In each project city we work closely with a local organization of people living with HIV/AIDS. This local organization selects a group of HIV-positive people who are committed to sharing their status publicly to fight stigma. Though we endeavor to find a group of participants that accurately represents the epidemic in the region, the work in each site is the product of a unique collaboration. Groups may not be fully representative because different populations face distinct pressures and challenges with regard to disclosure of their HIV status. Some feel the weight of stigma more than others.
Once chosen, these individuals take part in an intensive workshop directed by Gideon Mendel and photo educator Crispin Hughes. The workshop is designed to teach people with no prior visual training to explore their world and express themselves through photography. Armed with new skills and techniques—as well as small, high-resolution digital cameras—participants are then set loose to document their lives in any way they choose.
Next, Mendel travels to the home or workplace of each participant to make a portrait and to film them in personal surroundings. The result is a set of sensitive, dynamic, colorful images and video clips that reveal a great deal about each person’s life.
Alongside the visual process, we record interviews with each participant, asking them to share life-stories, experiences, and challenges they have faced living with HIV/AIDS. Their words are not intended as a tool for AIDS education, but rather as an opportunity for self expression. The interviews are transcribed so that they exist in both audio and text format. In the end we have a collection that combines Mendel’s portraits and film with the remarkable photo essays created by each HIV-positive artist.