Bee, Bangkok, December 2013
“My real name is Thanakorn Poungploy, but my nickname is Bee. I am 32 years old, from Rachaburi in western Thailand. Some people accept my being a lady boy. I have felt like this since I was a child.
“Every lady boy’s dream is to be just like a real woman, with breasts and female sexual organs. I dreamed of saving money for the operation when I grew up. But when I finally saved up enough money for the operation, my dream was shattered. The transgender operation was impossible … because I have HIV. My boyfriend at the time was an injecting drug user and I was a sex worker, so I never knew for sure how I got HIV. In the end, I only did the boob job.
“For a time, I felt very down. I used to have nobody with me. My dad and mum didn’t want anything to do with me because I’m transgender and HIV-positive. My parents have now passed away.
“When I first entered show business, I started as a dancer. Then I got to be one of the lead lip-synch performers. The first song I lip-synched on the stage was ‘Miss Saigon.’
“Most people think that a dancer’s life is exciting, wearing all those wonderful costumes. I worked as a show dancer and sex worker at the same time. Sex work is the easier way to earn money. I’ve never seen a job ad for a lady boy, though the lady boy situation has become much more open now than it used to be. For example, flight attendants can be lady boys now. As for military service, in the past they always identified lady boys as mental misfits. Now the policy has changed to identify lady boys as people who inhabit their gender differently from when they were born. I want to use my life as an example to newcomer lady boys, that they should be extra careful.
“I have to thank Through Positive Eyes for inspiring me to do a photo shoot together with my boyfriend. Even though I have been with this boyfriend more than three years, we’ve never had a photo taken together. My favourite photo is of my boyfriend, Koh, holding the light. He takes care of me. He has inspired me to become a more beautiful person inside.
“It made me so happy and proud to be a lady boy when a real man asked me to marry him. I keep this wedding photo to be displayed at my own funeral, in case one day something happens to me. This photo will show that I was beautiful once.
“Sometimes I feel despair. I feel lonely. I feel like my life is at a crossroads. It’s hard to be different from others. But am I afraid? At first I was so scared of HIV, but once I got to know and learn about it, it wasn’t that scary anymore.”
Through Positive Eyes
This is the concluding chapter of my 20 years of work on HIV/AIDS: a collaborative global advocacy project, developed in partnership with the UCLA Art and Global Health Center.
I felt the time had come to shift power relations and hand the camera over to people living with HIV, so that they could make their own photographs and tell their own stories. This process lies at the heart of the project.
The pictures that have emerged and the words that accompany them, I believe, have added a new and profound dimension to the global representation of the subject. Despite a huge diversity in background, culture, context and social situation, each city has generated a collection of remarkably moving and beautiful images.
While medication is now widely available in many parts of the world, stigma remains one of the greatest barriers to the global HIV response. Many of the HIV deaths today result from people coming to medication too late, through fear and shame. By putting the voices of HIV-positive people at the centre of the discourse, this project aims to be a tool of visual advocacy to address this challenge.
So far, we have worked with 108 HIV-positive participants, drawn from seven cities around the world: Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Johannesburg, Bangkok, Mumbai, Los Angeles and Washington DC. This is very much a group project. It was developed with David Gere at UCLA, and the workshops in each country are led by fellow photographer, Crispin Hughes.
The project is still ongoing, and we will work in at least two more cities around the world before concluding with a major exhibition at the 2016 Global AIDS Conference in Durban.
These are a few examples of the project’s photographs, stories and videos. Many more can be seen on the Through Positive Eyes website.
Jo, Bangkok, December 2013
“I grew up in a broken family. My uncle raised me along with my cousin, but it seemed like all the love went to his own child. So I acted out by doing drugs to get attention. At that time, a lot of drug users lived in my neighbourhood. When I had problems, there was no one in my family I could talk to. But when I was with my group of friends, I felt important and understood.
“Among my friends, I started to create myself as the person I wanted to be. When I was in my teens, I was a bad boy. I tried all kinds of drugs. I always said to myself that it was only once, that I could always quit. But it didn’t turn out to be as easy as that.
“The year I turned 19, I encountered a life crisis. My father passed away. I felt devastated. At 20, I entered military service for two years, during which I used a lot of drugs. My new friends at the military base had access to all sorts of drugs. By the time I finished military service, I was fully addicted, had no job and no money. I was enslaved to drugs. I didn’t care how I got money for drugs. I did anything, from robbing to stealing to picking pockets. I was in and out of prison nine times.
“Eventually, I switched from smoking heroin to injecting heroin. I shared needles with others without knowing what a bad idea that was. Heroin was easier to find than needles. Possession of needles was against the law. This situation practically forced drug users to share needles. One needle would be used by seven to eight people.
“During this time, I landed in prison again. I began to feel really ill. I didn’t know what had happened. I went to get my blood tested and found out I was HIV-positive. I didn’t even understand what HIV was.
“I kept this a secret from my family. Well, no one would have paid attention anyway. None of my family members ever came to visit me when I was in prison. Five years later I felt so ill that I knew I was in a critical stage. Opportunistic ailments attacked my body. So I decided to tell my family. They couldn’t accept my bad news.
“I thought of finding some place to go until I would die. I contacted a support group for people living with HIV and AIDS. I told them about my situation, that I needed to find a place to stay. They recommended Alden House, a place for HIV-infected people. There I received the right medicine and got better after two years.
“At Alden House, I worked as a caretaker for other HIV-infected people and helped them to get into the healthcare system. Then Alden House had to be closed down. From that time until now, I have had no job. It doesn’t matter if you have HIV or not, money is important for everybody. As long as society puts up a barricade between HIV-infected and non-infected people, and shuts off opportunities for us to work, this will continue to be a problem.
“I am a loner. No one from my family wants me. They are disgusted with me because I am still a drug addict receiving Methadone treatment. I speak the truth about my life now so that others in society know about the behaviours that transmit HIV. I try to raise awareness among youth by using my life as an example. Anyone who takes risks like I have has a chance of getting HIV too.
“Fear of the healthcare system has caused many HIV-infected people to die needlessly. As long as we open ourselves up and get into the treatment process, no one has to die. I am still alive! As long as I am still breathing, I won’t give up.”
Aoy, Bangkok, December 2013
“I became infected with HIV ten years ago, when I was 30, from sexual intercourse with my boyfriend. At first, my reaction was just as you would expect. I was shocked. And also, I was worried that people would judge me. But then I met a group of new friends living with HIV. I realized that people with HIV can live for so many years and I thought to myself, ‘Why can’t I stay alive too?’
“I take my medicine and care for myself, both body and soul. That’s why I’m still here now. I have to be very careful about the timing of my medication. I wish there were a cure, so that I didn’t have to take it anymore. Each medicine has a different side effect. As a result, my body has changed. I do exercises every morning to help get a better shape, to help reduce my lipodystrophy (body bulge is a common side effect from taking HIV medications). It’s not like I’m fat, but it’s not natural. When I look at myself naked in the mirror I feel that I look like a monster. Before, I had the normal curves. Now, I have a hump on the back, and I have a distended tummy. My right fingertips feel numb. I can’t even make a fist. Nobody knows the pain that I get from my HIV medication. Nobody else feels it. But I know it, and I feel it.
“If we don’t want people to stamp HIV on our foreheads, then we have to take better care of our appearance. Even though I’m HIV-infected, it doesn’t mean I don’t care about my personal beauty. I can make myself look good. I don’t want society to see HIV as something pathetic. I don’t want them to feel sorry for me.
“I like to go out into the world and work because it shows that I can live my life and work just like an ordinary person. When I visit infected colleagues at home, I always encourage them to get up and fight. I was there before. I was in pain just like they are now. But I fought hard and tried hard to take care of myself, by seeing the doctors and by taking medicine on the right schedule.
“My personal space is my home. Home is the happiest place on Earth for me. I feel relaxed and refreshed when I enter my door after a long day at work. I enjoy my time watching TV, relaxing, listening to the music, cleaning the house, and doing my hobbies. I am a neat person. Every morning, even if I’m running late, even if I’m in a rush, I sweep and clean my room. If my room isn’t clean when I come back from work and I’m tired, I can get very annoyed. So annoyed it can cause me a migraine.”
Aoi, Bangkok, December 2013
Priya, Mumbai, December 2012
“When I told my husband that the hospital informed me I am HIV-positive, he said, ‘How have you contracted HIV? Who have you been with? My children don’t have it and I don’t have it.’ And with those words he left me. As soon as my parents heard about my illness, they abandoned me. I have four children, and they have left me as well. It’s been thirteen years. Now I am financially independent. I work as a maid.
“At the time when I fell ill, people used to call me names. They used to say, ‘She is diseased. Don’t go near her.’ It was then that a lady came to me wanting to sell her goat, and I bought it for 2000 rupees ($40 US). I decided that I would look after animals. The lady who sold me the goat didn’t realize it was pregnant and, six months later, it had a kid. I was made even happier!
“Now I have three animals with me: Julie, Mariye and Shera. I take care of them and play with them. I enjoy playing with them and taking care of them, even more than I did with my own children. The four of us, we live like a family. My animals are my human beings. They are my God. My family, my husband, my children, they have all betrayed me, but these animals have not.
“I was very nervous when I took these photographs. I have never held a camera in my life. The thought of taking a photograph even with a phone frightened me. I wondered what to do with the camera and I remembered that they had told me about the 10-minute timer, so I thought I’d give it a go. I set up the tripod, attached the camera and set up the 10-minute timer. I went to lay my head on the pillow. Julie came to me, nudging me, and fell asleep in my arms. So I held her. She pushed her head up, the timer went off, and this is the photo you have.
“I took another picture in front of my house. There was sunlight coming in and I didn’t realize that sunlight entered there. This made me happy. I realized that I can use the camera! I can do all of this! Now, no matter what I shoot, I feel that I can master the camera.
“This opportunity to take pictures has made me really happy. It’s like someone is supporting me. No one has supported me before. I pray to God to give his blessings to this family that I have now, and to teach other people what he has taught me.”
Suman, Mumbai, December 2012
“I got married when I was sixteen. When I was pregnant with my first child, I was tested for HIV and found out I was positive. My husband already knew, because after his previous marriage, he started drinking and visiting brothels. He told me this only after we got married. I’m sure he already knew his status because when the hospital asked him to get tested, he refused. If you are HIV-positive and you get married, then you need to tell your partner. It is their right to know.
“To my husband, my life was finished. I did not see it that way. I was not stressed. I thought it was like when people get diabetes and take pills and continue to live. I tried to make my husband understand this, but he just drank more because he had allowed me to get HIV. In the middle of this, I had my baby boy.
“I went on to have two more children. The first two were not infected, but my third son was HIV-positive. I found myself at the hospital all the time because my husband and son were so ill. Because of lack of money, I couldn’t buy any pills for myself. I was so tired that I fell ill too, and we were all in and out of the hospital. Eventually, my husband passed away. I went to live with my parents. It was very difficult for me because I was trying to get treatment for my son. Doctors would not treat him until I gave them money, despite my telling them I did not have any. A man saw my struggle and paid the Rs500 ($10 US) necessary for my child’s medicine, but my son died by the time we got his treatment.
“I was so tired and was not eating. Eventually, my mum and dad made me realize that I had to let go. I still had two children, and I discovered my husband had been married before and had three children from that marriage. Those children’s mother had died, and I began to care for them. Now I think of his children as mine.
“I began to go to the hospital to get treated again, even though the people there tried to chase me away and made it very difficult for me to get medicine. They said I needed a ration card to get medication, which I did not have. I met someone and asked him to give me a ration card because it was urgent. He gave it to me, but when I returned to the hospital with it, the counsellor demanded to know how I got one on such short notice. I was very angry and said, ‘Who are you? Why do you trouble me, saying there’s no medicine and that you need my name on a ration card? A person can die and still you don’t give them medicine?’ From then onwards, they started to behave better.
“Soon after, I met social workers who showed me the way to live, helped me understand more about HIV, how to take care of myself and how to speak up for myself. One of them urged me to take my first counsellor course too. I realized that I got HIV for a reason and decided that I would work within the HIV arena. However much I could make people understand, I would.
“Now I am very happy. I take care of five children and I feel like I can live my whole life. It’s not like if I have HIV I will die. As long as I have life, I will live it fully.”
Swami, Mumbai, December 2012
“Being from Reunion Island, a French territory in the southwest part of the Indian Ocean, I was raised in a Christian family. As an adult, I converted to Hinduism. Life took me that way. Similarly, life brought me HIV. HIV is socially dangerous because it is linked to sex, but most of the time people don’t know that you can get HIV without having sex—by injection or by blood transfusion.
“And so now I have HIV. Should I commit suicide because I am positive? I considered it, thinking about what people would say. I kept my status quiet for eighteen years. Over time, however, I have come to love my HIV. Although the infection is there in my body, I appear healthy. I take a yogic approach to HIV.
“One of my meditation techniques is to go inside myself and reflect on how many billions of cells we have, just like the Milky Way’s billions of stars. Are you a universe of cells or a cell of the universe? I teach yoga and teach my students to feel all the cells of their bodies when they move and to start moving like stars. The mind is a powerful tool to feel this energy potential and, if you can discover and use this potential, it can help you manage your HIV.
“And I love my HIV, because if I fight it, I am losing energy, whereas if I love it, I am gaining energy. Plus, I have found the courage to speak about HIV to people and I enjoy helping. Once I became open about being HIV-positive, so many programs came to me. HIV has brought me around the world.
“I have known stigma since childhood. My father passed away when I was a baby, and my grandmother spoke badly about my mother. I moved to France as a teenager and people at school would say, ‘You are Zulu. You are from Africa. You are cannibals.’ As an adult, I came back to Reunion. Being a white man, I would be judged for going to the temple. And now, I am talked about for being HIV-positive.
“Therefore, I am used to stigma, and my experiences help me go beyond it. Stigma is there because of ignorance. It is the same with HIV. At the beginning, people thought only gays have it. Now we know it can be everywhere. So through knowledge, we can remove stigma.
“I want to teach people that I can live peacefully and joyfully with HIV. It is my scientific and spiritual challenge. I am a living example that, with HIV, you can live a good life. There is no problem.”
Video: Raju, Mumbai, December 2012
Vera, Los Angeles, May 2011
“When I found out I was HIV-positive, I had just re-entered the United States after a trip to Nigeria, and I was having some pregnancy-related complications. When the doctor told me, I broke down and started crying. I was scared. I felt like I knew absolutely nothing about the illness, and on top of that I was looking at, ‘Wow, I’m pregnant.’ I was already in my second trimester.
“My husband is negative, and we use condoms every time so that he stays that way. At the time I found out, he was living in Nigeria. I didn’t tell him I was HIV-positive. He comes from Ghana where, if the community finds out you have HIV, you could be ostracized. For him, coming to terms with the fact that his wife is HIV-positive is a big deal. It’s been a journey.
“I know I got it sexually, from the man I had been engaged to before my husband. There was nothing that said, ‘Oh this guy may be sick.’ Nothing. But I started experiencing allergies, repeat sinus infections, a fungal yeast infection under my breasts that would not go away, and the lymph nodes behind my ears were swollen for a long time. I was running back and forth to the community health clinic, and no one thought to ask me to get tested for HIV. If you say you’re in a monogamous relationship, they don’t think to ask you to get tested. But guess what? I may be in a monogamous relationship with my partner, but that doesn’t mean my partner is in a monogamous relationship with me.
“My son saved my life. The doctor explained to me that with intervention there was less than a 2 percent chance of passing the virus on to my baby. Moreover, if I had not gotten pregnant with him at the time I did, I wouldn’t have been tested. He put me on track. Now I’m in school for my masters in psychology and counselling. I’m the first person in my family to earn an undergraduate degree. I still shake my head like, ‘I’m in school for my masters. Wow!’ I’ve gone to Washington to speak with legislators, I speak to classrooms, I’ve joined community outreach efforts. None of this was in my life before HIV. And my son has been there pushing me the whole time. He’s happy, he’s vibrant, he’s very energetic. He lets me know that there’s hope.”
Lynnea, Los Angeles, May 2011
“A lot of times people give me more sympathy than they give someone who has contracted HIV through drug use or sexual activities, because I was born HIV-positive. They say it’s not my fault and I didn’t ask for it. But who asks for HIV? The only difference between me and other HIV-positive people is that I don’t know life without it.
“When I was seven years old, my sister told me I was positive. I ran into the kitchen crying, and asked my mum why she hadn’t told me I was going to die. My mum said that as long as I saw her getting herself together every day, taking care of me and my three siblings, I didn’t have to worry about dying. Because she had AIDS, and AIDS is worse than HIV.
“I had a brother, Raymond, who was born premature. My mum found out her status when she was pregnant with him. Raymond was born in September of 1990 and died on February 14th, 1991. That was my first funeral. I remember seeing this little baby in a tiny shoebox-sized casket. He was really small. He’d fit in the palm of your hand. It’s a reminder that life is not something we were promised.
“My mum’s boyfriend, Grant, was positive as well. I saw him go from this energetic person who would dance with me, to being really sick. He was the second person who died with HIV in my home. Within that same year that he died, I lost quite a few people. His funeral was two days after my best friend’s funeral.
“I look at all the friends I’ve lost—so many people—as feathers added to my wings. When someone else passes away, I’m like, ‘Okay, God, you just wanted me to have another feather to help me fly. You’re trying to get me closer to you.’
“Losing so many people, losing hope for life, I remember my mother and how she told me as long as she was still here, I didn’t have anything to worry about. I still look at my mum and see her working two jobs and taking care of me, at 26, and my older sister and my older brother and my little brother. It gives me strength to see my mum living with AIDS for as long as I’ve been living with HIV. And she’s still going on.”
Guillermo, Los Angeles, May 2011
“A few years ago there was a fire in Griffith Park and the area where I normally hike was destroyed. I felt devastated—it was a blackened atmosphere, gnarled trees. But then I stepped back and realized that even in the most adverse circumstances you can find beauty. After that, every time I walked through that area I saw new life starting to spring up. I saw green come back, the trees blossoming, flowers growing, the animals coming back. I said, ‘It’s just like my body. My body is healing, but at its own pace because that’s nature.’
“I became infected in 1989. I had been working as a prevention worker at the AIDS Foundation of Hawaii. I counselled transgenders and prostitutes in the red light districts of Honolulu. I feel a lot of guilt about my HIV, because I knew better.
“When I became HIV-positive, my partner, Juan, could have left me. But he made the decision not to. We are going to be celebrating our 35th anniversary soon. Ten years ago we officially became domestic partners. I don’t know how we made it this far.
“I was diagnosed with Kaposi’s sarcoma, an AIDS-related cancer, in 2006. It was on a large portion of my body, so I was forced into early retirement. It has been resolved except for one location, on my penis. It’s bad enough just to have KS, but at that particular location, for a gay man, it’s just so traumatizing. It’s taken me five years to learn to accept what I have. It’s not growing, it’s not shrinking, and I can live with that. It’s not about beauty any more.
“I’ve always been told I have a remarkable body. Now I have lipodystrophy, the absence of body fat. It’s a side effect of my AIDS drugs. In my photographs, I tried to capture some of my body topography and to show that I’m resisting, I’m fighting against what binds me. It’s there, I can’t change it, but I’m not defined by HIV. I don’t consider myself a victim. I consider myself very much alive and resilient.
“I have a favourite phrase from the Indian poet and playwright Rabindranath Tagore: ‘The butterfly counts not months but moments, and has time enough.’ I understand the butterflies because they’re beautiful, but they have such a fleeting moment of life. I’ve learned that if there’s an opportunity in front of you, just jump at it. Don’t even think.”
Video: Ralph, Los Angeles, May 2011
Sabrina, Washington, July 2012
“I was diagnosed 23 years ago, when I was 33 and pregnant with my daughter. I was still using. I smoked crack cocaine and drank alcohol and smoked cigarettes and marijuana, in different combinations, through all those years as we transitioned from public housing to subsidized housing.
“In 2000, when they were still young, my children were taken away from me. The Court stipulated that I go into treatment in order to get them back. That was the turning point for me, especially the part where you have to have supervised visitation with your children, I just couldn’t take it. So I entered rehab. At that time I wasn’t open to anyone knowing that I was HIV-positive. I was terrified.
“But in the hospitals, those nurse ladies—oh! I’m just smiling about it now. They allowed me to hear them debating over who was going to draw my blood, and how many gloves they was going to put on. When I was taking my babies to get them their shots, those ladies would look at me so mean. ‘Why you do this to these kids?’ You know, just making me feel like a horrible little mother.
“But the hardest thing was the stigma I felt myself, you know, about being HIV-positive.
“I now work at an agency called the Women’s Collective and I’m a community health worker, so I work directly with clients who find it really hard to stay on their medications, or to make their doctor visits. They have life factors, you know, that come up. In the case of someone who has children, they prioritize and put their children’s needs in front of their own. In the case of someone who might be challenged with housing, they ain’t nobody think about no medicine when you ain’t got nowhere to live. Sometimes there are a lot of other factors that stop a person from doing the things that they need to do, and it’s my job to find ways to encourage them or find ways to remind them, maybe just by staying in contact with them and giving them support.
“Me, I take my medicine every day because I realize that this pill is keeping me alive and healthy. I surround myself with things that I like to do. I have—Lord knows—about four sewing machines. I like to sew! Right now my main focus and my goal is to live.”
Christian, Washington, July 2012
“I’m just trying to kill stereotypes and change the world, one photo at a time.
“In D.C., I’m what I call an ‘advocate socialite.’ I take on HIV. I take on women’s rights, homelessness, LGBT youth issues, and then just troubled youth in general. I’m trying to make sure everybody feels equal and that we don’t feel like we have to be segregated.
“When I came out of the closet at 16, it was hurtful to my family. They’re devout Baptists in North Carolina, and to be gay—and then to be black, and then to be in a small town—was kind of embarrassing. When I turned 18, I moved out and I became homeless. I was living in my car and going to school in Fairview, North Carolina. I didn’t have anybody to connect with. So one day I just called my mum and I talked to her. This was before I was diagnosed. And we started bonding then.
“I think my story’s different from others. I contracted HIV through a rape situation when I was 18, with somebody who I was dating at the time. I just wasn’t ready and I guess he was. And it seems weird to say this but, after the rape, we were still friends. Later on I found out I was positive and that was a dramatic moment, because where I’m from they don’t talk about this stuff.
“Soon after I was diagnosed my mum told me she and my stepdad had been diagnosed positive three months before. And she just didn’t know how to tell anybody. We became really good friends. And we just went through it together, until she passed. I wish we had bonded earlier in life, so I could have that family relationship, but it was so good to have it at that time.
“Now I am 31 years old with grandkids and three stepchildren. My husband is 42. He is HIV-negative. I never knew that someone could love me as much as he does. And I never thought that I would love someone as much as I love him.
“I can’t say that my life hasn’t been adventurous and I can’t say that it’s been bad. I can just say it’s been a learning process. But now I have the one thing that I’ve always wanted. I always wanted kids and I’ve always wanted family. And my husband has been able to give me both of those things.”
John, Washington, July 2012
“I was born with HIV 23 years ago. At the time my mother and father got together, my father was doing drugs. He contracted HIV, and I was born with it. So I always knew I was sick. I didn’t really know what the sickness was, I just had to live my life and keep taking my medicine. That’s how I still see it now.
“I was 19 when my mum died and 20 when my dad died. I have a brother who is 26 and another brother who is 25. We actually got closer when my mother passed away. Everybody sits in my room and we chat for a couple of hours, and then everybody goes about their business. That’s how it works.
“I spent a lot of time nursing my mother and, after she passed away, I was in shock. I picked up a camera and just started shooting. It was definitely a release. It was like my counselling session. Capturing beautiful things and moments in time is always priceless.
“With my pictures, I am trying to make a statement that everyday life can be beautiful, that the things around you can be awesome. There’s a picture of a brown telephone stand that I transformed into an altar of my mother and father, and I burn incense to send blessings to them in heaven. That’s part of my Buddhist practice. (I’m a Rastafarian too). God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle, and I feel like God knew that I could handle it. I know He knows that my parents made a mistake and my father made the mistake of doing what he did, and I know that He forgave him for that. Having me gave my father an opportunity to do something good.
“I want to photograph people and things that are unknown or unspoken of. I want to get to those people whether they are in the United States or on the other side of the world.
“When I was in school, I didn’t speak much. I didn’t really talk at all. I was so into the whole ‘being sick’ thing and not into living. I was just surviving. And I feel like it’s time to live now.
“Hopefully it takes me somewhere—I don’t know where—because only God, or Jah, as Rastafarians call him, can decide that.”
Video: Group Video, Washington, July 2012
This short film premiered at the July 22, 2012 opening of the XIX International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C., with thousands of delegates from around the world in attendance.
Zandile, Johannesburg, March 2010
“My story begins when I met my baby’s father. We were long time friends, we dated for a short time, and before I knew it I was pregnant. It wasn’t planned. And then he left me for his ex-girlfriend. When I found out that I was pregnant, the doctor advised me to do the tests that all pregnant women do. And everything was negative, except for HIV. They told me then that I was HIV-positive. I was 23.
“My son is HIV-negative. His name is Loyiso, which means victory. Honestly, when I gave him the name I never thought of this, but now it has a significant meaning for me, because he’s a victor. He conquered HIV. I love him, because if it weren’t because I was pregnant, I wouldn’t have gotten tested. If not for him I wouldn’t be alive, because I wouldn’t know my status. I’ve been on treatment for almost four years now. And I’m healthy. Though I’m HIV-positive, I’m healthier than most other people who are HIV-negative. I never even get sick.”
Gladys, Johannesburg, March 2010
“I found out about my status in 1996. I had gone for my antenatal, because I was expecting, and the doctor asked me, ‘Can we take a test?’ I was like, ‘Yes, why not?’ I went back to the doctor after two weeks and started laughing because I didn’t know why he was staring at me. In the end he said, ‘Ma’am, I would just like to tell you that you are positive.’ To me it was like BOOM.
“I immediately went out of the room. I remember slipping. I fell and the doctor was there. He picked me up and said, ‘You’ve got to be strong. There’s nothing wrong with being HIV-positive. You are still OK. You are going to be fine.’ But I did not believe him. My head was very hot—chilli hot. I remember this like it was yesterday.
“My husband came in and he was told that I was positive. He said, ‘Not my wife! Maybe there’s a mistake somewhere.’ But when I tested again, it still came back positive. I did the test seven times with different labs. ‘Where did I get it from? I’ve never cheated. Why me?’ I could not understand.”
Phindile, Johannesburg, March 2010
“I found out about my HIV status because I was a blood donor. Every time I went to give blood I would fill a form agreeing that they could test my blood for HIV. The last time I donated my blood—it was 1997—I filled the form as always, but the lady in the blood centre just took it, put it in the dustbin, and gave me an envelope. I opened it and it said: ‘We are sorry, we are no longer going to take your blood. You can go and see the doctor.’
“I went to the clinic for an HIV test. The results were positive. I didn’t cry. Then the counsellor said, ‘This is the first time I’ve told a person that she is HIV-positive and she doesn’t cry. Why? What is in your mind?’ I said, ‘I’m thinking about my children.’
“I started isolating myself from the family—I used to stay in my bedroom most of the time. I kept my status a secret for four years. No one knew.
“At the same time, I started getting involved in organizations dealing with HIV and AIDS. A friend of mine used to ask, ‘Why are you involved in these things about AIDS?’ One day I said, ‘Because I’ve got AIDS,’ jokingly, not knowing that she will take it seriously.
“Then she told one of the ladies, ‘You know, Phindi has got AIDS.’ On that very day, I decided to tell my mum. I said to her, ‘You know what? I’m going to sue my friend.’ My mum said, ‘For what?’ I said, ‘She’s busy telling people that I’ve got AIDS, and I don’t have AIDS. I’m HIV-positive.’ My mum cried. Then I just left the room and went out to play pool.
“The next day when she came home from church I said to her, ‘You know what, Mum, you don’t have to cry. I’ve been living with this disease for four years now, and look at me, I’m healthy.’”
Video: Gugu, Johannesburg, March 2010
Albany, Rio, June 2009
“My name is Albany. I’m 41 years old, and I live in São Cristóvão. I have been HIV-positive for the last ten years.
“I used to be a very naughty person, very crazy and totally irresponsible. I had no love for my body; I had no love for myself. When I discovered my diagnosis I was very fragile. The doctor said, ‘Albany, today you’re a person living with AIDS.’ At that time my doctor told me I had contracted HIV about eight or ten years before.
“What got me down the most when it came to this period of the disease, the ten years, was an opportunist disease, meningitis. For a time I lost my eyesight, I couldn’t talk, I lost my sense of touch, I couldn’t hold things. I almost died, and God gave me everything again. I was on the brink of death and the doctors gave me all their support, moral and ethical. I knew then that I had to be different, that I couldn’t live with the mistakes of the past. I couldn’t waste any of this.
“So I have had to change my story, my life. I have suffered a lot with HIV, but today I am sure that I have changed. I have balance, and I have goals to live by, because I contracted something very serious.
“Today I’m an AIDS militant. I left the nightlife, the nightclubs. I’m not dating anymore, but I’m always with my activist friends, and this is how I survive. This is how I live and I love those close to me, how I’m coherent and how I’m patient. I am open, I show my cards, and I’m much better now, thank God.”
Aninha, Rio, June 2009
“My name is Ana, I live in Tijuca, Rio de Janeiro. I am 40 years old. I have lived with HIV for 20 years.
“I am a happy person, but it hasn’t always been like this. I was rebellious. I didn’t want to take the medication. I was sick with AIDS, bedridden, in a wheelchair. I almost died but didn’t thanks to my will to live, the Brazilian Unified Health Care System, and to the medications. I have trouble with speech and memory loss. What bothers me the most is to have forgotten things from my past. It’s not easy to live like this.
“The most difficult moment of my life was to discover that I was pregnant and I had HIV. I suffered for months. I even tried to have an abortion, but the doctor said there was no need, that I was very sick and the baby wouldn’t survive. To my surprise and the surprise of all, the baby was born. He was sick, but in time I found he was negative. My greatest joy was when I opened the result of my son’s exam and there it was, negative. I cried, I laughed. I ran and told my friends, and everyone cried, laughed. It was the greatest emotion I have felt in all my life.
“I want to take this opportunity to pay homage to my friends who battled, who put up a fight and couldn’t get here. Many people I knew died, the majority before 1995. I remember their faces, their smiles, their struggle, and us lying together on Paulista Avenue, in the sun, in the street campaigns. I would like to leave a message to these warrior friends: I love you, thank you for helping me get here today.”
José Luis, Rio, June 2009
“My name is Jose Luiz Santos da Silva. I live in a support house in Sao Cristovao, Rio de Janeiro. I have been HIV-positive for about a year and six months.
“As a person living with HIV/AIDS I am not smaller than others, not intellectually, not physically, not as a citizen. Unfortunately, because HIV is a sexually transmitted disease people have this block and don’t accept it, because talking about sex is bad, it’s shameful, even if doing it isn’t.
“Activism has given me this inner strength, despite being abandoned by my partner, despite being unemployed, and living with a monthly pension of R$62 [approx. $35USD]. Considering that living on the minimum wage is hard, being R$465, imagine with R$62. But here we are living, fighting, and we don’t lose sight of things, neither the bad things nor the good things.
“What I can say to everyone is that we have to live, everyday. We’re not less than anybody because we’re positive. It’s a disease like any other.”
Video: Cida, Rio, June 2009
Magda, Mexico City, June 2008
“My name doesn’t matter; what’s important is what I have to say. Over five years ago I was diagnosed with HIV. Before then my life was no different from that of any other housewife.
“I consider myself to be a strong woman, but if they tell you that you have a disease about which you know nothing but the name, and then they tell you that you are dying from it at age 40, with small children, the blow is devastating.
My husband is a truck driver. From the very first moment he gave me his full support. He said: ‘If you are infected, so am I. We’re going to get out of this together, the way we have overcome every other problem.’
Once the initial fears and symptoms were past, I became aware of deficiencies in the available medical services. This ‘discovery’ turned me into an activist, which means something more than distributing condoms. We have to re-educate ourselves in the knowledge of our fundamental rights.
It was at this moment that I realized all the potential I have as a woman. My life is a continuous learning experience. I feel fulfilled.
I did not know that having a camera in my hand would prove lethally orgasmic for me, ha ha. But through photography I discovered new things and saw them from a completely different perspective. In general I don’t like to take pictures of myself because I don’t look good enough, but it was a wonderful experience to see me in these pictures, to try and find the best angle.”
Magos, Mexico City, June 2008
“I like being called Magos. I am 41 years old, I’ve been married for 19 years and have been living with HIV for the past 7. Before being diagnosed I was another woman, the typical housewife who takes care of her husband and children. This has changed, since although I still do the same things, I’m now also a vendor. I sell candy on the street. And I also give talks to fellow HIV-positive people.
I was diagnosed in 2001. It was a very bitter moment. My doctor was on vacation and the hospital refused to give me the results. I fought against that. I told them it was my right to know my health condition. If I hadn’t done that, I’m sure I would’ve died of sheer frustration.
HIV has taught me that life goes on and there’s always a tomorrow. I give thanks for all the good and bad things that have happened to me. I pray for my family and to sell lots of candy. I don’t pray for my health, because I’m not going to relinquish to anyone else the power that is in my own hands.
I know it is my obligation to fight discrimination, against me and against the upcoming generation. This is why I give a face and a heart to AIDS. I want people to see that we are all equal, that we should not be judged or discriminated against, and that everyone should be informed.”
Alejandro, Mexico City, June 2008
“I am an electrician and I have been living with HIV for the past 15 years. That afternoon when I got the news, I was in shock. I left the doctor’s office and wandered aimlessly along the streets, all night long. When I finally came to my senses, it was dawn.
I decided to fight to remain in the best physical, emotional and psychological condition I could during the time I had left on this planet. I promised myself that the virus would never defeat me. I decided to be tough.
It doesn’t matter if the virus came to my life or if I went out looking for it. I just live like anybody else. I love doing exercise, not only because it is good for my health, but also because I always wanted to have the body of a wrestler.
The years I have spent living with HIV have taught me to be more humble, respectful and humane. My greatest satisfaction now is to help other people get medical care. We who live with HIV do not ask for special privileges, only that our rights be respected.
This is the first time I have taken photographs and it was a great experience, trying to represent my life. Through these images I express what I can´t say with words. The pictures that fascinate me the most are the ones where I am hugging my mother, and where I am doing the vanity pose.”
Video: Martín, Mexico City, June 2008