In 1890 photographer Jacob Riis released his seminal How the Other Half Lives, a collection of photographs showcasing the lives of the New York City poor. By exposing the squalid conditions in which the poor lived and worked, Riis hoped to educate the upper classes and galvanize them into action.
Over a hundred years later, Rick Guasco, art director of Positively Aware, an HIV treatment journal, seeks to educate and inspire in a similar way: through photography. His online project, “A Day With HIV in America” contains the self-portraits, all taken on the same day, of dozens of people living with HIV. The faces and stories accompanying them paint a varied mosaic of experience.
“I wanted to do something to remind people that HIV/AIDS is still a serious problem in this country,” says Guasco. “At the same time, I wanted to confront the stigma of HIV.”
Thirty years have passed since the first cases of what was to become known as AIDS were diagnosed in Los Angeles. Since then, the United States alone has lost over 600,000 of its citizens to the disease, according to avert.org. Though steps have been made to stem the spread of HIV/AIDS, many problems remain. According to Howard Grossman, MD, a leading AIDS physician, “We’re back to an era there seems to be a lot of shame attached to being HIV positive.”
Dr. Grossman also cites indifference as a major obstacle in the fight against HIV/AIDS: “There’s a tremendous apathy…Young people are not using condoms, older people are not using condoms nearly to the degree that they once did. That hasn’t changed for the last fifteen years.”
Donna Futterman, MD, professor of clinical pediatrics and director of the Adolescent AIDS Program at the Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, agrees: “It’s hard to maintain a psychological crisis state. People have moved away from understanding that HIV remains a crisis. And that the minute we stop investing in treatment and prevention, HIV and AIDS is going to explode again.”
Both physicians’ concerns are reflected in a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday. According to the report there are 1.2 million people living with HIV in the US. About one in five of those people don’t know that they are positive. Since they don’t know their status, they are more liable to spread it to others. These stark numbers highlight the importance of getting tested.
“Get tested, know your status,” says Dr. Grossman. “That is without the doubt the biggest message that needs to go out.”
Activists, public health officials, policy makers and others are spreading this message today on World AIDS Day. Rick Guasco says, “There are many people who need to get tested, but don’t go because they’re afraid of what the result might be…I hope…that these pictures will open people’s eyes to the reality that whether you’re positive or negative, we are all affected by HIV. In confronting the stigma of HIV, we want people realize that you can’t make assumptions about who has it, or what kind of person gets HIV. People who are HIV-positive are just like everyone else.”
What are you doing on World AIDS Day? Tell us on our Facebook page.
To find out more about the science behind HIV/AIDS, visit the Centers for Disease Control website.
For more resources about HIV/AIDS, visit the National Association of People with AIDS (NAPWA) website.
To see more people share their stories, visit www.adaywithhivinamerica.com.