Eric Gottesman was born in 1976 and raised in New Hampshire. He studied history, literature and political science, with a specific focus on civil and human rights, at Duke University. Funded by a 1997 John Hope Franklin Award from the Center for Documentary Studies and advised by Doubletake cofounder Alex Harris, Gottesman began to develop his current approach to photography while documenting tourism in New Hampshire. Though he did not study photography formally, he has mentored with Harris, Wendy Ewald and Richard Misrach. After graduating from Duke, he led a team of researchers at the Supreme Court of the United States exploring the history of public reactions to constitutional issues.
In 1999, Gottesman received a Hart Fellowship to work in Ethiopia for a year. Fascinated by Ethiopia’s history of independence, he began a project about the effects of AIDS on Ethiopians’ visions of themselves. He plans to return to Ethiopia to continue work on this project.
Gottesman, currently based in San Francisco, has organized a salon of young photographers working on social and formal issues. He is experimenting with landscapes while continuing to explore documentary practice. Gottesman will be featured in 25/Under, a book profiling emerging photographers, to be published in 2003 by powerHouse. He is also working on a book for the Lilly Endowment, Seeing the Whole, about children’s vision of religion in the southern United States.
Gottesman’s work has been exhibited in Ethiopia, Kenya, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands and the United States at venues such as Addis Ababa City Hall, the United Nations Special Session on HIV/AIDS in New York and the XIV International AIDS Conference in Barcelona. In addition, Gottesman’s work has appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the International Herald-Tribune, Document, a U.N. World Food Program website and various NGO publications and academic texts.
This Ethiopian proverb places self-respect above all else, even above basic needs. Ethiopian culture has historically placed a premium on self-respect and independence. And yet today, AIDS has caused some Ethiopians to hide their faces from others, and even from themselves.
I began this project wanting to dispel the notion that all people with AIDS in Africa are sick and dying. Naively, I set out to show people living with this disease—at work, at home, with their families—and to photograph them the same way I might photograph my own family going about daily life.
But this plan, in part, failed. Many Ethiopians living with HIV that I met had not told their families and were reluctant to speak with me. Many simply refused to be photographed, saying that they were afraid their employers might fire them, their landlords might evict them from their homes, or their unforgiving family members might disown them.
Out of necessity I developed a different documentary approach. Instead of making photographs of family life, I began to make portraits at counseling centers, omitting the subjects’ real names, and leaving them unidentifiable. Some participants worried that I would somehow manipulate the images to show their faces. In response, I used a Polaroid photographic process that was slow and deliberate. I often lugged a tripod and other cumbersome equipment with me. I used positive-negative film that develops both a print and a negative a minute after exposure. The subjects and I would look at the photographs together and decide whether their faces were truly hidden. If they were, I could use the image in exhibits and for publication. If they weren’t, we would dispose of the negative on the spot. This collaborative process allowed me to create images that express what the participants want others to see about their lives.
In addition, I taught photography to a group of HIV-negative orphans whose parents died of AIDS. Working closely with the children’s counselor, Yawoinshet Masresha, I asked them to make photographs about their own lives and to write about their experiences. The photographs they made, along with letters the children wrote to their deceased parents about what they had missed since they died, offer a glimpse of how the deaths of their parents have affected the children’s emotional development.
These two photographic series and accompanying texts reveal unexpected aspects of the disease that have had profoundly disturbing effects on societies. The first series describes the social and psychological stigma of AIDS—and the resulting silence about HIV. The second shows what happens when parents die from AIDS and a generation of children is left on its own.
In both cases, I placed a high priority on collaborating with the subjects of the photographs. The pictures form a portrait of what HIV/AIDS looks like from an Ethiopian perspective. We are invited to see Ethiopians affected by AIDS as they are seen by other Ethiopians and, consequently, as they have come to see themselves.
—Eric Gottesman, January 2003