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"
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
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
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
Contributed by: Bobby Ramakant