African Voices

Ethiopia shoe shine girl: one mother’s struggle is an unlikely story of hope

Story highlights

Ethiopian photographer HIlina Abebe tells the story of Meseret, a 19-year-old shoeshine girl

Images captures a young mother's story of struggle, hope and survival

CNN  — 

In December 2013, Ethiopian photographer Hilina Abebe began documenting the life of 19-year-old Meseret, a single mother who shines shoes for a living while her daughter sleeps on her back.

After losing contact, the pair reconnected last year, and Abebe continued shooting her powerful series of black and white images, depicting the life of a shoe shiner in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.

Above is a gallery of some of her beautiful images.

Q&A with photographer Hilina Abebe

Hi Hilina, tell me about yourself.

I am 29, I was born and raised in a small town called Debre Zeit, 47km south of Addis Ababa. I work full time for a non-profit organization and currently studying my Masters in social work at the same time. And, I take pictures in my free time.

How long have you been a photographer?

I used to take pictures with a point and shoot camera when I began to produce a small newsletter. I got lots of positive feedback. Now it has been almost three years since I picked up my first DSLR and started to use photography as a medium to express my self and what I see everyday in my society.

Have you had any training?

I have taken part in two workshops. The most recent one in November 2015 was called the Pan-African Workshop for Professional Media Production and was organized by the United Nations agency, UNESCO. Both were crucial in helping me find my voice and guiding me on what I want to do with my photography career. The UNESCO workshop particularly enabled me to learn from some of the best international photographers in the industry, such as Russell Fredrick, Shawn Walker and Ruddy Roye.

Photographer, Hilina Abebe. Abebe says: "Meseret's story sheds light onto the lives of many whose stories are not told, just because their poverty is considered ordinary. But Meseret's courage, hope and love for her baby is nothing short of extraordinary."

What made you want to tell the story of the shoeshine girl?

The first time I saw her, I knew her story had to be told. She had her baby sleeping in a very beautiful protective tent as she waited for customers. The fact that she was so young, responsible and courageous enough to provide for her self and her baby, and not beg on the street made me see that there are so many strong Africans like her who are resilient and want to change their circumstances. The fact that she is a girl and a shoe shiner was also unique because the job is mostly held by men.

How did you get to build a relationship with her?

I learned about her from another student taking part in a photography workshop. I asked where she worked, went up to her and introduced myself! She was very willing to collaborate with me. I told her I wanted to show who she was as a person and what her life was like. So I gained her trust from day one - she even defended me the first day when people questioned what my intentions were.

I was also not just a photographer when I meet her. I also wanted to listen to her story, her experiences, her worries. I related to her as another human being. The fact that I am also a woman might have helped us build trust and a relationship.

Do you have a favorite image? If so, which one and why?

Yes, the image of her child, Meron’s first birthday, where they were both blowing out the candle in Meseret’s shanty house. For me that image tells of who she really is, not just a shoeshine girl but also a loving mother who goes the extra mile to give her daughter the childhood she herself never had. I also learn in that one image that no matter how little you have, you can choose to be content.

How has meeting ‘the shoeshine girl’ changed you?

Working with her has been a blessing. Every time I talk to her she teaches me about persevering, having courage and having faith. She is one of the few truly optimistic people I have met in my life. She is a living inspiration. As documenting her life was the first challenge I set myself as a photographer, I have learned to go out of my comfort zone and be able to answer to myself and others why I want to photographer. It’s to find the humanity in lives as hard as Meseret’s.