Ethiopian night light :: how it was made

I’ve recently launched a new blog, especially for the series of toilet architecture pictures (aka ‘Pissed Off‘ from my main website) that I’ve been working on in a low key sort of way for the last few years.  It’s called ‘This Toilet is Electric‘, and I’m posting a new pic there every couple of days with a little bit of the story of the picture too.

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The most recent one is a little bit special, as it was taken on my trip to Ethiopia in May this year for Toilet Twinning, and features as the inside back cover ad in the October edition (UK) of the National Geographic magazine.


It’s significant for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it was only two weeks later that I was diagnosed with leukaemia, and spent the next 100 days or so in or around hospital. But the story of the picture is interesting in itself…

When the idea of doing this trip was first raised, I was excited for a whole range of reasons. Ethiopia had been one of the first countries I’d visited as a photographer for Tearfund (along with Eritrea in early 1993), but I’d only visited once since then in 1994.  I always love revisiting places I’ve visited before, especially if there’s been a long gap since I was last there. Also, I’d not worked directly with Toilet Twinning before, and new clients are always good. And there was the challenge of making a picture that was worth running as an ad in the National Geographic. Of a toilet. A bit of a dream assignment.

We had long discussions about what would work, including multiple pdf’s and design ideas. I hired in a longer lens, to shoot beautiful golden dawn shots across valleys, we briefed the partner in great detail, went through the whole process of getting visas, and generally were as prepared as I ever have been for a specific shot from a trip. And I had a secret plan up my sleeve – Huw’s shed – I’d played around in the snow much much earlier in the year, to see if I could make something a bit special happen with an old lighting trick – it had seemed to work in Sheffield, but would it work in Hosana?

Rather a nice little shed... :: photo copyright: Richard Hanson

Rather a nice little shed… :: photo copyright: Richard Hanson

The trip went well – the partner was helpful, the location really was stunning, we had some great conversations with people who’d benefited from new toilets, and improved sanitation.  But the light in the mornings and evenings was never quite what I was looking for, I knew I just hadn’t quite got the shot. On the final evening of the trip, we went down to catch the sunset at the bottom of the valley in a farmer’s field, and were met by a massive raincloud (and no light).  The threat was that if the rain came, we’d have to leave the village we were in, as the vehicle couldn’t get out of the narrow roads if it rained. And still I hadn’t got the shot.

We parked up by the main road, and waited while the first bit of rain came down, in massive drops. And then stopped. We sat for maybe 45 minutes, desperately hoping that that was it, watching enormous clouds pass overhead – and the sky cleared, and suddenly we were able to go back into the village for one last try.

We had the location – all that remained was to make the idea actually work…

This is the basic setup – the family here had built their latrine behind the building they used for their animals, so well away from the family home:

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The goal was to shoot just after dusk, but with multiple light sources to bring the picture to life.  The trees in the background are ‘fake banana’ – they look like banana trees, but in fact you eat part of the bark, not a fruit.  They were lit by two Nikon Speedlights fired remotely, one on the ground, one high up through an umbrella:

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This gave the picture some depth – without it, the background would have disappeared into shadow. To the right of this picture, you can see the start of some torchlight ‘painting’ the side of the latrine building. With this basic set up, it was now a question of balancing out the dusk light, the background flash and the torches – in the end we had three people lighting the maize in the foreground, the door side of the latrine, and the main side and roof of the latrine, reviewing the balance between each shot.

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Then it was just a question of trying it, reviewing, adjusting, trying again, changing shutter times, changing amount of torch light, and trying again…

Here’s my very excellent sketch of the lighting set-up:


The exposure was 81 seconds at f7.1, iso 100, at 26mm on a Nikon 24-70 f2.8 lens, using a Nikon D800.  The torches were shorter exposures – somewhere between 15 and 30 seconds (assistant 2 was shortest, assistant 1 was longest).

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This version had the foot-pedal for the tipping hand wash system lit up as well as the door and wall (which I quite like, but isn’t totally clear if you don’t know what it is – very nifty little system for washing your hands by pressing on the foot pedal, which tips the yellow plastic bottle slightly, avoiding cross-contamination from everyone’s hands).

I hope that’s interesting – I normally wouldn’t go into anything like as much detail about any one picture, but this one was very technical, and a creative challenge, with a major outcome riding on it, and I think the process of how we got there is worth hearing about. Sometimes a week’s visit isn’t complete until very nearly the last shot on the last day.

What happened next was nice too – as I was packing all my bits up (and there were now things scattered around the area…), one of the crowd of farmers who had gathered to watch said ‘this is much harder work than farming…’ – nice thought, thankfully so not true.

The family who’d been so gracious in letting us disrupt their whole evening then invited us in for coffee, a great Ethiopian tradition, often served with salt or butter, and we were finally done. It’s a wrap.

Thanks to Lorraine (assistant 1) and Vern (who designed the ad) at Toilet Twinning, the Kale Heywet Church Sanitation Programme, Tearfund Ethiopia and our interpreter and host families.  And don’t forget to twin your toilet…

Shot near Hosana, Ethiopia, May 2013.

All photos: Richard Hanson/Toilet Twinning

Copyright: Richard Hanson


richard hanson :: photographer :: sheffield