Photographing The Invisible – HIV & AIDS

Positive Lives: Responses to HIV and AIDS, 1993

Forward to the book "Positive Lives" by Network Photographers and Terence Higgins Trust

April 10th, 1993Stephen Mayes

There is something different about HIV and AIDS. If the photographers’ purpose had been to explore the personal catastrophe of illness there are many medical conditions that could have been approached – but unlike any other virus the medical and emotional battles of those living with HIV are underscored by unique social conditions. What distinguishes HIV and AIDS is not the illness, but
the social and political context that has developed around it (it is hard to imagine any other medical condition that still receives more treatment in newsprint than in direct services to those affected). This work attempts to reflect some of these responses to the Human Immune Virus.

These photographs show how the whole of society is involved with HIV: its transmission, the provision of care, the support structures, the attitudes and (when the virus strikes closer to home) the emotions. A medical condition has become a social condition, and we are all required to form a response and to accept a responsibility – whether by action, thought, or by simply trying to understand.

It is difficult to photograph illness in any meaningful way: pictures of people who are ill reveal very little beyond the physical symptoms of an invisible microbe’s presence. But photography is extremely good at recording social conditions and offering interpretations of human experience. As with illness, many of the core subjects photographed here are invisible (feelings of love, fear, courage and alienation are no more visible than the physiological processes of a virus), but the process of photography translates these intangible miasmas into recognisable form. Documentary photography has a power to communicate with an emotional immediacy that cannot be matched by words alone. This is greater than a mere descriptive exercise, for while these pictures use actuality as the raw material, the perceptions of the photographer and of the viewer stretch far beyond what is actually seen. With imagination as the added ingredient, these
pictures put the viewer face to face with realities far beyond one’s first-hand experience.

“Positive Lives” was conceived as a documentary project, and the photographers were selected for their ability to communicate rather than their previous exposure to the issues photographed. The function of documentary is to provide a record and while journalistic integrity has been maintained throughout, subjective interpretation is an integral and equal part of of such photography. Layered around this, the social climate that surrounds (and even gives shape to) the epidemic at the time of working imposes a political hue on the resulting body of work. Far from being a distraction this adds depth to the project. From the outset it has been the intention to take stock of the wider social circumstances as we enter the second decade of AIDS care work in Europe, an opportunity to acknowledge truths that have been overlooked, many of which may still be considered distasteful. For while HIV and AIDS have obsessed the media to an enormous extent, many of the realities have been sidestepped, and these realities include the political as well as the medical and the emotional.

This work, which is presented as a book and as an exhibition, has two important contexts. The first is the present interpretation that viewers will read into the project and the lives of those photographed. Inevitably, there will be a huge diversity of responses – probably as many reactions to the work as there are to the illness itself: some will react with relief that their long-held secret feelings have been acknowledged; others will be angered by clashes of political belief; some will be shocked by confrontation with unimagined circumstances; many will be frustrated by the omission of significant realities. It is unlikely that any single viewer will identify with (or even recognise) all the experiences recorded here, but everyone who has a heart will be moved and it is to be hoped that many will also be strengthened by new knowledge to face the turmoil that HIV will continue to wreak.

The second important context for this work will be future reference. At the time of production this book serves as a record of current experience, but in retrospect this will expand to offer a mirror reflecting a wider picture. This will not only provide information about a particular stage in the history of an epidemic, but will also serve as a record of social values and attitudes from far beyond the confines of “planet AIDS” (as one commentator describes the beleaguered condition of those currently directly affected by HIV). By collating the skills and perspectives of several photographers working across a disparate range of subject matters and focusing on this single phenomenon, a coherent piece of social history emerges.

This project in itself is only part of a wider process of a society coming to terms with an illness and the particular issues that this illness has brought to the surface. No project dealing with these issues could hope to be comprehensive. AIDS is a pandemic and the most obvious limitation on the scope of this project is geographic: all this work is created within the British Isles. While this is a deliberate strategy to keep the project within manageable proportions and to keep attention concentrated on cultures and phenomena familiar to the participants, an attempt has been made to present as wide a range of responses as possible. Across these disparities and across the gaps there is a coherent thread binding this work together: the shared experience of those directly affected by HIV in an uncomprehending society.

These are all real people and real lives. Their courage in identifying so closely with the problems that accompany HIV should not be underestimated in a culture that actively discriminates against people associated with this virus. By agreeing to be photographed they are making a significant contribution to the understanding of an issue with which we are all involved. These are Positive Lives.

1993 marked the first iteration of the “Positive Lives” project initiated by Stephen Mayes of Network Photographers and Lyndall Stein of Terence Higgins Trust, funded by Levi Strauss Foundation and others. After launching at The Photographers Gallery, London, the project was initially toured by the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford and subsequently showed in 50 venues in 28 countries, with locally relevant work created for each territory. Development was finally terminated in 2008.