Through Positive Eyes started in Los Angeles in February 2007, when Gideon Mendel came to UCLA to teach a workshop course in the Department of World Arts and Cultures. This early version of the project, HIV-Positive in LA, featured images by student photographers and Gideon Mendel as well as first-person texts, but nobody had thought yet of giving cameras to every participant. To view the stories of this first group of Through Positive Eyes participants, follow this link.
In August 2008, Letra S, a sexual rights advocacy group in Mexico City, identified fourteen HIV-positive people willing to share their stories publicly. The project gave them small but excellent digital cameras and provided training in how to use them. Their work, titled Historias Positivas, was exhibited at the XVII International AIDS Conference, where it was covered by international media including the Hindustan Times, and London’s The Guardian. Since 2008, the photographers renamed the exhibition Una Mirada Positiva, and have accompanied it on tours to health fairs, high schools, universities, prisons, hospitals, and city halls throughout Mexico.
Officials of the Brazilian Ministry of Health STD/AIDS Prevention Department witnessed the project in Mexico and had a vision of supporting it in Brazil. In June 2009, the Brazilian Interdisciplinary AIDS Association (ABIA) identified seventeen HIV-positive people in Rio de Janeiro, who produced the work you see here and who have remained involved in ongoing photography workshops coordinated through ABIA.
In March 2010, Pholokgolo Ramothwala, convener of the activist platform Positive Convention, gathered together seventeen HIV-positive people from Johannesburg and the surrounding area. Working with Francois Smit of the design firm Quba, the participants produced a distinctive set of posters for use in reducing stigma and encouraging testing and treatment in South Africa. The group continues to meet regularly and is actively involved in shaping the future of the project in the country.
In April 2011, the UCLA Art and Global Health Center partnered with the Los Angeles Unified School District’s HIV/AIDS Prevention Unit and their speaker’s bureau, Positively Speaking, to convene a workshop for twelve HIV-positive people from Los Angeles and the surrounding area. During the ten-day workshop, participant-photographers created individual photo essays, which were then transformed into autobiographical videos. These photos and videos are intended for use by high school students from the Los Angeles Unified School District, with a focus on the 60,000 ninth graders who take health class every year. After the workshop, several of the participants became members of Positively Speaking, to share their stories with youth from all around Los Angeles. These face-to-face encounters and the Through Positive Eyes website are incorporated in AMP!, an arts-based, multiple-intervention, peer education program for youth that focuses on sexual health.
During summer 2012, the UCLA Art & Global Health Center brought Through Positive Eyes to Washington, D.C., to capitalize on the synergy between the Smithsonian Folklife Festival—where we showed a version of The A.R.T. Show, originally created for South Africa—and the International AIDS Conference, which was held that year at the Washington Convention Center. The Through Positive Eyes workshop was held at ARTLAB+ of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum, with the involvement of participants from La Clínica del Pueblo Community Education Group, HIPS (a Sex Worker resource center), Metro TeenAIDS, National Council of Negro Women, SMYAL, Us Helping Us, Whitman-Walker Health, and The Women’s Collective. During the workshop and festival, a documentary crew from Cut + Cue (Mo Stoebe and Katja Kulenkampff) followed two of the workshop’s youngest participants, D’Angelo (22) and Mary (23), to create a 28-minute film about their experience. The film is now being folded into the Art & Global Health Center’s AMP! sexual health program for teens in the Deep South states of North Carolina and Georgia.
Our Bangkok workshop was held in December 2013, amid massive political unrest in Thailand. The project there was conceived in partnership with The Space Bangkok, a multi-use arts venue founded by award-winning photojournalist James Nachtwey, who joined us for a celebratory dinner at the conclusion of the workshop. We were initially introduced to The Space by UCLA World Arts & Cultures/Dance alums Waewdao Sirisook and Michael Sakamoto. Together, Waewdao and Michael helped build a talented and creative local team led by Nym Korakot Punlopruksa, storyteller, artist, foodie, and translator extraordinaire. Waewdao and Nym partnered with the Bangkok UNAIDS office, the Red Cross, and a local support group to gather an exceptional group of twelve participants, whose photography and stories were chronicled prominently within the daily Instagram feed of The New Yorker.
Building on the Art & Global Health Center’s long ties with India, the Mumbai workshop took place in December 2012 in partnership with Parmeshwar Godrej’s Heroes Project. Together with Heroes, we established an outstanding group of fourteen, hailing from a diverse array of locations throughout the country, all with strong connections to Mumbai. From day one of the workshop it was clear that the participants were deeply committed to confronting stigma about people living with HIV/AIDS and also to raising awareness about prevention. The Mumbai project was released to the public in December 2013 via a Mumbai TEDx Gateway talk by project co-director David Gere.
In December 2014, a Through Positive Eyes workshop was held in Port au Prince, Haiti. The UCLA Art & Global Health Center partnered with a local participatory photography organization, FotoKonbit, which helped organize and select a group of 12 people living with HIV and AIDS (PLWHA), from in and around the capitol of Port au Prince. Despite the challenges and an unstable political situation, the workshop participants produced magnificent sets of photographs and interviews that courageously confront the rampant levels of HIV and AIDS stigma within Haitian society.
The Through Positive Eyes London workshop took place in March 2015. Working in partnership with Positively UK, we involved 12 individuals, hailing from a diverse range of London neighborhoods. Thanks in large part to the United Kingdom’s robust National Healthcare System and strong network of HIV and AIDS resource centers, all 12 participants are living healthy and productive lives. This is not to say that our London group members do not struggle with stigma and other HIV-related complexities—however, the London photographers tell an important story about the impact that consistent healthcare (including mental healthcare) and supportive housing and resource centers can make on the quality of life, treatment adherence, and personal empowerment of PLWHA.
Through Positive Eyes includes works by over 120 People Living with HIV and AIDS (PLWHA) and community partners in nine major cities—Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Johannesburg, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Mumbai, Bangkok, Port au Prince, and London.
We are currently working towards a culminating Through Positive Eyes exhibition that draws upon an archive of more than 100,000 intimate photographs taken by PLWHA since 2008. These images are accompanied by first-person narrative texts and short films, all collected as part of the ongoing project.
The Through Positive Eyes exhibition is intended to be seen throughout the southern African region, starting May-September 2016, at the Michaelis Gallery in Cape Town and the Durban Art Gallery, coinciding with the International AIDS Conference at the ICC Durban, and continuing at other South African museums through 2017, before traveling to Europe and the United States.