The Preservation of Terror
After the 1974 arrest of Emperor Haile Selassie by the Marxist opposition-prompted in part by public outrage over photographs in the international media showing the emperor feeding meat to his animals while rural Ethiopians starved-political factions angled for control.
Not coincidentally, it was around this time, specifically in 1977, in the midst of the Red Terror, that the Soviet-supported communist government in Ethiopia (known as the Derg) unofficially outlawed photography. These officials were afraid that someone might use images to expose their regime's abuses of power. As a result, during that time, Ethiopians could only have their images made in official "photographing studios" set up by the government to make photographs used as official documents of identity.
The Derg collapsed twenty-one years ago, but its psychological legacy continues to mystify identity and politics in Ethiopia and terrify those old enough to remember it. Of course, Ethiopians are now permitted to have cameras; but people continue to visit photography studios and carry around passport photographs of their loved ones. On holidays, families still line up to have their pictures made.
I have visited friends and neighbors in Ethiopia, and in the United States, and have asked to see the images they preserved in their homes, in photo albums, in forgotten boxes, on cluttered desks. I asked people to allow me to re-photograph these images and the marks left on them over the turbulent intervening years.
Many of these photographs depict people lost during the Red Terror or in its wake. Some are made more recently with this photographic history in mind. The photograph "Mother and Son Reunited . . ." was brought to me by someone who used the darkroom to combine an old image of a boy, missing since 1982, with a new image of his mother who still carries his photograph with her to try to find him.
I have also begun to explore the pictures people in the Diaspora have carried with them, as well as the "ones that got away"-photographs that Eritrean and Ethiopian refugees remember but, for some reason, had to leave behind. The verbal descriptions of these inert photographs (gone, but not forgotten) testify to the power of the printed photograph in a time of digitization. As well, they reveal fragments of previously normal lives. These nearly two-dimensional rectangular objects seem fleeting, yet they have endured war, flight, and physical decay, as well as love and banality.
I am interested in what these images say about the elision of personal and official histories. What do disintegrating government-sanctioned images say about the legacy of an authoritarian regime? What do old monochromatic images recall of the subjects, of what they endured, or of their memories? And how do these images inform the new, full-color national self-image Ethiopians are busily creating? [End Page 155]
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The following story was told to me by someone who fled from Eritrea across the Ethiopian border. The names have been changed and the photograph withheld.
The photograph is of two, young, good-looking men. I think Dani's father was wearing a suit with a button-down shirt but no tie, and they both had these big 'Fros, both smiling. But if I remember correctly, they were not looking at the camera. It was a stylish portrait where you don't look at the camera . . . at least at that time, they thought that was how it was supposed to be. It was a black and white photo and the blood has been there forever so you can see a dark stain in the lower part of it but you don't see red necessarily.
Dani and I were fortunate not to have to go to war, like our fathers, and I will tell you the story. We made it to the 11th grade, the highest grade in Eritrea, but in our town at that time, you could only study natural sciences in high school. In our final year, they introduced the option of arts and sciences. We pretty much begged the principal to allow us to repeat the 10th grade and to study arts and sciences. The ministry of education agreed to allow it.
We went back to 10th grade, studying history, geography, poetry, drawing . . . which meant we missed the 3rd offensive. Our friends went to fight and died. It was very sad. Especially, there was this guy named Kibrom, so handsome and never violent, only seventeen years old. Unfortunately, he did not score well on his exams and he had to go to war. When he died, his father was devastated. He lost so much weight. When you are in mourning, you know, you grow your beard. He refused to shave even after two years.
Dani, later on, after he fled to Djibouti and then on to Europe, told me that he had had a feeling that it was a wise thing to go back and study arts and sciences because of what was going on around us. He may have been right, but really the only reason I repeated the 10th grade was because I wanted to study something other than natural science. It just was not my thing. Now I know that if we had not reconsidered our field of study, we probably would not have scored well enough on our exams to matriculate, and we would have been drafted to go off to fight.
Before all this, when I was ten years old, I was on television reading one of my poems. The poem was about thanking God for the freedom that we finally experienced (I had to make it religious so my parents would allow it). All I knew about freedom is what others were saying. In my own mind, I have never been occupied.
At that time, if you saw a fighter, it was like you had seen some powerful thing from outside this world. If you ate with one of the tegedelti, you talked about it until your next meal with them. It was a privilege, like you had won the lottery. My understanding of freedom comes from what other people felt about those fighters.
Dani's father became one of the fighters along with his best friend. They were together in the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF). When the division settled in, Dani's father joined Eritrean People's Liberation Front (EPLF) while his best friend remained with ELF.
There was a very bitter war. After one particularly bloody battle with the ELF, Dani's father walked along the battlefield and stumbled upon the body of his best friend. In his pocket, he found the picture of the two of them together before the war, both of them looking away, grinning. It was pocket sized, not a big one. It was stained in blood. And it was the only thing that was left. [End Page 164]
Eric Gottesman is a collaborative artist working with photography and video. For the past ten years he has been working with Sudden Flowers, a children's art collective that he founded in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He has exhibited his work in Europe, South America, Africa, the Middle East, and North America.