In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • The Preservation of Terror
  • Eric Gottesman (bio)

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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Figure 1.

Banded Passport Photographs (2007) by Eric Gottesman. C-print (h: 20" x 24").

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Figure 2.

Every page of Amsale Shiferaw's Photo Album (2007) by Eric Gottesman. Inkjet print (h: 80" x 42").

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Figure 3.

Mobile Orphan Photo Studio (2007) by Eric Gottesman. Gelatin silver prints (h: 30" x 40").

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Figure 4.

Hanna Mesfin's Mother's Photo Album (2007) by Eric Gottesman. C-print (h: 24" x 17")

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Figure 5.

Backs of Passport Photographs, Amharic (2007) by Eric Gottesman. C-print (h: 16" x 20").

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Figure 6.

Photograph of Hanna Mesfin's Mother, 1996 (2008) by Eric Gottesman. C-print (h: 9" x 12").

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Figure 7.

Photograph of Hanna Mesfin's Mother with Woman, 1996 (2008) by Eric Gottesman. C-print (h: 17" x 24").

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Figure 8.

Photograph of General's Engagement Party (2004) by Eric Gottesman. Gelatin silver...


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 155-164
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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