Photographic exhibition puts fresh focus on living with HIV/AIDS
On the opening wall of Through Positive Eyes, more than 120 people gaze straight at the viewer, unflinching. They are from 10 different cities across the world and their dress and demeanour differ dramatically. But they’re all HIV-positive and all perfectly open about their status.
This multifaceted exhibition in a warren of rooms in the Iziko Slave Lodge, Cape Town, tackles the stigma the disease still carries four decades into the epidemic. It is codirected by Gideon Mendel, a South African-born photographer who has been documenting HIV/AIDS since 1993, and David Gere of the University of California, Los Angeles Art & Global Health Centre.
This leg was curated by Gere, Carol Brown (Durban) and Stan Pressner (New York). But it is largely created by the people on the walls, who wielded the digital cameras they were given to document their lives, to devastating effect.
Xoli, of Durban tells of her "blesser" who did everything for her — and gave her the virus when she was just 16 years old. One of her photos is a still life of three boiled eggs, whole and immaculate. Her first baby died of HIV/AIDS, leaving her terrified to have another for many years. She has three children now and "a husband, who is aware of my HIV-positive status, and a happy home. All the things I always wanted."
There’s Aoy, of Bangkok, who says: "Even though I’m HIV-infected, it doesn’t mean I don’t care about my personal beauty.… I don’t want society to see HIV as something pathetic."
Gordon of London, was infected by an abusive boyfriend. He photographs himself vulnerably naked, fleshy and tender. "I come from chaos. I was brought up in chaos and, in my adult life, I didn’t realise that I didn’t need to repeat that."
The images, taken in cities from Haiti to the US, are deeply personal, allowing access to fears and desires. There is a strong sense of people alive and active, finding ways to express their sexual selves. And there’s obvious interest in beauty, pride and pleasure, not just hurt.
Six commissioned installations inspired by the work add extra depth.
The project has evolved over its 10-year lifespan. Gere says that at the first pilot in Los Angeles, "we invited student photographers to follow the HIV-positive participants for several days. It drove the HIV-positive people crazy, to be under constant surveillance. That’s when we thought of turning things around to give the cameras directly to the [participants]."
Mendel also began making portraits of the individuals but soon felt the images the participants were taking themselves were more interesting. At one of the first shows, in Mexico City, his portraits were displayed large and the participants’ own images ran in a diminished strip below. It felt all wrong.
In the past 10 years questions of who has the right to photograph (and display) whom has become contested space. The privileged photographer’s gaze has become contentious. Representation and agency debates go beyond photos: in May, the curators of the Whitney Biennial were asked to remove a painting of Emmett Till, based on the 1955 photographs of his lynched body lying in a casket. The painter was a white woman.
"The truth is that I’m part of a long tradition of white, male, frequently Jewish photographers who’d had intimate access to black lives in SA," Mendel says. He believes the agency debate is important. "It is a constructive thing for [this tradition] to be challenged."
Through Positive Eyes sidesteps many of these issues with its self-representation. The show contains images and audio recordings of the participants. It’s not the first of its kind: projects that ask participants to photograph their realities have been around for years. But the quality of the output and degree of collaboration are unusual.
All participants go through an intense workshop process led by Mendel’s colleague, Crispin Hughes. "We are determined to have a powerful product that can be used as a tool of visual advocacy," says Mendel. "We also believe that if you produce something that’s powerful, it also gives people a strong sense of self-esteem and ownership and self-confidence."
The workshops involve photographic training. Participants are sent out to take photos and the results are shown to the group and discussed. Armed with this feedback, people then work on their own stories.
Mendel and Hughes and the team meet each person, at their home if possible, and have a "collaborative intervention". "We look at their work, make suggestions and give ideas…. We pick up on things that they may not have seen as significant."
Many of the creations, however, come from the participants. One of Mendel’s favourite images is of Priya in Mumbai.
Her parents, husband and children abandoned her when they were told of her status and she was shunned by the community. Her three goats, Julie, Mariye and Shera, became her family. "My animals are my human beings. They are my god. My family, my husband, my children, they have all betrayed me, but these animals have not," Priya says. She set the 10-minute self-timer of her camera to go off and lay on her bed. Julie came and fell asleep in her arms, raising her head briefly as the camera clicked. "I don’t think any external, skilled, talented photographer could have made such an intimate image," says Mendel. "Sadly, Priya passed away."
The stigma that made Priya’s life a misery is still a reality. "Having talked with more than a hundred HIV-positive people in 10 cities, I can tell you this with certainty: every city with an HIV/AIDS epidemic also has an epidemic of stigma," says Gere.
We are determined to have a powerful product that can be used as a tool of visual advocacyGideon Mendel
A new development, first tried at the Durban leg of the exhibition, is the inclusion of "artivists": HIV-positive individuals trained to present their stories and images. The final room of the show at the Slave Lodge is filled with beanbags and a small crowd of mothers, aunts and children nodding in sympathy as Nadia tells her story and answers questions.
As Gere says, Nadia was "torn away from her baby son when she revealed her HIV status. Her partner refused to believe he had anything to do with her diagnosis, though she had only had sex with one man in her entire life: him.
"She talked about an imaginary purple suitcase in which she stowed her disappointments and traumas. During our workshop, she took photographs of herself heaving a purple suitcase into the ocean, which is such a powerful and evocative image. We all have our purple suitcases."
Artivists Mabusi Kgwete and Gugu Dlamini were also in the "banishing stigma" room, as the "theatre" is called.
Both agree that stigma remains an enormous problem. Kgwete says many people who visit the theatre area are shocked: they’ve never seen people talking openly about their HIV/AIDS. In a few cases, some have stood up and disclosed their own status.
"Our goal with the exhibition is to literally ‘banish’ stigma," says Gere. "Having met a person living with HIV or AIDS, it’s difficult to be afraid any longer."
• Through Positive Lives shows at the Iziko Slave Lodge until February 28 2018. It then travels to Europe and the US. Visit www.throughpositiveeyes.org