For the past 15 years, the orphaned children of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia have been exploring new ways to confront their negative pasts. Working alongside American artist Eric Gottesman, the children use the camera as an alternative language with which to tell their stories. Compiled into a new book by Gottesman, Sudden Flowers (also the name the children give themselves) is a poetic and profoundly moving collection of photographs and letters written to their (now absent) parents. Opting for the abstract rather than the explicit, Gottesman explains; “Over fifteen years we made photographs together, blurring the lines between who is the subject and who is the photographer and disrupting traditional notions of documentary etiquette. As a result, the images are not typical; they don’t describe what their lives look like but rather what is going on in their minds, their fantasies, their dreams.” By handing the camera to the children, as well as curatorial decisions about where the work will be shown, how and who to, their stories are reimagined, and in some ways alleviated, through imagery – whether through Polaroids, letter-writing or peel-away negatives – probing the ways that art can be used to deal with emotional trauma. Below, we talk with Gottesman to gain some insight into this epic journey.
Can you explain your new book and ongoing project Sudden Flowers?
Eric Gottesman: Sudden Flowers members had a lot to process about the various traumas that they went through; some lived on the streets, some were casualties of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, some lost their parents. Because we became so close and because they were often holding the camera, releasing the shutter and determining where their pictures were going to be shown, our work together is very intimate, vulnerable, personal. I sought ways (like the letters I asked them to write to their deceased parents, or photographic assignments) that would tap into their psychological histories without being misread or exploitative.
At every point, Sudden Flowers has been involved in aesthetic, curatorial, editorial and organizational decisions about the project. This is not how photography has worked in Ethiopia in the past. Traditionally, it was foreigners (often white people) who came to Ethiopia to photograph as colonizers, aid workers, journalists or tourists. These photographers reinforced their own ideas of what Ethiopia is: a place of suffering and famine and war. And people in Ethiopia are keenly aware of the world’s impressions that come from photographs depicting Ethiopia in a certain way. So the Sudden Flowers project has been a new direction in the history of photographic production in Ethiopia.
Before you met these children, how were they dealing with their grief?
Eric Gottesman: This question implies that I was the main channel for their grief but I wasn’t. I worked very closely with Yawoinshet Masresha, a local youth activist and an amazing human being (founder of Hope for Children Ethiopia). She introduced me to many of these children and was already providing them with psychological support through individual therapy as well as through the community-based approach her organization employs. That said, both Yawoinshet and I saw that photography could be a means of tapping into their minds, their pasts and their futures.
For instance, one of the assignments we did was to ask kids to make a photograph of the worst day of their lives and the best day of their lives. Hiwot Umer, fourteen at the time, made the picture “I was not a child when I was a child,” which shows her cowering while someone is swinging a stick at her. When she explained what the picture meant, she described being beaten by a caregiver to whom she was entrusted after the death of her mother. Until that point, she had not found the words to express this to Yawoinshet in words; this was the first time she told anyone about this traumatic experience. Photography allowed her to communicate what she had not yet found a way to say.
Why do you feel it’s important to tell their stories?
Eric Gottesman: In a recent letter (included in the book), Biniyam wrote to me, “The period when we were making the photographs – writing scripts and brainstorming on ideas that bring back memories of our past lives, especially the period of our parents’ illness and death – was filled with mixed emotions of sadness and regret. At the time I thought it was better to forget all the bad things that happened in my life than to deal with the memories. Sharing those memories and stories with my sisters and friends was exciting and therapeutic since I learned that other kids have similar experiences and bringing those experiences out was a huge relief. I felt I was connected to other kids. We were really supportive to each other together. We laughed in joy and, at times, we wept with grief. Finally I believe I have played my little part by showing some of the stories as an orphan to my people.”
It is important to tell these stories to different audiences for different reasons. As Biniyam says, it was important for Sudden Flowers just to tell them. It was important to tell the stories in Ethiopia in order to understand better the psychological effects on children affected by HIV/AIDS and to begin to break down the stigma surrounding them (and these stories did play an important role in local efforts over the past decade to change how people affected by HIV/AIDS are treated in Ethiopia). It is important now to tell the stories to a broader audience to place social value on the pictures and voices of Sudden Flowers’ members and to quietly sneak into the minds of readers around the world and plant the idea that the lives depicted are more complex than they might have imagined.