What is their ground is his figure: Eric Gottesman on collaboration
Collaborative photographic projects occupy a kind of mirror world to what we might call “conventional” documentary photography projects. The reasons and the concerns are often very similar, yet everything else is very different. They come from different places and they go to different places.
I’ve recently come to know the work of Eric Gottesman and his collaborators on the stigma of HIV/AIDS in Ethiopia , and wanted to share a statement that he wrote at my request. Eric has worked in Lebanon, in the United States and, now, in Northern Labrador, but his most ambitious project has been in Ethiopia. This work, and his thoughtful words about it, not only served to demystify collaborative photography for me, but also articulated some very exciting possibilities, and poses questions that will be relevant to any documentary photographer.
Eric Gottesman’s project follows in the tradition of collaborative photography, in which a photographer guides a particular population through the use of equipment and visual language. Photography becomes available as a means to engage with the world, and to tell one’s own stories about it. Wendy Ewald is probably the best known and most important figure in the development of strategies to use photography to enable self-realization and literacy among children. The film Born into Brothels describes Zana Briski’s work on such a project.
Eric’s work is distinctive in that the pictures that were produced by the children who he worked with- children who had lost parents to AIDS- were purposed towards a larger project of addressing the stigmas associated with HIV/AIDS in society at large head on.
The project traveled through Ethiopia in an installation referencing a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony. Images by the children describing their lives and their aspirations were accompanied by letters that they wrote, directed towards their absent parents. Together these filled the space within metal screens from which images were hung.
The name of the ceremony, Abul Thona Baraka, in Amharic, names three progressively stronger cups of coffee. The three words signify “meeting”, “falling in love” and “parting ways”.
The continuation of the project has involved children in making videos. These videos are, like legends, fiction in the sense that they are written and performed, truthful in that they emerge from lived experience.
Along with the impact that this project has made in changing cultural perceptions surrounding “secondary victims” of HIV/AIDS, Eric’s work is important for several reasons that will be of interest to any documentary photographer.
First, the work of Eric and his collaborators follows in the tradition of concerned photography, but does so by completely reinventing the production and circulation processes, as well as redefining what constitutes the body of work itself. The production has moved from each stage to each stage organically and found its form and its audience at each moment, the form that is most effective for speaking to the audience that is most important. It’s not just that the project lacks vanity. It’s more than this; there is a humility in Gottesman and Co.’s decision to foreground the activity surrounding the images rather than the images themselves. That is, it’s not enough to make the pictures, to bear witness; there must be a strategy to make the pictures work. In this case, the strategy is something entirely new.
Second, like other collaborative projects, it emphasizes process and practice; the photographs themselves are in some respects secondary to the process of the children learning to make pictures in their own visual idioms. Except that the photographs are not secondary at all; the pictures can go on to have a second life traveling through Ethiopia, and a third life traveling through the Western world.
Finally, as Eric describes below, collaborative engagement builds out what is possible with photography, encouraging new ways of communicating visually, and hybrid aesthetics, the possibility that something new and beautiful may emerge. This is not at the expense of, but rather as a result of political and activist engagement.
Eric’s response to my questions was very rich and with his permission I have included an edited version below. Please bear in mind that the statement only covers the issues that I asked him about, representing only certain facets of this project. Also, the comments above are my own thoughts.
By the way, this project will soon enter its third or fourth life as he is working on a book, May the Finest in the World Always Accompany You!
Here is Eric’s statement:
Notes on Negotiation and Collaboration:
I went to Ethiopia in 1999 for the Hart Fellowship from Duke and spent a year there. I found a local NGO with whom to work. At the time, it was one of the only Ethiopian organizations working on the issue of HIV/AIDS. AIDS was highly stigmatized then and there was a sense that something was going on but no one was talking about it. I started visiting social service agencies and made a series of pictures that, along with the pictures and letters made by a group of six children that I met, became the first photographic exhibition about HIV/AIDS in Ethiopia’s history.
These first pictures that I exhibited were entirely anonymous because the subjects of my photographs would not allow me to photograph their faces, or even to use a 35mm camera because they were afraid that I would use their images in ways that might put them at risk. I switched over to using a Polaroid process so that we could look at the images together. If they disapproved, we destroyed the negatives immediately. This process opened me up to the idea of shifting the balance of agency from me (photographer) to the subject, not only for political reasons but because that shift indicates the possibility of a new vision, a new aesthetic, the creation of a collective masterpiece.
At that same time, I met a woman named Yewoinshet Masresha, who is now one of my closest friends. She was working with children affected by the epidemic. She introduced me to six children in Addis Ababa all living together, in a home she had set up, as brothers and sisters even though they were not related by blood. I went there one day and explained very vaguely my ideas for this project. They listened politely and told me to come back a few days later for an answer. When I did, they agreed to work with me on the condition that their work would be used to help other kids like them; they defined their audience very early on in the project. And so Sudden Flowers , the collective that these children later named, was formed.
I began going over to their house and hanging around, teaching them to use the same Polaroid ProPack Cameras and 665 Black and White Positive-Negative Film that I was using. I dropped by every couple of days and played cards, ate injera, drank coffee. I picked up the negatives that they had shot and dropped into the bucket of sodium sulfite I left for them. We looked together at the positives and talked about the pictures. Sometimes I would give assignments.
At first, I thought they were acting as typical kids playing with cameras: snapshots, mugging. It was not until I saw this one image, the one of the dream of the house catching on fire, that I realized that something more profound was happening. I realized this because that image was made using a double exposure technique, something which I had not taught them. When I saw that picture, and after I learned more about Ethiopian art and culture, I came to understand that they were learning to master the medium of expression that I brought to them. They understood how to use the camera, and the results were beyond the representations of Ethiopians, of Africans, that I had previously seen.
We found different ways of collaborating: sometimes they took the pictures, sometimes I did, sometimes they would direct it like a scene of a film and then I would trip the shutter on the camera (this process led into how we make videos as well).
I think I started with 100 packs of PN665 film.. Overall, we probably shot about 3000 images on that film. In addition to looking fantastic, Polaroid is really wonderful for this kind of work. The subject and the photographer get to see the image at the same exact time, there is a tangible photograph, and the high cost of the film forces young photographers to slow down and consider their images
Some of the kids I have been working with have shot on digital with varying degrees of success, but I have very rarely seen a good “participatory” project shot on digital. The images become deleteable, disposable…much like the projects that used to be done on disposable cameras. Some of the less successful collaborative projects are based on the idea that “poor kids can take good pictures too!”…but this approach to me does not fully anticipate the potential of the collaborative process. The idea is not just to change who is pressing the button on the camera, it is to change what “good pictures” are, to change the kinds of images we see, value, learn from.
I have often seen images from these projects that undercut the good intentions of the projects’ initiators by falling back into the old stereotypes and power dynamics that the collaborative process intends to avoid. There are questions like: Who is editing this material? Where is it being shown? For what purpose? It bothers me when these projects use a pseudo-democratic rhetoric to describe the act of handing out cameras, as though distributing cameras alone is “empowerment” or “giving voice to the voiceless.” When I see this kind of stuff, I become listless; the process is so much more complicated than that.
First of all, the dissemination of the machine itself is not the point, unless you work for Canon or Nikon; the point is that through this process, as through other artistic processes, another kind of truth might emerge, a new vision that contributes to the world.
Secondly, from a political point of view, there are systems of power that are constructed above the individual that must be strategically navigated in order for an individual’s voice to carry any kind of political import. The fact that more people in Ethiopia take photographs, as with the fact that more people vote, alone does not mean people are empowered. What is done with those photographs, or votes, must also be considered. I think of the disputed 2005 election in Ethiopia and wonder if there is an analogy to be drawn.
Returning to our project, the children of our collective and I talk a lot about who the audience for this work is (primarily an Ethiopian audience, as with the OSI show and other exhibits we’ve had in Ethiopia at Addis Ababa City Hall and other places; secondarily for an outside audience). One of the concerns has always been the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS.
The members of Sudden Flowers go back and forth on this. Sometimes they want to show their faces and share their feelings (in order to stand up for their parents, to represent their parents’ suffering to society), sometimes they want to remain anonymous (out of fear of stigmatization or out of anger). I think it is an interesting tension and one of the major ways in which the collaborative process plays out and reveals something more interesting than I could produce on my own as a Western documentarian or journalist.
I think photojournalists are athletes, masters at what they do and they often have very good social intentions. The goal for them is to witness and “tell the story.” I am not interested in objecting to this approach but only in commenting that the way in which they tell the story is all about the technical composition of the image [the formal characteristics]. The question of “good” or “right” imagery is one that absolutely applies to their work, and this has become increasingly the case as photographic technique becomes more widely disseminated and viewers demand more professional imagery.
But the implications of this kind of imagery, or of why viewers demand this kind of imagery are rarely questioned in photo-documentary work.
In our project, the children talked less about making “good” or “right” pictures than they did about what the process means to them. The images and texts that come out of this project are very personal, very embodied in lived experience, unlike the “witnessed” images of photojournalism. As a result, the children talk about the psychological impact of this project on them. As well, they express their desires to see the process change as they change, to incorporate, for instance, images of them laughing as well as representations of them mourning.
Despite this elevation of process over product, they are participating in the editing of the images for the exhibitions and publications that we have put out. They do care about what they produce. So they are making choices about which images they like…They are not necessarily the ones I would pick, but I have not really pushed them to explain why they picked the ones they picked…I just assumed that I needed to look longer at the ones they chose and educate myself about what I am missing.
(Eric Gottesman’s work has been supported by an OSI Distribution Grant, the CDS at Duke, and the John Cohen and Mary Louise Phillips Opportunity Fun.)