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Fighting Stigma Through Photographs

Visitors at the photo exhibition, "Life: A celebration". The exhibition of photographs by PLHIVs - people living with HIV’ was conceptualised and supported by UNICEF.

BANGALORE, India,  12 December 2010 – “Look, this photo has been taken by me,” says Srinivas Reddy. “See this, this one was by me,” says Sukanya. “But I can’t see any of my pictures,” complains Laxmi. But Laxmi was soon comforted as Mohan pointed to a picture in the corner. 

These were comments from a group of young men and women who had been invited from all the districts of Karnataka to the inauguration function of a photo exhibition titled ‘Life: A celebration – An exhibition of photographs from the eyes of PLHIVs - people living with HIV’.  

This idea behind this exhibition was conceptualised and supported by UNICEF and was the result of painstaking efforts of CDL - Communications for Development and Learning in partnership with KNP+- Karnataka Network of Positive people.

After 3 months of preparation involving extensive training and trials the exhibit was opened to the general public at Alliance de Francaise in Bangalore on UNICEF Day, 11th December.

 “Despite all its challenges, life is a celebration for all of us. But what does life mean, when survival itself is uncertain?  ;This photo exhibition brought together some unique perspectives on life here.” explained Vikas Verma, Communication Specialist, UNICEF.

“For too long, PLHIVs have remained in the background,” explained Shangon Das Gupta of CDL.  “They need to become their own spokespersons – of the issues and concerns that affect their lives.  As long as PLHIVs remain dependent on doctors, counsellors, activists to speak for them, the real issues will not be clearly understood.  The impact of a first hand perspective is entirely different,” says Gupta.

It all started with a simple concept of giving voice to PLHIVs under the “HIV Journalism Project”. Twenty-four and women (members of KNP+) from all the districts of Karnataka  were first brought together in December 2009 for an intensive training programme on writing skills  where th[pley were encouraged to write their first hand stories. 

“The first step was to get them to write – it was anything, a letter, a recipe, a day in their life.  Next we moved to a happy experience.  This was relatively easy for them to do,” says Hema of CDL. 
“At the close of this exercise, we had stories on birthdays, prize distribution, birth of a child, and marriage of a sister – simple stories of joy – shared in a straight forward manner.”

The next step was more difficult.  They were asked to write a ‘not-so-happy’ experience.  Slowly they began to open up and share personal, direct and first hand stories.  Each of them was in relation to the stigma that they faced, the isolation that they experienced and discrimination that they encountered day after day.  Each story, though written awkwardly was harsh and honest, but also moving and painful.

These stories were then taken to the newspaper and after some advocacy of the need for this content, Vijay Karnataka agreed to carry these in a weekly column titled ‘Positive Pisumathu’  

Two weeks later, the response according to the Sub-Editor of Vijay Karnataka, Radhakrishna Bhadthi,  was very encouraging.  “Readers wrote back congratulating us for bringing such a bold theme into our pages.  The impact of a first hand story is always high.”

The second part of the exercise was training in photography skills where PLHIVs were trained in the use of a camera and to give creative expression to ideas. Terms like “lens” “aperture” and “resolutions” were used in developing both indoor and outdoor shoots.    At the close of the training, the participants chose a theme for an assignment: Life. 

As Vikas explained, “The word itself means different things to each person.  But what does it mean when life itself is at risk? Or when life is under threat? Or when basic survival is uncertain…Very simply put, explore and define what life means to you. What image can capture your thought? What form could give expression to your ideas?”

Armed with cameras, all 24 participants went back to their offices and homes to reflect on the concept before them.  With some support from the Ganapathy, Kruthiga, Hema and Asha at CDL and the very patient Resource Person in Mr. Parmeswar Guruswamy, each query got a response in extended conversations over the phone.

The real delight was when the pictures started coming in. The concept, thought, idea and expression was not just unique, but very subtle.  For instance, a simple picture of eggs on a platter was not just nutrition, but the start of life.  The idea of eggs as the source of life inspired the one amateur photographer so deeply, that for him half a dozen eggs was a celebration of life itself.

Identifying themes, finding the most suitable quotation, making linkages between images was a new experience for the participants and the team at CDL.  Photographs were clubbed under seven themes – Faith, Health, Hope, Family, Friendship, Joy and Peace – making it a unique collage on ‘Life : A Celebration’ in all its colours, flavours and textures.

While inaugurating the exhibit, Director of Alliance Mr. Chiranjiv Singh could not help admiring the photographs. He said, "It is amazing that these PLHA have overcome every constraint that would frighten them and come up with such good skills. The photographs are very good and are proof of their ability. The psychological angle and social perspectives of life through their imagination have come out in the photographs."

He also congratulated UNICEF and CDL for bringing out the first ever Kannada publication on researched articles on HIV/AIDS.  "The book explains psychological and social dimensions surrounding the issue of HIV/AIDS."

A film maker and dancer by training, Ms. Roopa Iyer congratulated PLHIVs for having the courage to speak for themselves. She commented that being a film maker she knows that photography and films are a powerful medium through which they can express themselves.  If they are comfortable with themselves, the stigma faced by them would reduce and society too would view them with dignity.

The exhibition is now ready to travel through all the districts of Karnataka and spread the message amongst the general public that life is a celebration when its preciousness is understood, in the hope that it will help break the barriers of stigma and discrimination surrounding the issue.

 

 

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