Capturing Face of HIV/AIDS
by Ryan Schuessler
The issue of HIV/AIDS took center stage in Washington as the XIX International AIDS Conference brought nearly 24,000 participants from 183 countries to the nation’s capital in late July for a weeklong program featuring nearly 200 discussions on the latest developments and strategies to fight the disease. And the city’s local embassies played an important part in that dialogue.
Photos: Pepo Subiranas
Geno Dunnington, 55, is the third generation of his family living in Washington, D.C. He has lived half of his life with HIV/AIDS. He takes 14 pills a day, and without the help of the DC AIDS Drug Assistance Program, he would not be able to afford the cost of his medication. He also has no feeling in some parts of his body due to illness.
On July 26, the Embassy of Spain hosted a presentation and talk on photographs by Pepo Subiranas. The series, which the Spanish photographer spent a year putting together, focuses on those living with HIV/AIDS in Washington, D.C., which has one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the United States.
Four years ago, when Subiranas embarked on the project, that number was 16,513 residents, or roughly 3 percent of the D.C. population — a proportion on par with many African countries.
“You always read numbers,” Subiranas said, recalling what drove him to photograph HIV/AIDS patients. “It is really, really unusual to see a face — a face or a history. This is a life. I have to show that.”
The result is an upfront look at the people behind the statistics. The striking portraits capture the daily hardships etched on the faces of those who have to take a barrage of drugs to keep the disease in check. Yet they also artfully depict the normal scenes of everyday life, reinforcing the notion that while a cure for HIV/AIDS remains elusive, the disease has become a manageable, long-term condition for many people.
Subiranas did not receive compensation for the project, which was done on his own time. He has presented the photographs throughout the United States and Spain to raise awareness of the issue. Subiranas said most people in Spain and Europe have no idea of the magnitude of the HIV epidemic in Washington, D.C., the seat of the U.S. government.
“Usually what we see of HIV is Africa … or hard situations. But they are people. They are here,” he said, gesturing to individuals in the audience who were the subjects of several of his photographs.
The discussion, called “Lives in 16K+,” also included Nikki Kahn and Michel duCille, both of the Washington Post, who talked about how the media covers the issue today. Like Subiranas, Kahn has also used her camera to chronicle the lives of HIV/AIDS patients.
“It’s a lifelong project,” Kahn said. “It doesn’t end.”
Kahn’s work focused on Joseph’s House, a D.C. hospice for HIV/AIDS patients who have nowhere else to go and are usually referred by hospitals. Most are homeless, and many have been incarcerated.
Staff and volunteers of Joseph’s House also attended the discussion, offering the emotional details and personal impact behind each of Kahn’s photos.
“It is a family, with all the imperfections that a family has,” said Priscilla Norris of Joseph’s House.
Kahn herself talked about the experience of becoming close to several of her subjects, specifically recalling the death of a man named Robert.
Mayra Kattar is a transgender from El Salvador who has lived with HIV for 18 years.
Two of Subiranas’ subjects who were on hand for the event urged everyone to keep the discussion alive, especially because HIV/AIDS has receded as an immediate health crisis, with antiretroviral therapy extending the lives of patients by years, if not decades. But while more than 6.5 million people now receive life-saving treatment, 7.6 million still have no access to it, according to the United Nations, which also notes that in 2010 alone, 1.8 million people died of AIDS-related illnesses, and there were 2.7 million new HIV infections.
Subiranas’ subjects agreed that if it weren’t for the conference in Washington, nobody would have been talking about the disease.
“It normally isn’t like this,” one said.
“I’ve gone through all the wars and am still fighting the war on AIDS that everyone forgot,” the other added.
The discussion also touched on the lingering stigma that HIV/AIDS patients still face in the general public. Kahn noted that it took months before one man let her photograph him because he was afraid of revealing his identity.
The two HIV/AIDS patients from Subiranas’ series echoed a similar message and called on those living with the disease to “come out of the closet” to fight stereotypes and fears.
“I’m not dying,” one said. “I’m healthy. I’m living a normal life.”
The panel and audience members agreed that the media should do more to publicize the face of HIV/AIDS and to adapt the message to platforms that will reach younger generations. Some participants expressed concern that despite decades of medical advances and social progress, not enough was being done to teach prevention among young people.
The importance of prevention and education for young people was a point that U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made in her keynote speech for the AIDS Conference at the Washington Convention Center, where she called for a “historic goal: creating an AIDS-free generation.”
“It is a time when, first of all, virtually no child anywhere will be born with the virus,” she said in defining what an AIDS-free generation would entail. “Secondly, as children and teenagers become adults, they will be at significantly lower risk of ever becoming infected than they would be today no matter where they are living. And third, if someone does acquire HIV, they will have access to treatment that helps prevent them from developing AIDS and passing the virus on to others,” she said.
“So yes, HIV may be with us into the future until we finally achieve a cure, a vaccine, but the disease that HIV causes need not be with us.”
In addition to “Lives in 16k+” at the Spanish Embassy, the Israeli Embassy held a discussion on AIDS in Africa (see related story) and the Embassy of Argentina is hosting the exhibit “United Colors of HIV” showcasing artist Fabián H. Ríos Rubino, whose work will be on display until Sept. 14.
About the Author
Ryan Schuessler is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.