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“Over the past 7 weeks I have seen first-hand not only the fear of discrimination for a positive HIV status, but also the reality of this fear. It’s everywhere. I see it in the patients’ eyes when they describe that they have recently been fired simply because their boss suspected that there was infection nearby…sometimes in the partner of the employee. I hear it in the interviews that I am holding with patients to better know their needs…they speak of the fear that they live with, for if anyone found out that they were positive, they would be treated poorly. Sometimes their own family members– flesh and blood– don’t even know. And I feel it too. I feel it in the air when I tell someone where I work. When the letters even leave my lips– HIV– I see the confused look come across their faces…the palpable level of discomfort is incredible. Do I have HIV, they ask. Could they really be talking to someone with HIV? What if they catch it through the air that we’re sharing?”
FSD intern Trey, halfway through his internship in Argentina, was working actively to address the pains of this reality. Trey recognized in his community a need for knowledge and empowerment–knowledge in the community about HIV, its transmission, and its reality, in order to reduce the stereotype against HIV-positive individuals, and empowerment of those individuals already infected so that they could, as he put it, “begin to live with HIV rather than die from it.”
Trey met this challenge with a documentary photography project that utilized the Photovoice method–that empowered individuals within the community to use photography to tell their own story, rather than to have their story be told for them. The clinic with which he worked, el Centro de Referencia de VIH/SIDA (HIV/AIDS Reference Center), served approximately 820 HIV-positive individuals in the greater La Plata area of Argentina. Trey’s pilot program took a focus group of 8, each of whom was given a camera for a week to take pictures that documented their lives following the theme “what does it mean to you to live with HIV here in La Plata?”. The group participated in workshops that allowed them to discuss this theme with each other and to reflect on the project they were undertaking. After their photos were developed, they displayed a selection of them in an exhibition within the community, so that others could attain a deeper understanding of the lives of those with HIV and begin to see them as humans and neighbors rather than as the face of a disease that no one wanted to “catch”.
Trey tells the story of Cecilia, an Argentine who “suffered not only from HIV, but also toxoplasmosis, a dangerous disease which attacks vital organs. With no use of her right hand and the mindset of a young child, Cecilia brought light to the darkest of rooms with her contagious laugh and her compassion. Regardless of her personal situation, Cecilia has the ability to detect someone else’s pain and focus all of her energy on caring for that person in any way she can. When I left Cecilia, she was still taking pictures with the camera given her as a participant in A Través de Nuestros Ojos…despite the fact that she stated in one of our reflection workshops that she couldn’t take pictures because ‘neither her arm nor brain worked.’ Just a few minutes later, Silvia shared a picture taken of her by Cecilia…not only one of the most beautiful pictures of the project, but also one of the most profound.”
The community members who viewed Trey’s exhibition were profoundly influenced. One, Marcelo, wrote “I have seen in these photos PEOPLE like us, who have AIDS…But before all, and after all, PEOPLE—and as such we should treat them.” Another, Gloria, wrote that “An image is worth more than a-thousand words—this exposition confirms it. There are no differences—within, we’re all the same. Congratulations to all who participated.”
Thanks, Trey, for the life you brought.