Monday, December 29, 2014

Sudden Flowers by Eric Gottesman

My review of Sudden Flowers by Eric Gottesman (Fishbar, 2014) is now available on photo-eye. You can get the book here.

In our overly commoditized art world that fetishizes authorship and individual genius, it is often difficult to define a work of collective art. The answer defies the market-centric logic of most contemporary art, and often has more lasting power than any high priced print, painting, or sculpture. Sudden Flowers by Eric Gottesman is a unique book and document that only hints at the larger and more important work it records. Founded in 1999, Sudden Flowers is the name of an artistic collective based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and coordinated by Gottesman for children whose parents have died of AIDS related illness. For almost fifteen years, the collective has created photographs and films that document their lives, imagine their futures, and deal with personal trauma. Gathering together photographs, letters, transcribed text, and stills, Sudden Flowers offers a sampling of the incredible work done by the group. While the book cannot contain the real work done by the collective, the images and text offer a glimpse into the transformative effect the collective has had on the kids’ extraordinary lives.

All images © Eric Gottesman, Sudden Flowers, and Fishbar
All images © Eric Gottesman, Sudden Flowers, and Fishbar

Travelling to Ethiopia in the late 90s, Gottesman was compelled to find alternatives to the clichéd representations of Ethiopia within Western media. Like many documentarians, Gottesman arrived at one of the most obvious solutions — to involve the community being documented. Sudden Flowers emerged out of Gottesman’s work with Yawoinshet Masresha, a writer and founder of the Hope for Children Organization, who introduced him to the core members of the what would become the collective — a group of six orphaned children who were under Masresha’s care. Although reluctant at first, the group decided to work with Gottesman on the condition that their work was used to help children like themselves. Yamrot, a young girl in the group, came up with their name, and explained it simply: “if given just a bit of water and light, we will suddenly blossom.” The collective quickly grew and has included approximately thirty-four children over the years. With the goal of making art about their lives and the impact of HIV/AIDS in their community, the collective produced ten short films, as well as numerous photographs, which have been shown throughout Ethiopia and the world.

All images © Eric Gottesman, Sudden Flowers, and Fishbar

Arranged loosely by project, the book gathers a sampling of the images made by the group over the years, as well as stills from their films. Shooting with positive/negative Polaroid film, the images were immediately available to the kids to be drawn on or annotated with text, which is translated and included along with the images. Using a variety of different exercises and assignment, the group produced narrative stories and staged tableaus that are full of hope and sadness. As the book’s opening text explains, “we make pictures based on our dreams, our future and our past.” In one exercise where the kids imagining their future self, a boy named Mesfin imagines himself as a barber, while in another a boy named Tinasae wants to be a scientist. While these images are full of hope, others deal more directly with the tragedies in the kid’s lives, like the images that reenact the death of loved ones, or their own social alienation. The book purposefully removes almost all authorship from individual images and presents each as a collaboration and group effort. This is partially by choice, but as Gottesman explains in the book’s essay, in many cases he has forgotten who was holding the camera. Gottesman’s work owes its greatest debt to the master educator Wendy Ewald, who helped pioneer teaching photography to children and has done similar projects around the world. Having worked closely with Ewald on at least one project in the northern provinces of Canada, he learned from the best.

Coupled with the images are numerous explanatory quotes, texts, and letters from the members. In the most painfully letters, children write to their deceased mothers. Despite the underlying sadness behind some of the work, the book is filled with hope. In the book’s closing essay and collection of whimsical bios, we learn that many of the key members have achieved great success both in Ethiopia and abroad. Two are in college, the boy who dreamed of being a scientist now lives in Canada and posts funny memes on Facebook, and another works in development and has earned multiple masters degrees.

In our image-saturated world, we often take for granted the transformative power of image making, and overlook the cultural, social and economic restrictions that prohibit or circumscribe the opportunities to visualize ones self. It should be obvious, but making pictures has never been wholly democratic or accessible. The success of Sudden Flowers demonstrates the incredible potential of teaching and empowering young children to visualize their lives and futures. Although Sudden Flowers attempts to contain the impossible, through the documents and images in this wonderful book we gain a tiny glimpse into the extraordinary lives of these young kids. We can only hope the collective continues to blossom.

Please note: This review originally appeared on photoeye on Dec. 29th, 2014.