By using photographs of people living with HIV and their personal testimonies since 1993, Positive Lives (www.positivelives.org) has been dedicatedly fighting HIV-related stigma and prejudice in communities around the world. "We wanted to humanize the disease and so that people will see individuals living with HIV" said Kevin Ryan, a trustee of International HIV/AIDS Alliance and Project Director of Positive Lives.
Photographer Stephen Mayes and AIDS activist Lyndell Stein founded the Positive Lives Project in 1993 with a series of photographs and human stories of people living with HIV done to counter negative comments coming from the church, governments and other agencies about HIV. In 1993, given the high degrees of HIV-related stigma and prejudice, Positive Lives was undoubtedly a very innovative, bold and brave initiative to challenge the negative preconceptions about HIV. "Something has to be done to counter negative publicity and stigma and prejudice" says Kevin. "At the time there was no really effective medical treatment for HIV, because of which people used to become very sick and die with AIDS related illnesses. We wanted to humanize the disease and so that people will see individuals living with HIV. It was the first time, when faces of people who were living with HIV were shown in such a major and positive way" remarks Kevin.
The first public exhibition of Positive Lives was held in Central Gallery in London, UK, in 1993. Huge crowds flocked to see the Positive Lives exhibition making this initiative a corner stone in turning perceptions about HIV and countering negative publicity on HIV generated over past years. "It was also used as a platform to challenge the media's negative representation of people living with HIV (PLHIV)," says Kevin. "This exhibition was tremendously empowering for PLHIV community itself because it was the first time they were being seen as a human being and represented positively" further adds Kevin.
This exhibition was organized with support of a UK based charity, The Terrence Higgins Trust (www.tht.org.uk).
As a result of the success of the Positive Lives exhibition in London, and the enormous impact it had in countering the HIV-related stigma and prejudice, many organizations from around the world were making requests to use this initiative in countering stigma and prejudice they have to fight in their own communities. When Positive Lives exhibition was to be held in South Africa, it was consciously decided that it should be a "living exhibition" implying that new photographs of PLHIV and their personal testimonies will continue to be added on an ongoing basis, increasing the relevance of empowering stories and photographs and enhancing the impact in portraying HIV positively and countering negative publicity around HIV.
All photographs in Positive Lives initiative are taken by internationally acclaimed photographers from around the world. People whose stories and photographs appear have not only agreed upon their stories and faces being shown but were also explained what the Positive Lives project is about and how the photographs and personal testimonies will be used. In instances, where people weren't comfortable with their faces being shown, then the faces weren't shown. Also if these people consenting to show their photographs and share their stories, ever change their mind, then their decision is respected and photographs and stories removed from the Positive Lives archive.
Today, the Positive Lives archive has over 1,500 photographs and personal testimonies of people living with HIV - collected over the past 15 years from around the globe. "Photography is about respecting an individual, some stories are sad, some happy, every story is empowering" says Kevin. The International HIV/AIDS Alliance has committed to protect this archive of 1,500 empowering stories and photographs of PLHIV for times to come.
The Positive Lives Project works with many organizations, large and small, some community based, others international, agreeing on the values of the initiative and also on messaging to come up with effective and powerful photographs and stories to have the desired impact in communities. It works with country programmes and targetted marginalized groups around the world. "The Positive Lives engages hearts to change people's heads" says Kevin. The Positive Lives Project is in much in demand now and used in variety of settings - large galleries, exhibition spaces public spaces but also brothels, schools, market places, community centres, bars, hospitals, clinics, to name a few.
"People who make up positive lives are all volunteers - they do it because they believe it is an effective way to challenge stigma and prejudice" shares Kevin.
It is an effective tool to educate journalists about sensitive and humane reporting on HIV. It persuades governments to change their position on HIV policy, informs Kevin.
"As someone who is living with HIV, I find these stories inspiring, very brave, and a positive force to change people's attitude and make me feel good about myself" says Kevin.
The Positive Lives counterbalances the HIV-related negative portrayals, the ignorance and the lack of understanding that are at the core of the shame and discrimination that often surrounds those living with HIV. For more information on Positive Lives, go to: www.positivelives.org
(The author is a World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General's WNTD Awardee (2008), a Key Correspondent (www.HealthDev.net), and writes extensively on health and development. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
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