dissertation did alright but the photographs were really what connected with people. That was the same time I was thinking, what should I do as a career, I was editing the student paper as well. I just thought journalism offers a way to analyze the world to share your curiosity and findings.
And to do that in a simple way, it really felt like it was a natural progression for me. So, I left university and my first job was in Edinburgh, which isn't too far from Aberdeen. And I just phoned up the big Sunday newspaper there and started speaking to people. And I got an editorial assistant job writing for the summer of Edinburgh Festival, putting on what was the best shows to go and see. After that, I went back to Aberdeen for a full-time job that came up because no one wants to work in Aberdeen and no one want to work for nothing, but I did. It was a great place to learn my craft. So, I moved to Aberdeen, nine months there. Then I got a staff job in Glasgow at the Herald newspapers. That really was the formative apprenticeship because I was working with really seasoned photographers, amazing people. They taught me how to cover the smallest stories. The Evening Times was the newspaper, and I remember they used to always say “if you can work for the Evening Times, and you do well, you could work for the New York Times.” There's no difference, in terms of the reporting is the same integrity. Nowadays, when I work for the New York Times, I remember that. And I actually do think you turn up in a job for the New York Times, and people don't believe you in Scotland when you say you're from them. But it's the same, there's not a magic around some news events, you've got to look and see the story. You got to find it as much, even if you're with a big publication.
Glader: How was faith and religion part of your story?
Dodds: Well, in Malawi, I wouldn't have called myself religious then. I was quite agnostic and studying the origins of life in the scientific world. That was where I landed, but going into Malawi and meeting the people there, even thinking about how to engage their main belief system like Christianity… If they were Christians, they weren’t protecting the environment, and me even as agnostic, understood that. I at that point thought we need to talk about this. I was interested in that, particularly because my brother had come to faith as a Christian in Oxford while studying medicine, and he’d given me a Bible to read. I was like, “okay, stop being weird.” But when I came back to university, I had a real worldview shift. And I looked at the evidence of Christianity and came to believe in the same way you come to believe scientific truths, that it was a historical event. Then I committed my life to that. That shaped the way I view the world massively. And also, to see the value of these deep-seated beliefs in how events play out and also in and how we report these things. Also realizing that people who don't claim an affiliation to religion have deep-seated beliefs, that shape their worldview. And should be respected and understood and prompt, actually, to see the motivation for things. I'm interested in not just what people are doing, but why they're doing it. I think having had that real change in worldview opened up quite a lot of the world to me. Because most of the world claims to have some belief in something larger than just the matter of the universe.
Glader: Tell us about some of your other projects that captivated you?
Dodds: The bats were the one that launched me into the freelance world. So, I won the UK young photographer of the year, from the [UK] Picture Editors’ Guild, and that was just with my general newspaper work. They give you a bursary and some money. It’s a great award, but with the bursary I was thinking what to cover and a former professor he said, in Zambia, there's this incredible gathering of bats. Eight million bats in a space, probably the size of Central Park. It was incredible, they said it was the highest gathering of mammal mass in the world, stacked up in these trees. I was thinking if this is true, why has no one covered it? It's often that way with amazing stories. You don't believe it at first, but I trusted him. He's a professor and trustworthy. I went out to Zambia and spent a month with them and photographed them. I came back, that was the November into December and then in January, I entered the World Press Photo awards. In February, I won the first prize in the nature stories. And it was just astounding, like I was 25. Very early on, it just opened up the world to me. So, I thought that it was again linked into the Malawi story, that conservation story. It set the tone for going forward. So, I went freelance and actually I spent a week alone in Missouri for a workshop and that was in September. So as soon as I finished my job, the next day, I flew out to Missouri and I learned the American way for journalists. It really was an incredible experience.
Glader: There is an amazing community worldwide of people who care about still images.
Dodds: But it seems to have a particularly high role here, there's a real focus, a purity and about it. So, that really inspired me to change the way I shoot as well. So that was the bats and then in 2014, Scotland was voting on the independence from the UK. The year before I started thinking about sort of long-term projects that I could do ahead of that, and I had five in total. One of them was the gingers because I wanted to use this cliché of national identity. To get people in and to show, I use it as portraits of people, ginger hair which people call red hair. I don't think it's really that red. So, I want to use that to show the diversity of opinions. And so when you hear about the Scottish people, that they would see a group of people that look similar, but are diverse. So, it's to try and go into that.
Glader: Why is the still image an important medium in the digital age?
Dodds: The immediacy of a still image, like, it can tell a story very quickly and reach into people's hearts very deeply. A good still image, I think that gives the strength to it. Which is why when I went to MOMA, there's pictures on the wall and people are flocking to see them, because it is a very quick and a very visceral reaction. So, I think that is why there's more still images then moving images. It's the immediacy of it. It's ubiquitous, it's everywhere, like the photograph is everywhere. So, it's like you can't ignore it because it's everywhere. Everyone's got a camera on them, and in a digital age it’s more important. Because everyone's got a camera and good photography is important to try and cut through all the information out there. Just in one image, you can sum up a lot of different ideas and feelings.
Glader: We care about it at Religion Unplugged on our side. And our dream is to one day publish an annual book of best stories with best photos from the stories each year. Great to meet you. Great to have you on our podcast. For everybody listening, please go check out Kierandodds.com.