The non-profit African Services Committee, based in Harlem, provides a variety of assistance to immigrants and refugees who arrive in NYC from countries throughout Africa. It was founded by Ethiopian refugees in 1981, and the organization also works in three clinics in Ethiopia providing HIV prevention, testing and care to some of the poorest people on Earth. The country has an estimated 2 million people living with HIV and the third highest number of infections in Africa.
Several months ago, photographer Haik Kocharian traveled to Ethiopia on behalf of the African Services Committee to document life in the open-air clinics. After spending three weeks visiting the clinics and exploring the surrounding areas, he returned with a colorful series of photographs that, despite their gravitas, somehow communicate a spirit of optimistic resilience. On Monday May 17th, some of Kocharian's work will be displayed at a solo exhibition at the James Cohan Gallery (533 West 26th St); the opening reception is a benefit for the African Services Committee, and all proceeds from photography sales will benefit their Pediatric HIV program. Tickets can be purchased here.
How did this project come about? It's actually a very interesting story. I wanted to go to Ethiopia even before this project because I'm from Armenia originally, and I always found a strange similarity between Ethiopia and Armenia. Both countries are landlocked, both countries practice a specific Orthodox line of Christianity, they have a similar alphabet and both are ancient nations. And since I’ve recently had this sense of longing about going back home, I thought Ethiopia could be an interesting way to begin this journey back. A friend of mine who works at James Cohan Gallery and also collaborated with me on this project, Laurie Harrison, introduced me to African Services Committee.
What is that? African Services Committee is a non-profit organization that provides free treatment for HIV and AIDS patients in Ethiopia as well as in NY, but this particular show is focused on their branch in Ethiopia. This is a non-profit, non-political organization that provides 100% free services for its clients. To date, I believe, they've already taken care of about 25,000 patients. AIDS/HIV is a humongous epidemic in Ethiopia, and I believe there are up to 92,000 infected children today, so you can imagine the scope of this issue. We met, we spoke, and we realized this could be a worthwhile project to put together as a solo exhibition showing the lives of the women and children who benefit from their services.
Had that been done before? Well, I'm sure there have been many charitable exhibitions in the past, but what I believe makes this one quite unique is that the organization itself is a very grassroots operation. Their three clinics are located in actual markets, they have people with food going into communities educating people, and I was lucky enough to have that sort of access to people and their lives. Shows like this have probably been done before, but for me this is an unprecedented and unique opportunity, to open a window into the lives of these people, their struggles, difficulties, challenges and triumphs. Ultimately it is very important to me for people to come out of this with a sense of optimism, a sense of hope, because that's our goal.
Did you have a sense of optimism when you left Ethiopia after spending three weeks there? I actually did. When I went there, I didn't know what to expect. I knew it was going to be difficult. I knew I'd see struggle and human suffering, which I did. There is suffering, there is struggling, there is a lot of pain. It is indeed difficult to see a 15-year-old or 12-year-old child infected with HIV or AIDS. However, after meeting these women and children and families, getting to know them, getting to know their lives, I was amazed by their integrity, dignity and strength, optimism, and outlook for the future. These children are for the most part optimistic, despite living in horrific living conditions, incredible poverty. The children are well taken care of, they're happy, they're smiling. They're happy and they're running around, going to school. I came back from this trip much stronger, much happier than when I went there. I learned a lot myself. So optimism indeed.
Did you ever feel unsafe when you were there? I never felt unsafe. These were incredibly welcoming people. I was very well treated, I was hosted there by members of African Services Committee. I've seen nothing but warmth, hospitality, wonderful nation, wonderful country, beautiful country, I highly recommend for anyone to visit. Untouched nature. I was very well taken care of.
Were you actually staying in the camps? I didn't stay there full time, but I visited frequently... they're not so much camps; they're more like communities. And I certainly got to know them personally; I visited them in their homes, I spent time with them because I believe that it was very important to really get to the know the people, really understand them, understand their lives, on a day-to-day basis. To get good photography, and to show the audience in NY the true state of their lives.
So this show is one-night-only, why is that, and what is the goal of this? One hundred percent of proceeds from both artwork sales and tickets are going directly to the HIV and AIDS prevention program in Ethiopia. This is not a major bureaucratic organization, this is a grassroots organization, and has a very effective leadership. So I will definitely encourage people to get involved. The benefit event exhibition is one-night show, but we are already envisioning a traveling show. We very much hope we can have different exhibitions in different venues where we can raise awareness and raise money to support this unquestionably worthy cause.
So what's next for you? What are you working on? I work in photography and film, and we are in the late development of my new feature-length film, called Forest with Parking. At this point, we have a very prestigious cast that I'm very happy with, and we have several potential investors who are interested in the film. We're hoping to finish shooting later this year, early fall.
It's a psychological drama about a young struggling poet who feels trapped with his relationship with his six-month pregnant girlfriend. He feels trapped in the city of New York. He feels trapped in his relationship with his father-in-law who's pressuring him to change his life and his beliefs. Ultimately he feels trapped within himself. A random, accidental encounter with death puts him over the edge, and he escapes the reality of his life, but as we all know, there's no escape, and we all must pay the price. That's the premise.