First Person: Eric Gottesman

James Schwab

Curatorial Assistant

Eric Gottesman
Eric Gottesman

Recently, museum staff had the  pleasure of welcoming Eric Gottesman to our community as he engaged children in a collaborative exercise and presented about his book, Sudden Flowers, as well as some of his other projects. Featured in our temporary exhibition, Fractured Narratives: A Strategy to Engage, Gottesman is a photographic artist and organizer whose work asks audiences to question social structures that surround them. He is the recipient of many prestigious awards, including the Fulbright Fellowship in art, and was named one of the top 25 young American photographers.

During his thought-provoking presentation, Gottesman discussed his background as an artist, including how he established his foothold in the world of contemporary art. Surprisingly, Gottesman reflected that he had never intended on becoming an artist. In fact, he initially started his career with a degree in politics and economics, a far cry from a traditional arts education.  When presented with an opportunity to travel to Ethiopia as a photographer, Gottesman seized the chance to escape an office setting that he was quickly growing tired of. What he found on his journey was an opportunity for artistic collaboration that changed his path forever.

Gottesman presents about his work in the recital hall.
Gottesman presents about his work in the recital hall.

Gottesman recalled that before traveling to Ethiopia, his understanding of African culture was severely misguided; the African narrative presented to him had been one of starvation and suffering. Too often he had seen magazines plastered with images of the malnourished, a singular representation of a whole nation that seemed to bolster an American hero complex.  Gottesman wanted to reimagine the way that Africa was depicted and create images that give a voice to the complexity of cultures he encountered.

Gottesman's work hanging in Fractured Narratives: A Strategy to Engage
Gottesman’s work hanging in Fractured Narratives: A Strategy to Engage

One problem Gottesman faced while tackling this goal, however, was that many people did not want their identities to be revealed in photographs. The protection of anonymity was a matter of personal safety for many African people – being identified as HIV positive or otherwise ‘defunct’ could result in being communally ostracized. His solution became a cornerstone of his artistic process: by allowing the people he encountered to help him compose his images, he placated their need for privacy while still creating emotionally evocative photographs. For Gottesman, this formed an interesting shift in the power dynamics between photographer and subject that he wished to explore further.

Pushing the boundaries of authorship availed the opportunity to form a collective that came to be known as Sudden Flowers (a self-given name and the title of Gottesman’s book about the experience), a group of orphaned children whose parents died due to the AIDS crisis. Gottesman worked with the children to create hundreds of photographs that documented the reality of their lives in Africa. Through prompts such as, “what would you be if you weren’t who you are,” and, “photograph your future, present, and past,” Gottesman relinquished the power of creative license to the children. The group quickly gained popularity, garnering the involvement of local youth, but eventually he capped participation off at 25 members. Gottesman found that the voices of the children presented far more interesting and authentic narratives of African culture than those he had ever encountered.

Additionally, Gottesman helped create films with the Sudden Flowers that explored personal histories and provided viewers with a haunting look into their experience. Actors would portray memories or popular stories, directing the shots alongside Gottesman until the boundaries of individual creation no longer existed. One peculiar aspect about these short films are the partial masks that the children perform in. Originally used to protect actors’ identity, the veils became symbols of their treatment by society, in which they are isolated, abandoned and erased. Their eerie presence conceals suffering while simultaneously revealing it. As we watched an excerpt of a film in which an HIV-positive man swallows poison only to have his lifeless body discovered by his children and wife, their harrowingly realistic lamentation seemed far too accessible for the young actors.

Gottesman signs his book, Sudden Flowers, during the reception after his talk.
Gottesman signs his book, Sudden Flowers, during the reception after his talk.

After the talk, I spoke with senior Intermedia student, Dan Martens, who had met Gottesman earlier in the day during one of his visits to Martens’ photography class. Martens said that he could, “tell [Gottesman] is very genuine,” in regards to his art, and that even though he had seen his work already, the talk extended his understanding and appreciation of the work. Mark Sawrie, associate professor of art, was a bit more critical of Gottesman. Sawrie noted that although some of the images stood on their own aesthetically, many were not just, “eye candy,” although they had powerful backstories that were necessary for appreciating the art and extending social theory surrounding African cultures.

Gottesman also worked with a group of graduate students, the museum, and children from different community groups within Muncie on an activity that discussed listening—what it means to be a good listener and why it is an important skill. Afterwards, the children placed dots on a ‘listening map’ indicating places where they felt heard, not heard, and sometimes heard. In the coming weeks, the children will go to these locations and take photographs of the places where they are or aren’t heard, or of people who hear or don’t hear them. These photos will be displayed in the museum along with one large listening map decorated with each student’s dots.

Overall, I found Gottesman’s presentation both enlightening and emotionally impactful. It left me thinking critically about worldwide disparities, feeling thankful for the opportunities I have been granted, and awestruck by the determination of the human spirit. I would strongly encourage any readers to do themselves the favor of looking into his work and the issues it surrounds. His website can be found here.

A still from Gottesman's video, Oromaye (Introduction), available to view in the temporary exhibition gallery.
A still from Gottesman’s video, Oromaye (Introduction), available to view in the temporary exhibition gallery.

Make sure that you stop by the museum to check out Gottesman’s photographs in Fractured Narratives: A Strategy to Engage (de-installed May 3rd), in which he brings attention to the life of Baalu Girma, an Ethiopian writer who suddenly went missing after publishing a novel critiquing the oppressive Derg regime in 1983. Additionally, check out the unique perspectives of our community’s children when their listening map and photographs are installed in May!

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