March 24, 2013
The Massachusetts-based photographer and videographer Eric Gottesman has traveled from Labrador to Lebanon, but his work in Ethiopia is among his most compelling and touching. From 1999 to 2000, Gottesman spent time in Ethiopia as a fellow for the American non-governmental organization Save the Children. Focusing on photography and representation, he worked with local HIV/AIDS organizations. In 2001, Save the Children published a booklet of Gottesman’s photographs.
More than 5 percent of Ethiopians live with HIV or AIDS, and that number is doubled for urban women.1 Though the disease ravages the country, prejudice against the millions who suffer from it is high: In a recent report from the Ethiopian government, only 17 percent of female respondents and 27 percent of male respondents expressed acceptance toward people living with HIV—and only slightly more said they would buy fresh vegetables from an HIV-positive food vendor.2 This stigma can make it difficult for photographers like Gottesman to document the lives of Ethiopia’s HIV/AIDS victims. Gottesman found that patients at counseling centers would only consent to being photographed if they were rendered unidentifiable.
In a project that would become If I Could See Your Face I Would Not Need Food (2000–04), Gottesman began taking photographs that intentionally obscured patients’ faces. He used Polaroid film so that any image in which a subject’s face accidentally emerged could be immediately destroyed. Some of the subjects in the series appear simply coy or shy, and their status as clandestine outcasts would be obfuscated by any loss of context. In Yonas (2000), a man dressed neatly in slightly oversized clothes stands with his back to the viewer, his arms crossed. He stares out a window, but a scrupulously situated curtain blocks his view. He’s positioned himself so that neither his own community nor the photo’s viewers a world away can see who he really is. His infection has forced him into a psychological enclosure, a sort of solipsism.
In other photos, the concealment of identity is more conspicuous. Beletu (2000) pictures a woman standing straight, with her back against a wall. She appears proud, or at least resolute, as she looks toward the viewer. But two hands appear from a person outside the frame, covering both her eyes and mouth. It is as if, rather than seeing and saying no evil, the subject is left unable to see or speak by the low levels of T-helper cells in her bloodstream. The image depicts how her resoluteness in the face of the virus inside of her is weakened by forces outside of her body.
In 2004, two HIV-positive patients allowed Gottesman to photograph them unveiled; he then ended the project. One of these photos shows a woman contemplatively looking just past the photographer. Her sweater is too big for her and bunches up; her sickness is evidenced in her thin face and hollowed eyes. At first, she appears less steadfast than I imagined the subject of Beletu to be, but her courage is marked by the visibility of those very eyes.
Since first beginning his work in Ethiopia, Gottesman has created several projects with collaborators and subjects suffering from HIV/AIDS. For five months in 2003 and 2004, Gottesman worked with children in Addis Ababa who were affected by HIV/AIDS. Gottesman taught the children how to use photography as a means to control the representation of their lives and their struggles living with the disease or being orphaned by it. The program put Polaroid cameras in the hands of the students in order to give them more immediate control over which images to keep or destroy. One of Gottesman’s students was Tenanesh Kifyalew, a twelve-year-old girl living with HIV/AIDS, and she became both the subject of and collaborator in a photographic series called Paths That Cross Cross Again (2004).
The series documents the duality of Kifyalew’s life: on one hand, she is an innocent adolescent with a family, friends, and toys; on the other hand, she suffers from a deadly disease that destabilizes entire nations. Her body inhabits both of these worlds. In If I Had My Own House, Kifyalew could be any girl: she poses like a dancer, mid-pirouette, in a living room. Holding a teddy bear and a parasol, she flashes a beaming white smile that is heart-wrenching because of its impermanence. Kifyalew is sandwiched between four adult family members or friends in General’s Engagement Party. Her bright eyes are absent but only in the way that anyone’s would be, showing frustration or boredom with the obligatory, ceaseless posed photos at family gatherings. Her life seems normal. She is tiny next to the others, but it is unclear whether this is because of her illness or a naturally diminutive frame.
The defiantly titled I Am Not Sick reminds viewers of Kifyalew’s other world. In the photograph, a man—possibly a doctor or nurse—holds his hands cloaked in surgical gloves up to the camera. The photo was taken at adult-navel height, showing the world as Kifyalew sees it. Though she is too small to hurt a fly, grown men around Kifyalew fear for their lives. Her doctors prescribed antiretroviral drugs to manage her illness, which can cost $700 a year in Ethiopia (over half the nation’s gross domestic product per capita).3 Like millions of others, her family could not afford the treatment, and Kifyalew died six months after Gottesman began working with her. Paths That Cross Cross Again immortalizes one promising but tragically brief life cut short by HIV/AIDS. The project makes tearfully evident the human cost of a disease that is often thought of in economic and statistical terms.
Gottesman’s commitment to the people of Ethiopia has not ended with these projects. He continues to work with children affected by HIV/AIDS through Sudden Flowers, a collective he co-founded to empower the youth of Addis Ababa through filmmaking, photography, and art. He has also created several projects that interpret the history of Ethiopian photography, a medium that was suppressed in the 1970s and ’80s by the Derg, the country’s ruling Marxist-Leninist military junta. The works are moving because they bring to life the stories of people like Kifyalew and others who dare not reveal their identities.
1. Federal Ministry of Health/National HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control Office, “AIDS in Ethiopia: Sixth Report,” 2006, 6, http://www.etharc.org/aidsineth/publications/AIDSinEth6th_En.pdf.
2. United States Agency for International Development, HIV/AIDS Survey Indicators Database, “HIV/AIDS Indicators Country Report: Ethiopia 2000–2011,” http://hivdata.measuredhs.com/reports/pdf_temp/pdf_1363792074704.pdf.
3. Sydney Rosen and Lawrence Long, “How Much Does it Cost to Provide Antiretroviral Therapy for HIV/AIDS in Africa?” (Boston: Center for International Health and Development, Boston University: 2006), 5, http://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PNADS002.pdf.