How You Connect
Photographer Edo Zollo talks with A&U’s Chael Needle about documenting the diversity of living with HIV/AIDS
Thirty portraits of thirty people living with HIV/AIDS from all walks of life and from all over the U.K.—a new exhibition of work, two years in the making, from photographer Edo Zollo has finished a successful run in London and will be traveling throughout Britain for the rest of 2013. All of the subjects in “Stand Tall, Get Snapped” differ in terms of when they were diagnosed, and are presented from the most recently diagnosed (three months) to the longest (twenty-eight years). Zollo traveled all over the country to photograph his subjects on their home turf, in a location of their own choosing to help contextualize their story. Each subject wrote a brief statement about living with HIV, which accompanies his or her photograph in the exhibition.
The individuals came to inspire Zollo with their honesty, perseverance, and optimism. They’ve inspired viewers, as well. The exhibition has garned enthusiastic coverage from the press, some encouraging Tweets from actor and AIDS activist Stephen Fry, and positive feedback from the general public. The London gallery that showed the exhibition told Zollo that it had never had so many young people come through its doors; many, after seeing the show, asked where they could go for testing. “I think that’s what I really wanted to achieve—to allow people to leave the exhibition thinking, ‘Actually, that could be me. Maybe I should get tested,’” says Zollo.
A few representative visitor responses illustrate the exhibition’s resonance:
Edoardo: The photo/portraits that were chosen were solid, I felt like I knew their story, but of course I really did not. I saw humanity in the work, even some cheekiness. There was no “Victim,” no one persona to categorize or to impose a “monolithic HIV.” Different races and genders and classes were represented I would venture to say, but the artistic choices were good ones. Pictures can perform and I felt like it said more to me than, “I am living with HIV.” The work says…“I am Living” (not to be too cliché).
Edoardo: Got to see the exhibition yesterday—thank you so much—I found it remarkable, sensitive and deeply touching…I suprised myself—how moved I was by it…It made me realize how much I can desensitize myself to my own diagnosis sometimes—there’s a tendency I have to “just get on with it” and not always give myself the time and space to reflect properly on my condition—looking at your pictures and reading the words of your participants gave me the most beautiful meditative space to revisit some of the joys and sorrows and sense of togetherness we can experience as positive people sometimes…
Zollo based his exhibition on the number thirty because he wanted to mark the thirty years since the public recognition of Terrence Higgins, whose death from AIDS-related causes, one of the first in the U.K., galvanized grass-roots and health-sector efforts to address AIDS, and to mark the thirty years since the epidemic was formally recognized in the United States. Zollo also wanted to move away from the misconception that the pandemic primarily affects gay men and people of black African origin and he wanted to change the deep-seated attitudes that perpetuate stigma.
“I wanted to reach a wider cross-section, a wider diversity of people. So I had to put a cap on each group [to reach thirty]. So I made them equal numbers for men, for women; for gay, for straight; for non-white, for white; for young and old,” says Zollo. Along with his own Facebook and Twitter efforts, he reached out through AIDS service organizations’ social media presence to promote the project and find subjects who were willing to “stand tall” and “get snapped.”
Zollo believes deeply in the power of self-expression, of which creativity is an essential part. His passion as an artist was in part inspired by his father, a professional photographer. “Since I was a child, I was surrounded by cameras, lenses, films, and, as soon as we were big enough to carry and hold the bags, we helped our dad,” says Zollo. While he understands the reason his father needed to go the commercial route—shooting weddings and christenings, and doing work for magazines—he laments the fact that his father was not able to explore his creative side more fully. Though Zollo takes professional gigs and commissions, he has tried to keep art as his primary focus. “I’ve tried to feed my creativity through photography—by using photography as a tool to express that.”
Zollo is currently at work on a new project that explores beauty in elderly people, particularly in women over seventy. “Especially in big cities such as London [elderly people] become invisible. They become a part of society that you don’t look at. Or interact with,” he says, mentioning one of his closest friends, Carol. “She’s seventy-six. She’s beautiful! The connection we have is amazing. I really want to portray the beauty in elderly people in a very unconventional way. And when people go to the exhibition, I want people to see it and go, “Whoa, that is a bit taboo but actually they are quite beautiful.”
For now, Zollo is eager to take the exhibition beyond London. “We started to get people saying, ‘Oh, I haven’t been to the London one. I’d really like to see it. Are you bringing it over here?’” “Stand Tall, Get Snapped” is traveling to Manchester, Brighton, Stoke-on-Trent, Belfast, Glasgow, and the University of Hertfordshire.
A&U recently spoke to Edo Zollo about seeing the world—London street life, the elderly, and people living with HIV/AIDS—with fresh eyes.
Chael Needle: What inspires you about photography as a medium?
Edo Zollo: For me, the camera is just a camera. The camera is just a tool. What really makes the photo are your eyes, the way you see things, the way you interpret things, the way you give meaning to things. So you can have the most expensive camera or the cheapest camera [and although there are technical aspects that distinguish them] what really makes a difference is how you see things, how you connect to people, to the subjects you want to work on. [Photography] is a way for me to connect to someone, and then explore that connection via the use of the camera and photography.
Is that what attracted you to certain projects, like your series on people with tattoos or London street life?
Absolutely. I do like very much to move away from the conventional and try to be unconventional—try to bring out subjects that make people think, “Oh, it’s taboo,” or, “You can’t talk about it,” or has gotten negative press or [garnered] a negative association. With the tattoos, I really tried to bring out the beauty of the tattoos and the beauty of the person and not [with the attitude of] “Oh, why do you have so many tattoos? You’re going to be judged by people. You’re going to have limitations of work.”
Same for HIV. HIV is still a stigma. It’s 2013, but people are still thinking that you can’t talk about HIV publicly; you can’t be so open about it. Actually, you can—because why do you need to be ashamed? Why do you need to live underground? Why do you need to hide yourself just because you are HIV-positive? So that’s why I like using photography as a tool to allow the subject to be open about [themselves]. And for the visitor to go and see it and have a different perspective of that subject.
[I didn’t want to put together another HIV-related exhibition where] visitors see the gay man in bed, feeling very sick. No, we’ve done that. There are so many photos about that. [“Stand Tall, Get Snapped”] is about going to the exhibition, and actually seeing a normal, beautiful living person leading a normal life, who, by the way, is HIV-positive.
You got the idea for “Stand Tall, Get Snapped” after your experience with unprotected sex and taking post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP)?
That was about two years ago. I had an unprotected one-night stand. I knew the person was HIV-positive. I’m not accusing the person; we were two adults having adult sex.
In the evening I realized what I did and the following morning I went to the clinic [for PEP].…I am not HIV-positive, but what really stayed with me was the emotional impact about: “How I am going to talk to my parents, how I am going to talk to my family, how I am going to talk to my friends, to work? This is really going to impact on my health. What am I going to do about it?” What really stayed with me after the twenty-eight days [of taking the PEP drug regimen was] that worry and anxiety. So I thought, I’ve got to do something about it. I’ve got to write, and research. And that’s how I found out it was thirty years…and that’s how the project started.
Did you choose those cities for the U.K. tour because of the impact of HIV in those areas or—?
We chose the cities for different reasons. Obviously location, because certain cities are quite central and this allows people from the surrounding areas to actually go there and see it. The other reason was really about people living with HIV in each area. Manchester has a very high percentage of people living with HIV. Stoke-on-Trent has a very high percentage…; Brighton, very much. Belfast. Why Belfast? That’s because it’s Northern Ireland—a very Catholic, conservative part of Ireland and it would be a very challenging subject to bring over there!
Are you surprised that stigma still persists thirty years into the pandemic?
Very much. I can sit here and tell you, “I’ve got cancer; I’ve got leukemia,” and you would look at me and feel sorry: “Poor you. What can we do to help you?” And I would not feel judged or labeled or criticized or accused of something. But if I say, “Oh, I am HIV-positive,” one of the first responses I would get is, “Ew, what have you done? Have you been cruising? Have you had lots of one-night stands and unprotected sex? Have you been promiscuous? You deserve that because you’ve been no good.” But, actually, no! If you look at most of the participants in my exhibition, most of them haven’t been promiscuous; most of them haven’t [had] endless one-night stands or, if a gay man, been to a cruising spot. No, they are very normal people living a very normal life, who happened to make just a single mistake. So why do they need to be labeled?
What did your family think of “Stand Tall”?
Well, obviously, my family’s first response was, “Are you HIV-positive?” And because I am talking openly about my unprotected sex, the first response I got from people who are very close to me was in a way very judgmental: “What did you do, you silly cow! Why weren’t you more careful? You should have come and talked to me.” So, initially I’m afraid the response wasn’t very positive.
And after they saw the exhibition?
After they saw the impact it’s had on people, yes, they were much more of the thinking that it’s a great project. The outcome has been positive—the journey to get there has been difficult.
For more information on Edo Zollo, visit his Web site at www.edlondonphotography.co.uk and check out the project’s YouTube video at http://youtu.be/WcEk43Lbloc. Follow the project on Twitter @STGSProject.
Chael Needle interviewed photographer Cate Cameron about “Ghosts and Dreams” and Cameras4Change for the January issue.