Tell the Story
V. Anderson talks with photojournalist Leah Nash about documenting individuals living with HIV/AIDS in India
The interpretation of “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” was recently hotly disputed in India’s Supreme Court. Historically used to criminalize homosexuality, Section 377 (from the year 1860) of the Indian Penal Code was upheld on December 11, 2013. As a result, doctors, NGOs, The AIDS Society of India, The National AIDS Control Organization, and other HIV/AIDS outreach facilities anticipate that their work will be severely impeded. According to 2012 UNAIDS estimates, people living with HIV in India range from 1.7–2.6 million, but there’s not a lot of global attention on AIDS in India today. There was even less when photojournalist Leah Nash went there to work in 2005. Nash’s work has appeared in various publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, NPR, ProPublica, Rolling Stone, and Stern. Her other work includes “Fighting for Place,” a project about competition for education and children’s placement in Kung Fu schools in China.
V. Anderson: Your body of work is diverse, and not always about India or HIV/AIDS. What drew you to both in this case?
Leah Nash: I had been to India a few times before, and one of the times, I worked at a nonprofit called Helping Hands and spent about a week there photographing. They help orphans, the physically and mentally disabled, older people, and then I also found out there was a whole ward of children that had [HIV/AIDS], and I was sort of surprised because I hadn’t heard of India’s AIDS or HIV problem. So, I was talking a little bit to the people who run the program, and they were like, “Yes, it’s just not really talked about at all.”…So, I applied for a Fulbright grant to go, and I went back for six months, just documenting HIV and AIDS in India.
How did you make the choice to photograph a cross-section—men and women, young and old—rather than focusing on one group?
I did it as a journalist, trying to figure out what are the ways that AIDS and HIV were being transmitted, and the first was heterosexual sex. The highest numbers were along the truck driving routes. A lot of truck drivers would end up stopping off and seeing sex workers, and they would spread the disease and then bring it back home to their wives and children….So, I didn’t particularly focus on women. Maybe I had more access to them, but [I photographed] truck drivers, sex workers in the red light district in Calcutta, drug users, orphanages, clinics, and hospices.
Some of your shooting locations are personal homes. Considering the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS in India, how did people react to you when you came to photograph them?
I think part of it is because a lot of them were so stigmatized. I think for a lot of the people, they were living in this world of being afraid and a little bit ashamed. One of the women—it turned out her husband had AIDS, and she was too afraid to test herself. But I’m coming in, and from me there’s no judgment, so my response is maybe better than the average person that they had interacted with….I tried to explain to them that this is something that could happen to anybody, “You didn’t do anything wrong, I’m trying to raise awareness about this”….I was showing compassion for them—interest and compassion without judgment.
In general, did people open up to you?
I would say no—maybe one or two of the women, yes, if they had support from an NGO. It was sort of this very shameful thing, and they were also feeling incredibly hopeless. One woman had it—she had gotten it from her husband, and he had died. She had two daughters, and she never had her daughters tested, even though one was always sickly. So it’s kind of like, they don’t want to know.
Walking into these painful circumstances, is it hard to keep an emotional distance?
You know, it’s tricky with these kinds of stories, because they are incredibly emotional, but I also sort of feel like it’s a job. It’s my job to tell their story, and it’s a job that I take very seriously. And so, the way that I can serve them best is by doing my job well. That definitely takes a lot of listening and compassion, but also when I go in, I don’t want to be overwhelmed by emotion to the point that I can’t do my job. I sometimes think that I have tunnel vision when I’m working….Doing this story, I actually witnessed people die in front of me, and…that’s pretty overwhelming, and so…I don’t let myself in the moment be swept up in it. After the fact, after I’m done, that’s sort of the time when I’m in my room and I’m crying, or freaking out, or dealing with it.
Was there one image in particular that incited a strong emotional reaction in you?
Every single one of these images I look at and I think about the story that goes with it. First of all, getting access to this story was incredibly difficult. I think I spent thirty percent of my time shooting and seventy percent getting access. The government didn’t really want me there, and a lot of the people were really [made to feel shame] about it. So, I look at these stories and just think what went into making them happen and the time I spent with the families….One that always gets me is…Shobha and her father in this clinic in [Mysore]. That was sort of my hub. So, I remember when they came in, and here’s this woman, she’s seven months pregnant, she has HIV, her husband, who’s a truck driver, doesn’t want the child—wants her to get rid of it—he has HIV, and this must be a traumatic time [for her]. And she’s sitting in this clinic with her father, and they are both sitting as far as they possibly can [from each other]…and I just think there’s something so telling about that. I look at the look on her face and it’s just sort of heartbreaking for me, more than some of the images that might be a little bit more, I don’t know if graphic is the right word, but a little more in your face maybe. That one is this quiet moment that I think says a lot about AIDS and HIV and relationships between men and women and family.
How did you prepare for this shoot?
I photographed at an HIV and AIDS clinic in Portland for a month or so before I went to India and made a notebook of photos, of 4-by-6s. So I had that, and then as I would shoot different places in India, I would add to the book. Then, when I would meet people, I would say, “These are the kinds of photos I want to take,” because explaining documentary photography to a lot of people was challenging. But I was also saying, “This is something that we’re dealing with in America as well, and here are photos that I’ve taken in India. This is a problem that’s going on in lots of different places.”…That helped break the ice and helped people kind of understand the project.
What were some of the misconceptions that you heard?
A lot of times, the villages, when they would find out people had HIV or AIDS, would end up kicking them out because they just didn’t know about the disease or how it was transmitted. Then, I talked to some people who were like, “Oh, I got it from shaving, I got it from a barber,” because they didn’t want to talk about it being sexually transmitted. And also, there wasn’t a lot of education, and because there are so many different languages and a lot of people can’t read, it was like—how do you spread the information? A lot of times they would have signs that were just pictures. It’s pretty difficult if you think, “How do I explain to someone how AIDS and HIV is transmitted, but I can’t use any writing, I can only do it in pictures?”
While you were shooting the project in 2005, was there talk about rape in India, as there was after the brutal gang rape and death of the medical intern in 2012?
I was aware of rape, and I was aware of these women being put into sex work. One of the images of the women—she was mentally disabled and she couldn’t take care of herself—was at Helping Hands, and they said, “Yes, she had been raped, and that’s how she ended up getting HIV.”
You took on a lot with this project—India is such a large place, and HIV/AIDS is such a huge issue, and you covered so much territory, and it’s such powerful work—did you feel a special connection to any particular place?
That’s a tricky one….I love Mysore, where I had an apartment and was living daily life….This guy that worked [at the clinic], he was a single gentleman, and he did a lot of educational outreach. So, we were driving all around the area, going to these temples or tiny villages, and we spent a lot of time together and we became pretty good friends. And, I was just thinking to myself…this would never really happen any other way, this single Indian doctor and this white girl travelling the countryside….A lot of the relationships I built were just these crazy, insular relationships. You’re having these kind of intense bonding moments, you’re dealing with a lot of life and death, and I’m asking a lot of people that I’m working with, because they’re sort of my bridge to the world.
Ultimately, what did you want to accomplish?
For me it was really about a couple things. Educating—it was something that no one was talking about. Also, giving these people a voice and showing that this is something that could happen to anybody; it’s kind of a roll of the dice….There, but for the grace of God, go I. These were people who were just like us, and again, there were so many different versions of that. It hit a ton of different facets in the country.…Looking back on the project, it was immense. I sometimes think, “What was I thinking? HIV and AIDS in India in six months? That’s like a sixty-year project!” Sometimes I think maybe I would have been better served following one family or just one state. I was a graduate student in photojournalism. It wasn’t like I had done a ton of long-term projects before that, and so it was a huge learning experience for me….It was an amazing project, but it was also—let’s just say I drank a lot.
Are you planning to do more HIV/AIDS-related work?
Yeah, I could definitely see a follow-up to the project. The nice thing is that every now and again, people will contact me and ask me if they can use some of my images for educational stuff. So, it’s nice to see that it keeps on getting these extra lives, that it’s being seen again and hopefully doing some good.
What struck you about the people you photographed in India?
They’re going through these experiences, knowing that they’re going to die, and in a lot of cases being shunned by their families, and there’s just a lot of dignity.
For more information, visit: www.leahnash.com.
V. Anderson holds an MFA in Film from New York University. She has worked in India, the Caribbean, and the U.S., and is currently based in New York City.