All Together Human
ACT UP Dublin’s Will St. Leger & Photographer Hazel Coonagh Create an Exhibit to Destigmatize HIV
by Hank Trout
When artist Will St. Leger joined the nascent ACT UP Dublin in the late summer of 2016, he did so out of deep-rooted frustration with the failure of the Irish government, state agencies, NGOs (non-government organizations), community institutions, and the public at large to address the growing number of new HIV infections in the country. “The Irish government’s response to this health crisis is falling short,” St. Leger wrote on his blog at the time. The statistics, revealed in a countrywide “HIV in Ireland” survey, were shocking, infuriating:
• Twenty-four per cent of survey respondents believed that HIV can be transmitted by kissing;
• twenty per cent of eighteen-to-twenty-four-year-old respondents thought HIV can be passed through the sharing of a public toilet seat;
• seventeen per cent of people living with HIV said they had felt suicidal in the previous year.
This level of misinformation and the resulting stigma attached to HIV astounded activists. Still, some ninety-eight percent of respondents agreed that “young people should be taught about HIV transmission during secondary school.” St. Leger and ACT UP Dublin got to work.
Like its counterparts in the U.S. and other countries, ACT UP Dublin (AUD) realizes, as stated in its August 2016 Mission Statement, that “the HIV epidemic is a political crisis” requiring direct action, including but not limited to fighting corporate greed and the ignorance and shame about HIV and AIDS. AUD promotes sexual freedom and the reproductive rights of all people, and opposes the hostility and discrimination against HIV-positive people, fighting for equitable access to healthcare and services, including a drugs policy that prioritizes health rather than criminalizing people who use drugs.
AUD became one of the first partners in the Prevention Access Campaign, stressing the importance of the “U=U” campaign [A&U, October 2017]. In addition, AUD
has pushed for greater affordability and availability of PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) for those who are HIV-negative, a position that St. Leger particularly supports. “My last HIV test was negative,” he said. “I make a point of disclosing my status this way because it’s a more accurate description. I’m recently [single] and when I started dating again I decided that PrEP was right for me. PrEP has freed me from any background anxiety that I sometimes felt before.”
As a street artist and activist for many years, including some time as a Greenpeace activist, St. Leger is no stranger to sometimes controversial direct-action ACT UP-style protests. In 2009, he co-founded an LGBTQ group, Equals, which staged a direct action at the entrance of the Dáil (the Irish Parliament) in Dublin. The group demonstrated their discontent with what they saw as the inadequacy of the Civil Partnerships Bill 2009 by chaining themselves to the gates of the building. St. Leger was subsequently arrested by police but, although he was initially charged, he was not prosecuted.
More recently, St. Leger utilizes his unique talents for what he has called “Artivism.” For instance, he organized “All Together Human,” a one-day-only art exhibit on Irish AIDS Day, June 15, 2017, featuring the work of fifteen artists, including photographer Hazel Coonagh, Jim Fitzpatrick, and MASER. St. Leger said at the time, “I want the show title, ‘All Together Human’ to sum up the theme of this exhibit. Across our social, religious, economic and geographical differences, HIV… affects us as people… altogether human in our weaknesses and strengths, our failures and achievements, our rage and joyfulness. All together, human, in solidarity, defiance and hope.”
A silent auction of items in the exhibit netted some 2,000 EUR, allowing St. Leger to move on to his next collaborative venture with AUD. With Samuel Foxton directing, St. Leger produced Love & Suppression, a short documentary film about Robbie and Maurice, an Irish couple who participated in the landmark PARTNER study [A&U, July 2017], and who, according to the filmmakers’ description, are “living proof that a person living with HIV on effective treatment cannot pass on HIV to their sexual partner.” It is a very moving, beautifully produced, very upbeat and inspiring look at how one couple has learned how to live as a sero-different couple without the fear of passing the virus to the negative partner. The film doesn’t eschew the science, but it emphasizes the love and joy that Robbie and Maurice feel, not only for themselves but for all of the hundreds of thousands of couples who will benefit from the knowledge the couple were a part of discovering. The very opposite of “preachy,” this film aims straight for the heart without being treacly.
St. Leger told A&U, “I think the film’s strength is the ease that Robbie and Maurice show when talking about sex and their relationship. The fact that they were one of the 888 people that took part in the 2014 PARTNER study meant that the viewer could put a human face on the statistics.
“I often say, hearing people talk about studies in human terms is the difference between looking at a map and seeing the territory.”
And then, of course, there are times when one need only see, not necessarily hear a piece of art.
Photographer Hazel Coonagh took the photos for the All Together Human exhibit. “Will approached me with the idea to do a portrait series to coincide with Irish AIDS Day and an exhibition he was organizing to raise awareness and funds,” Ms. Coonagh recently told A&U in an email interview. “The driving force behind this project was the idea of finding a way to have everyone and anyone, everyday people relate to the HIV epidemic happening in Ireland right now.”
The portraits are almost startling in their everyday-ness, their familiarity. And why shouldn’t they be familiar to us? “Hazel and I believed that the project should ‘sell’ itself, meaning, when we launched the ‘Human’ project on social media, we published only four example photos of people and then invited members of the public to get in touch to be the subjects of all the remaining shots. The fact that over sixty people responded to our call to partake in an HIV solidarity photo project was uplifting for us.”
St. Leger continued, “The genesis of the exhibition was…to start a new conversation about HIV in its modern context. Some people still have a… visual narrative of HIV that’s stuck in the 1980s. We wanted to challenge that and show that people living with HIV are no different from you or me.”
“The portraits taken by Hazel are of sixty-three serodifferent people,” he continued, “so the concept was that we should see the human being first. The first word in the abbreviation ‘HIV’ is ‘Human’ and yet people sometimes don’t see the person, instead they focus on a virus that is invisible to the naked eye.”
“We used sixty photos and shot just over that, sixty-three or sixty-four,” Ms. Coonagh said. “The series kept growing as it went. We wanted to keep going with the project but we had a deadline for the exhibition and eventually had to cut off photographing for the show. We shot just about everyone who responded, though we did try to make the shoot as diverse as we could and have a good mix of ages and genders in hopes that as many people as possible could relate to the images.” It is indeed the very ordinariness of the photographs that gives them their “we’re all in this together” vibe.
When asked about future plans for the Human photos project—a traveling exhibit, perhaps? or a photo book?—St. Leger admitted, with no small measure of chagrin, that “to be honest, after the exhibition nothing much happened with the photo project” as he became more and more active with AUD and other projects. St. Leger and photographer Coonagh both would like to see the photo project preserved and shared more widely. “I thought [A&U] would be a great platform to share the photos again,” St. Leger said. “The Human project was the most important and touching project I’ve done thus far in my career and I would love to do more and expand it further. A book would be wonderful!” said Coonagh.
“We’re all in this together” is an excellent way of summing up Coonagh’s photographs, Will St. Leger’s art work, and the aims and goals of ACT UP Dublin: We are indeed all in this together. All together human.
You can watch Love & Suppression at http://bit.ly/2H1jtvf. You can follow Will St. Leger’s work at https://willstleger.wordpress.com. Information about ACT UP Dublin is available at actupdublin.com. The HIV Ireland blog survey referenced here can be found at: http://bit.ly/2GsUq33.
Hank Trout is an A&U Editor at Large.