Eric Gottesman studied history, literature, and political science at Duke University. After graduating from Duke studied law and politics and worked for a time in the office of the Chief Justice of the United States of America. Eric later completed his MA degree in fine art at Bard College. His collaborative photography project on the impact of AIDS in one Ethiopian community has been supported by arts organizations, NGOs, foundations, and UN agencies. His work has been featured in books and exhibited internationally.
Eric has been the recipient of a number of important flellowships and grants including: a 2011 Apex Art Franchise Award, a 2009-2010 Fulbright Fellowship for work in the Middle East, a 2009 Massachusetts Cultural Council Artist Fellowship, a 2008-2009 Aaron Siskind Foundation Fellowship, and he was the 2009 recipient of the esteemed Artadia Award. His first monograph Sudden Flowers: May the Finest in the World Always Accompany You! will soon be published by Umbrage Editions in late 2011.
IF I COULD SEE YOUR FACE, I WOULD NOT NEED FOOD
This project examines HIV/AIDS crisis in Addis Ababa, the capitol city of Ethiopia. I knew the virus was having a tremendous effect on Ethiopia but I rarely heard people talking about it and I found little in the media about it.
Many of the people with HIV I met in Ethiopia had not told their families about their disease and were, at first, reluctant to speak with me. Ethiopians with HIV at that time faced social rejection if they publicly declared their HIV-status. By working closely with trained counselors at social service organizations, and using a Polaroid camera and film, I found volunteers willing to be photographed.
I began to make portraits at counseling centers. But, because of the stigma surrounding the disease, the participants were willing to be photographed only if they were unidentifiable in the images. We decided to make the photographs so their faces would be hidden. We looked together at the image as soon as it was made and, if the participant’s face did not show, I had permission to use the image. Otherwise, we would destroy the negative on the spot. I also conducted interviews about HIV
In 2004, two HIV people allowed me to photograph them and show their faces. At that point, I considered this series of photographs finished.
THE PRESERVATION OF TERROR
After the 1974 arrest of emperor Haile Selassie by the Marxist opposition – prompted in part by public outrage over photographs in the international media showing the emperor feeding meat to his animals while rural Ethiopians starved – political factions angled for control.
Not coincidentally, it was around this time, specifically in 1977 in the midst of the Red Terror, when the Soviet-supported communist government in Ethiopia (known as the Derg) unofficially outlawed photography. These officials were afraid that someone might use images to expose their regime's abuses of power. As a result, during that time, Ethiopians could only have their images made in official "photographing studios” set up by the government to make photographs used as official documents of identity.
The Derg collapsed twenty-one years ago but its psychological legacy continues to mystify identity and politics in Ethiopia and terrify those old enough to remember it. Of course, Ethiopians are now permitted to have cameras; but people continue to visit photography studios and carry around passport photographs of their loved ones. On holidays, families still line up to have their pictures made.
I have visited friends and neighbors in Ethiopia, and in the United States, and have asked to see the images they preserved in their homes, in photo albums, in forgotten boxes, on cluttered desks. I asked people to allow me to rephotograph these images and the marks left on them over the turbulent intervening years.
Many of these photographs depict people lost during the Red Terror or in its wake. Some are made more recently with this photographic history in mind. The photograph “Mother and Son Reunited…” was brought to me by someone who used the darkroom to combine an old image of a boy, missing since 1982, with a new image of his mother who still carries his photograph with her to try to find him.
I have also begun to explore the pictures people in the Diaspora have carried with them, as well as the “ones that got away” – photographs that Eritrean and Ethiopian refugees remember but, for some reason, had to leave behind. The verbal descriptions of these inert photographs (gone, but not forgotten) testify to the power of the printed photograph in a time of digitization. As well, they reveal fragments of previously normal lives. These nearly two-dimensional rectangular objects seem fleeting, yet they have endured war, flight and physical decay, as well as love and banality.
I am interested in what these images say about the elision of personal and official histories. What do disintegrating government-sanctioned images say about the legacy of an authoritarian regime? What do old monochromatic images recall of the subjects, of what they endured or of their memories? And how do these images inform the new, full-color national self-image Ethiopians are busily creating?