Although HIV is no longer the death sentence it once was, the stigma of the disease still impacts some 38 million people around the world living with it today. The specter of fear informed ignorance casts a long shadow that is hard to shake, its ruthless brutality wreaking havoc on vulnerable populations in its wake.
“My father called me on the phone and said, ‘Don’t call me again. All I owe you now is a coffin.’ And from that day on, I never spoke with my dad again,” Gaston, a man living in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, is quoted as saying in the new book Through Positive Eyes (Aperture) edited by South African photographer Gideon Mendel and David Gere, director of the Art & Global Health Center at the University of California—Los Angeles (UCLA).
He continues, “I remember my friend Robinson telling me that he was afraid of me. He was afraid to shake me hand, he was even afraid to walk next to me. Today, he is in my house, eating with me. We are eating off the same plate, drinking from the same glass. I know that I am HIV-positive. I know how to protect myself and protect others. Today I can remove that veil, and tell other people like me, who continue to hide behind a veil, ‘It’s time to break the chains.’”
Storytelling offers a powerful counterpoint: the opportunity to control the narrative, to right the wrongs caused by misinformation and bigotry, and to redress the need for justice and compassion by humanity writ large — a fundamental necessity that speaks truth to power during our current global pandemic.
Bringing together the stories of 130 artist activists living with HIV and AIDS from ten cities around the world including Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Johannesburg, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Mumbai, Bangkok, Port-au-Prince, London, and Durban, Through Positive Eyes is a tender and thoughtful portrait of individuals who have been through hell and back, and lived to tell their tale. The poignant intimacy of the photographs beautifully brings to life the raw vulnerability each person has faced having had to come to terms with not just living with HIV but the persecution, pain, and rejection the uninfected inflicted upon them.
For all of our assumptions about the disease, Through Positive Eyes makes us pause and realize we only understand but a fraction of the impact of a pandemic approaching its 40th year. “I was born HIV-positive,” says Mary, a 23 year old woman from Washington, D.C. “My biological mother passed away from complications from AIDS. I really felt abandoned. I went through a period where I hated my birth mother because I felt like, ‘You’re just going to leave me here with HIV?’ But I loved her at the same time. It was very confusing.”
Mary found strength through poetry and photography, art providing a space for creation, courage, and strength, and ultimately allowing her to come out, over and over again. “I was inspired to write ‘Dandelions,’ my first poem exposing my status. ‘The sickness she denied lies in my blood with a lesser value.’ Every time I get to that point in the poem, where I disclose, I get this rush of nerves, like, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to tell them I’m HIV-positive.’ It just feels good to tell my story.”
Testifying has the power to transform lives, both for the speaker and the audience. To stand steadfast in one’s truth while bearing witness to trauma and tragedy is a powerful act, for it requires one to walk through the fire and feel the flames burn against their skin. It is never easy: it is always a challenge and a risk — but a risk one must take if they are to fully heal from not only the source of their suffering, but the reverberations it continues to cast upon their body and mind just to make it through the day.
Though eighteenth-century English poet presupposed, “Where ignorance is bliss, ‘Tis folly to be wise,” common sense proves him wrong. Ignorance begets evil, often righteously so, whereas wisdom offers a path to liberation through salvation of the soul. Through Positive Eyes is a balm, not only for the people who fearlessly reveal themselves, but to all of us who are struggling with the debilitating physical, psychological, financial, and emotional impact of living in during the first wave of COVID-19, struggling to see a light at the end of the tunnel and imagine a positive future. The book is a thoughtful reminder that freedom will come when we reject ignorance in favor of empathy and compassion to restore our full humanity.
All images: © Gideon Mendel