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Life-Altering Access

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Exhibit Unmasks Horrors, Hopes of AIDS in Human Terms

To humanize a global tragedy, you have to hear the stories of the individuals affected by that tragedy. Those stories are the focus of “Access to Life,” a visceral exhibit by Magnum Photos and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria now on display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Magnum sent eight renowned photographers around the world in an effort to document the benefits of free antiretroviral drugs on AIDS patients. Through sometimes heart-wrenching, sometimes hopeful pictures, the “before and after” effects of antiretroviral therapy on patients are depicted in nine countries where the prevalence of AIDS and lack of health care has led to dire circumstances: Haiti, India, Mali, Peru, Russia, Rwanda, South Africa, Swaziland and Vietnam.

Photographer Eli Reed was particularly struck by the fragility of sex workers he met in Peru, such as one transvestite whose already conflicted identity was complicated by AIDS. One shot shows the man walking down a chaotic hospital corridor, which Reed likened to facing “a firing squad.”

“Words, sounds and pictures can make a powerful statement about the chaos of the universe,” said Reed, noting that he turned down a chance to work with director Steven Spielberg on the film “Munich” to pursue projects like this.

“When I saw these people before treatment, they had this feeling of, ‘This is over,’ but they made a radical improvement,” Reed said. “They had gotten better but realized that the fight goes on — you have to take your drugs and endure. It’s a crapshoot, but it’s a good crapshoot.”

A particularly moving section recounts the stories of Haitian patients through a series of Polaroid photographs taken by Norwegian Jonas Bendiksen over many months, with annotations of how the patient felt on the day of the picture. One woman’s series shows her alternating between despair and joy but making steady physical progress along the way. More heartbreakingly, another woman goes from feeling fine to “can’t say a word” in just weeks. The series ends with the woman’s funeral — a reminder that Haiti has the largest HIV burden in the Western Hemisphere.

Perhaps the most artistic expression among these narratives is Jim Goldberg’s collage of Indian victims, which runs from the gallery floor to the top of a row of tables and back to the floor. The tables symbolize the examination tables that HIV patients must lie on for hours, and the collage includes objects such as medical reports in addition to the pictures of patients and their surroundings.

“I wanted to create a multidimensional work to make people stick out but also convey the ambience of their lives,” explained Goldberg, who traveled to the Andhra Pradesh region of India, which has one of the highest HIV rates in the country. “I tried to show the transition between hopelessness and hope.”

Goldberg, who has a daughter, was particularly affected by one HIV-positive girl who even when she overcame her symptoms would work the fields for a dollar a day. But what brought him to tears was going to a hospice where HIV patients each rose to greet him and provide the traditional Indian sign of “namaste” to thank him for coming.

Goldberg’s section also included his trademark pictures featuring comments from his subjects in their own handwriting. A software engineer’s anguish seems to pour out of one photo as he admits that he contracted HIV from prostitutes and thereby infected his wife: “I feel so guilty, I feel so sad, I feel like I ruined our lives, but [with] drugs I hope for better days,” he writes.

Each image of a patient is also combined with a video display of that person, which “lets them come alive and creates another level of intimacy,” Goldberg said.

Canadian Larry Towell also adds intimacy to his section on patients in South Africa and Swaziland, both of which have been ravaged by AIDS, by penciling in descriptions on the walls above his incredibly powerful pictures of female patients. Photographs depicting these victims and the shantytowns in which they live literally encircle the viewer — an experience Towell said is meant to help the audience understand that “you’re witnessing something here.”

On hand at the exhibition opening was one of the patients whose story Towell recounts: a farm worker in Swaziland named Tobha. She has lost two partners and a child to AIDS, and yet another child is infected.

“The first thing you learn as a photographer is to ignore statistics and look at the individual,” Towell wrote on the walls. “The second is to look at the place. If the world were 1,000 people, 600 would be living in a shantytown with little access to health care.”

A public-private partnership, the Global Fund helps to provide antiretroviral treatment to more than 1.4 million people around the world. The exhibit showcases about 30 of these individuals, but true to Towell’s words, the images on display offer a larger story of hope, survival and the power of the individual in tackling one of the greatest public health challenges the world has ever faced.

Access to Life through July 20 Corcoran Gallery of Art 500 17th St., NW For more information, please call (202) 639-1700 or visit www.corcoran.org.

About the Author

Mark Hilpert is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999