Haile Selassie was the Emperor of Ethiopa from 1930 to 1974. In 1935 Ethiopia was invaded by Italian forces, and he left the country the following year. He spent most of his exile in Bath. During this time he visited other parts of England, including a visit to Brighton in April 1938. The Brighton and Hove Herald took several photographs of Selassie’s visit, including an image of him leaving the Royal Pavilion accompanied by his family. But this solemn portrait on the West Pier was the most dramatic and carefully composed.
Press photography often uses carefully composed images with subtle hints of the wider issues they illustrate. This is a very good example. By the late 1930s, Selassie had become an iconic victim of fascism. In June 1936 he had delivered a moving speech to the League of Nations describing the brutality of the Italian invasion of his country. This led him to be named Man of the Year by the influential US magazine Time.
This photograph supports Selassie’s iconic status. His black overcoat and hat, and his sorrowful expression, suggest a man in mourning for the loss of his country. The choice of location has a double purpose. The West Pier is an obvious landmark, and immediately ties Selassie to Brighton. But his choice of seat has an extra significance: as an emperor, Selassie should be seated on a throne. Having been forced from his country, he is reduced to sitting on a deckchair: cheap furniture for working class visitors.
Selassie was returned to power in 1941 after British and Ethiopian forces took control of Ethiopia during World War Two. He reigned the country until he was deposed in a coup in 1974. He died the following year. Although an Orthodox Christian, Selassie is claimed to be an incarnation of God by members of the Rastafari religion.
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