Pictures with a Purpose

Photographer Elena Rue '03 documents the lives and needs of African children touched by the AIDS epidemic

Documentary photography has a long history as an agent of change. From Dorothea Lange's iconic portraits of destitute farm families during the Great Depression to Subhankar Banerjee's 2002-03 photos of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, images taken by photographers have swayed political debate and changed hearts. As the photographer Edward Steichen once wrote, photography is "a major force in explaining man to man."

Elena Rue '03 fits right into this frame. Since January, Rue has been working on a Duke University Lewis Hine Documentary Initiative Fellowship as the official photographer for Hope for Children, a non-governmental organization, documenting its HIV/AIDS educational work in Ethiopia. And, following in the tradition of Lange and Banerjee, she has been using her images to advocate for change, in Ethiopia and elsewhere.

Founded in 2000 by Yewoinshet Masresha, Hope for Children helps kids whose lives have been disrupted by HIV/AIDS, a disease that continues to ravage families in Africa. The organization arranges sponsorship for more than six hundred children, supplying food, shelter, education, and medical care. Hope for Children also offers grief counseling, vocational training, and extracurricular activities for the children, such as drama, dance, music, choir, and sports. In addition, the group works to counter the stigma associated with having AIDS in Africa, and to raise awareness of how the disease is spread.

The education is sorely needed. Recently, Rue traveled with a fellow photographer, Eric Gottesman, to a rural Ethiopian town called Babile to display Gottesman's portraits of children afflicted with AIDS. "HIV/AIDS education is relatively new in the community," says Rue, and the display had "a significant impact on the town." One man was so upset by the images and stories that he demanded to meet "HIV" and ask him why he was making these children suffer. Rue and Gottesman had to explain to the man that HIV was an illness, not a person.

Rue's interest in the power of documentary work started at Kenyon. During her sophomore year, she worked with Professor of Sociology Howard Sacks and the Rural Life Center to document the way food is produced and consumed in Knox County, for a series of articles that were published in the Mount Vernon News. She also incorporated photography into papers written for history, anthropology, and religious studies courses. An anthropology major, Rue did a senior project that involved photographing same-sex parent families, the subject of her final paper.

She spent her junior year off-campus. In the fall, she studied documentary photography, ethics, and documentary writing at the Duke University Center for Documentary Studies. In the spring, she participated in a program in Ghana.

After graduation, Rue moved to Boston, where she worked with the photographer Alex Harris and the writer and psychiatrist Robert Coles on the short-lived but influential magazine DoubleTake, which combined literary journalism and photography. While in Boston, she also became interested in an organization called SPACE (Single Parents for the Adoption of Children from Everywhere), a support group for single adults who adopt children. Over the course of a year and a half, Rue photographed the intimate domestic lives of these families. The resulting work can be viewed at

All of these experiences have served her well in Ethiopia, where she spends her days juggling several projects. She has given disposable cameras to children who are on the list to get aid from Hope for Children but haven't yet, so that they can document their lives. She's putting together a series of educational posters to illustrate the status of kids in Babile who have been affected by the virus in some way. And she is helping schools plant mango and papaya trees on their grounds, to be tended by the schoolchildren. The profits from the sale of the fruits will be used to buy uniforms and supplies.

"Hope for Children is a magical place," says Rue. While many of her photographs depict children who are sick, lonely, and poverty-stricken, Rue picks out one picture--showing children gathered around a candle--that expresses a forward-looking quote from Masresha: "In the eyes of every child is the light of the future. If that light dims, so does the hope of this world."

In the spirit of this sentiment, Rue has decided personally to sponsor one of the poorest children she's encountered, an eleven-year-old boy named Monsour. "When I met him he had been living on the street for a year and was forced to quit school," says Rue, because he didn't have enough money for school uniforms and fees. Now, Monsour is back in school and is in line for a place in a group home. He appears in many of Rue's photographs, his big eyes crinkled in a smile.

Readers can learn more about Elena Rue's experiences in Ethiopia at

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