Elena Rue: Love After Loss, 2005-2006

Elena Rue

Sarah, two weeks after her amputation. Photograph by Elena Rue.

Introduction by Elena Rue

During the last quarter century AIDS has killed more than 25 million people. Despite the substantial funds that are spent every year in research, prevention, treatment, and relief programs there are still 40 million people living with the virus. Given this grim picture, it is hard to see the positive things that are happening around the world in response to HIV.

In 2006, I spent nine months in Ethiopia as a Lewis Hine Documentary Fellow working with a non-governmental organization called Hope for Children (HFC) based in Addis Ababa. Started six years ago by an Ethiopian woman in response to the rapidly growing number of children orphaned by HIV/AIDS, HFC gives support to over 600 children. Each child is provided with clothes, education, medical attention, and has the opportunity to participate in several clubs, groups, performances, and events. This enables children to relax in a supportive, stigma-free environment, and move beyond the problems they faced before coming to live in the group homes provided by HFC. For children who still have family, friends, or neighbors to live with, HFC sponsorship allows them to stay in their own community.

"The love within the group homes does not exist anywhere else in the world."

Hope for Children’s seven group homes are the size of a traditional Ethiopian family (six to eight children) and are headed by a group home mother. Once the children are brought together and given everything they need, HFC steps back to allow them to become a family. It was remarkable to watch the children form bonds and help each other adjust to their new and different lives. Their care, love, and support for each other serves as therapy like none other. The group home mother is another element that makes these homes unique. When a woman agrees to be a group home mother, she takes on a lifestyle, not a job. She offers her entire life to these children and begins to love and care for them as her own.

I spent time in each of Hope for Children’s group homes during my nine months in Ethiopia. When I first arrived, I was prepared to witness each child suffering from deep sadness and trauma, but while grief is part of these children’s experience, the homes are also filled with their energy and life. With this collection of photographs I hope to provide a sense of the family life within the group homes, and to give a face to the statistics flooding the media about HIV/AIDS orphans. When I focus on numbers, the difficulty of addressing the AIDS crisis seems overwhelming and disheartening, but learning the stories of these children helped restore my faith in the steps that are being taken to improve the lives of people harmed by HIV/AIDS. These images shed a positive, yet realistic, light on HIV-affected communities and their children. With the help of Hope for Children, these children have futures that are full of potential.

I went to Ethiopia with the idea of giving something to children in need, but I found that I was often the one receiving inspiration and strength from them. I hope to pass some of that along.

Introduction by Elena Rue to Poster Series

How to discuss problems of HIV/AIDS in a town where few admit the disease exists, and even fewer are willing to talk about it? How to get adult members of a community to see past themselves in order to notice the children who are suffering the effects of their mistakes?

These are questions that I asked myself as I began to work in Babile, a small town in eastern Ethiopia. Babile has a large military presence, and its location between two major cities, Harar and Jijiga, makes it susceptible to heavy truck traffic. These factors, which compound the existing risks, have contributed to the town’s large and growing HIV/AIDS infection rate.

As a Lewis Hine Documentary Fellow, I was in Babile with Hope for Children, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that supports children who have been orphaned or severely impacted by HIV in Ethiopia. Hope for Children (HFC), which has had a tremendous impact in Addis Ababa since its founding in 2000, recently began working in Babile, and is only the second NGO to be allowed to operate within the wary community. As a result of HFC’s work in Babile, dozens of children are off the streets, attending school, and living healthy lives. Through a simple sponsorship program HFC provides a child with a set amount of money each month. This funding allows children to stay with their remaining family members and covers the costs of food, education, and clothes.

Even though the children in this program have been freed from worrying about their basic needs, the hardships they encounter are fresh and alive in the community. The despair and poverty caused by the HIV/AIDS epidemic continues to affect children at a growing rate. But unlike many Babile adults, who face complex, sometimes confusing sexual issues, these children often have a clear understanding of the problems surrounding HIV and what needs to be done to address them.

When I spoke with some of Hope for Children’s beneficiaries about working together on a documentary project, they unanimously decided that making posters would be the best way to get their messages across. Posters and billboards are used throughout Ethiopia as means of communication, and in rural areas, where education rates are low, using images on posters is particularly appropriate.

Over the course of a few months, I worked with Babile youth to create photographs and messages that focused on drawing attention to the HIV-related problems they faced in their communities. The process began with the children sharing their experiences. During these discussions we came to see that the difficulties they faced were as similar as their tactics for survival. We decided to re-enact the desperate circumstances that many of them had gone through, selecting five situations that everyone agreed were common and problematic: starvation, loss of the family unit, stigma, lack of shelter, and denial of education. The tendency of many people in Babile is to ignore these issues by pretending they’re not happening in their communities. To address this, we decided to photograph the re-enactments in common public areas, and we composed the messages in both Oromifa and Amharic in order to reach all members of the community. As one boy put it, "Maybe people in the town will finally see where we have come from."

In one day we put up hundreds of posters—in hotels, restaurants, barbershops, pharmacies, small shops, homes, offices; on windows, gates, and walls. As we anticipated, the wide distribution attracted a great deal of attention, which worked in our favor. As we rushed around, we overheard discussions sparked by the images as well as recognition of the situations represented on the posters. The children took these opportunities to explain in more detail the situations they had lived through. There has always been poverty in Babile, but the children were careful to talk about HIV/AIDS and the ways in which the virus had played a significant role in the hardships they had experienced.

A few days after we hung the posters we discovered that several of them had been taken down. As it turned out, many members of the community had taken them to display in their own homes. To encourage this, we replaced the stolen posters and made copies available to anyone who wanted them in their homes or establishments.

Although this project was one small step in the fight against the spread of HIV in Babile, my hope is that the people in the community learned from the children’s experiences, and that the children will continue to engage and challenge their friends and neighbors about these problems.


Love After Loss on exhibition November 30–December 4, 2009 at the World Bank in Washington, D.C.

Love After Loss on exhibition September 16, 2008–January 9, 2009 at Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy, West Campus, Duke University

Bright Futures: Children in Ethiopia on exhibition April 25– September 30, 2007 at Exploris Museum, 201 E. Hargett Street, Raleigh, North Carolina

Elena Rue

Elena Rue

Lewis Hine Documentary Fellow 2005-2006, Project Manager, Instructor

Elena Rue completed the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS) Certificate program offered in conjunction with Duke Continuing Studies.