Honoring Dr. Martin Luther King: Photographer captures the memorial (Slideshow)

Dr. Martin Luther King's journey for civil rights inspires artist Gediyon Kifle's work, helping him triumph over tragedy after being exiled from Ethiopia as a child. Photo: @Gediyon Kifle

WASHINGTON, DC, January 15, 2012 — Gediyon Kifle, the Washington-based official photographer for the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial, has long been on his own deeply personal journey to the Promised Land—one that connects him with surprising intimacy to King’s own dream for his people and his nation. 

In addition to his work for the King Memorial, Kifle’s client list ranges from newspapers like the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the Washington Post’s weekly magazine to food magazines like Gourmet and Elle à la Carte. His photographic work is prized by private collectors and U.S. and African museums.

But back in the mid-1970s, such a career and such a life could scarcely have been foreseen.

The Martin Luther King memorial at night (Image: @Gedyon Kifle)

The Martin Luther King memorial at night (Image: @Gediyon Kifle)

The most remarkable aspect of Kifle’s complex life journey is this: neither those involved in the memorial project, nor those who hired him to take the photos you see here in our banner image and slideshow, have been aware of the remarkable parallels between both. 

Dr. King’s life work initially arose from the miasma of obscurity and racial oppression. A native of Ethiopia, Gediyon Kifle’s almost didn’t begin at all.

As part of the government of Ethiopia’s emperor, Haile Selassie, who was deposed in 1974, Kifle’s father and all his uncles - all the adult males in his family - were ultimately executed by firing squad. There were no hearings and no trials, although Kifle’s father was imprisoned for five years before his sentence was carried out with brutal finality.

Gediyon Kifle was just ten years of age when his father was killed. A year after this tragic event, a surviving family member was able to put Gediyon, all alone, on an airplane bound for the U.S. He found a home here with his mother, who had earlier come to this country for reasons of health.

And so it was that an Ethiopian child became an exile from his native land, seeking like so many before him both political asylum and freedom from oppression. His own inexorable journey toward the late Dr. King’s legacy of freedom  and individual rights had already begun.

Enrolled in eighth grade at a Mission school in Virginia, young Gediyon’s attraction to and budding passion for the observing eye of the camera gradually came into focus. “French class was not going well,” he admits. A school counselor suggested a switch to photography class, and his life’s work blossomed from that point. “The calling to photography was and is persistent,” he says.

Gediyon attended college at East Tennessee State University. Appropriately, it was here, in the heartland of the Deep South, the living stage of Dr. King’s event-filled life and tragic death, where Kifle’s passion for photography fully matured. 

Today, Kifle characterizes his photographic work as a search. “It is like an onion,” he says, in that he peels back “layer on layers to find the core” of each subject. The camera engages him in observations that soon ignite ideas. Conceptually, he’s drawn to vulnerabilities concealed within strength.

A good example of this notion is a portion of his output that now permanently resides in Johnson City, Tennessee’s Reece Museum. It’s a photo documentary, visually chronicling the stories of international families, interracial relationships, and the lives men and women who crossed boundaries to unite in love.

As the King Memorial neared the day of its dedication, some negative press was generated, complaining that the monument’s sculptor was Chinese, not American or African- American, and the work was executed in that country, not here.

Kifle has a very different take on the subject. He readily acknowledges that the chosen sculptor, Lei Yixin is Chinese, and that the monument traveled by boat from the sculptor’s studio in China to its destination on the National Mall, within the sightlines of the Lincoln and the Jefferson Memorials. 

But Kifle, as a native African himself, likes to think King would have seen hope and progress in the fact that an African American was not chosen to execute the sculpture. He likes to think that, through this process Dr. King’s dream has become truly internationalized.

In a unique way, Dr. King’s dream has been further internationalized by the choice of appointing Gediyon Kifle to document the journey of this memorial from concept to fruition. Dr. King’s epic American journey through tragedy and triumph somehow paved the way for a young photographer’s journey from Ethiopia to a new Promised Land.

From the tragic loss of his father, the casualty of a faraway political war and his first, lonely plane ride abroad to an uncertain but hopeful future, Gediyon Kifle has achieved—and documented—the dream of Dr. King.

It’s a dream that all Americans will once again share and remember this weekend. Many will still recall the very moment when Mahalia Jackson, seated as Dr. King spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, shouted out “Tell them about the dream, Martin!” It was at that moment that King departed from his prepared text to deliver what is considered one of the greatest speeches of all time.

Dr. King concluded this improvised “I Have a Dream” oration with a litany of ways that all of us could, “Let freedom ring,” closing with these stirring words:

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:

Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last! 

Gediyon Kifle’s work can be seen here  and on the official website of the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Memorial.


Read more about Dr. King here:

How Barack and Michelle Obama can truly honor Dr. Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King Jr.: I have a dream (Speech transcript and video)

Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King: A man more complex than one speech (Video)

Mary L. Tabor is the author of the memoir: (Re)Making Love: a sex after sixty story and The Woman Who Never Cooked. She says, “I ferret out the detail, love the footnote, am never bored and believe it all leads to story. Best advice I ever got? ‘Only connect …’ E.M. Forster” Find out more at http://maryltabor.com


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Mary Tabor

I’m the author of the novel Who by Fire, the memoir (Re)Making Love: a sex after sixty story and The Woman Who Never Cooked, which won Mid-List Press’s First Series Award. I graduated from high school and went to college when I was barely sixteen. I always think I am the youngest person in the room—am trying to get over that—or maybe not because I have so much to learn.

You can read more about the so-called literal biography, where I went to school and jobs I’ve held, at http://maryltabor.com but one thing’s for sure: I believe love is the answer. Now, what was the question? In this column, I’ll try to figure that out with you.


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