Through Positive Eyes
With the Help of Photographer Gideon Mendel and UCLA’s David Gere, Novice Photographers Living with HIV Represent Themselves to the World
by Larry Buhl

Ilsa, Mexico City, Mexico, 2008

On World AIDS Day, December 1, 2019, a book of images paired with stories by 130 workshop participants——all of whom have HIV——was released by Aperture. A companion exhibition, including live performances, is running through mid-February at the Fowler Museum.

The Fowler Museum exhibit also includes live performances by Los Angeles “artivists”——part artist, part activist——telling their stories of living with HIV. But when I visited the Fowler last December, before I experienced the performances, I met with David Gere, professor of arts activism at UCLA. He also runs the Art and Global Health Center, which has been collaborating with Mendel.

Christian, Washington, D.C., United States, 2012

Gere guided me through the exhibit before we ended up in the performance space. In the first room, which was a wall of framed and matted selfies, I asked him what it was about.
“The wall comes out of the Through Positive Eyes book just published by Aperture,” Gere told me. “In each of the ten cities we worked on the photo taking series, the epidemic is shaped by the socioeconomic and political landscape. That must be taken into effect to understand why the epidemic is worse in some places than others.”

“In some countries, Brazil for example, it’s ensconced in the constitution the right to health and therefore the right to health care. If you have HIV you must receive treatment. But even there, there was concern about the side effects of the medications. Because there were better meds in places like the U.S., but they didn’t have access to those medications. We heard people saying, we deserve better medication, help us to get it.

“The live storytelling in the exhibition are people living with HIV in Los Angeles. The exhibition includes 130 people living with HIV throughout the world, who have shared their stories and photographs, and we get to live inside of that sphere.”

Joe, Bangkok, Thailand, 2013

He continues: “About the wall, all 130 people, all of them living with HIV, are staring back at us directly. They are inviting a connection and publicly declaring they have HIV and they’re doing that because they want to be honest and open and not attacked by people in their community.

“Gideon has been working on this project from the very beginning. It grew out of an art practice part of his ongoing work chronicling HIV around the world and he came up with an idea fifteen years ago to pair photos of people with HIV with first-person texts where they address the reader.

“When I saw the book that contained that art practice I was moved by it. I asked him to come to UCLA to teach a workshop in that method, with local people. He came. Out of that developed the idea for Through Positive Eyes. The idea of moving from city to city and not have Gideon take the photos but rather teach photography to people with HIV so they can be in control of the way they appear to the rest of the world and really feel their agency and power.”

I asked Gere to talk about some of the photos. I stop at a photograph of Ilsa, a trans person in Mexico City, and next to her a photo of a young man in Rio, looking pensive.
“Ilsa has taken this beautiful self-portrait in the Zócalo public square, looking frankly into the camera, saying, ‘I’m here and not going anywhere.’ Mostly we were working with tripods and timers. I think the photos required planning and set up. The young man in Rio made a design encompassing a set of feelings. He is a thinker, but there are signs of health around him, a bowl of fruit. He is young and vibrant and there are pills around him. But in his statement he says his main problem is experiencing stigma.

“We used a standard point-and-shoot camera with a good Leica lens. One of the first things we taught every group was to turn off the flash, because it flattens things out. By turning off the flash there was flexibility that couldn’t be achieved with a more sophisticated camera or a much simpler camera.”

We moved into the second room, a long space with ten audio-visual kiosks, some projected large on the wall, some more intimate. Gere explained that the effect is like walking into a room full of people speaking to us, almost like we’re at a party.

“I love that idea that we can circulate through the room and have an encounter with them. People who have taken these photos have a chance to speak to us and say things in their own words. The videos are only three minutes-long but they make an attempt to get to an essence, and they were prepared by Gideon Mendel.

“The kiosk features a woman in Mumbai, in a photo hovering on the wall. She’s on the ground caressing a goat. In her audio, we hear her explain how HIV and, just as important, stigma, upended her life. When she revealed her HIV status to her family, she was rejected by her husband, children, and family and in her final days she found solace with animals.”
Gere noted: “It’s an especially beautiful photo though maybe not technically strong. It’s not that the image is clear or that the focus is perfect, it’s not. But the radiance and tenderness between Pria and her goat is unmistakable.

Silvia, Mexico City, Mexico, 2008

“Most of the people in this exhibition had never taken a photo before. The Angelinos had because they were all accustomed to taking photos with their phones. Many of the places we went there was no access to that kind of equipment. I see that as a great advantage in this project. They didn’t have preconceived notions of what a photo should be like or how it is composed. They were incredibly creative in exploring their lives and sharing them with us. There is also an advantage to their taking the photos instead of some outside photographer. When you have the camera in your own hands you can plan things, or ditch the photo if you don’t like it. Being in total control gave a freedom to the photographers.”
We stopped by another kiosk featuring a photo of Mark, smoking a bigger-than-life cigar, not a poster child for good health practices. But Gere told me that the cigar is not just a cigar, but rather a sign that Mark, a long-term survivor with HIV, is living his life the way he wants.

Jennifer, Durban, South Africa, 2016

Gere takes me to the far end of the gallery to show a photo from Durban, South Africa. It’s a young man surrounded by a huge family.

“You realize that a young person today can live very differently with HIV than one could thirty years ago. This is a beautiful example of this. The girlfriend had a grandmother who had been trained in HIV medicine, and as a result when he confided in her that he was positive, all she said was, ‘oh honey,’ and gave him a hug. They’re still together and have had a child together since that time. It’s an example of how things have shifted. They all recognize that he’s HIV positive but there’s no danger to them.”

The Banishing Stigma Performances

We moved into the next room, a theater space called the “Banishing Stigma Room,” where a spoken word performance from the Through Positive Eyes Collective was about to begin. Each performance features two members of the rotating cast——today it was Kelly Gluckman, thirty, and Joey Terrill, sixty-four——who share their stories and photos.
Kelly Gluckman [A&U, June 2016]: “When I was first diagnosed at the age of twenty-three, there were a thousand thoughts swirling through my head, from, ‘shit, when am I going to die,’ to ‘will I ever get laid again?’ I felt like I lost my youthful state of mind. With this new diagnosis I had to adjust to having a permanent, uninvited houseguest. By telling my story I can turn this diagnoses that was so traumatizing for me and turn it into something good in the world.”

Joey Terrill, Director of Global Advocacy and Partnerships at AIDS Healthcare Foundation, and artist [A&U, July 2010]: “I never expected to see the age of forty, much less sixty-four. Most of my acquaintances are dead. There’s a core of us who came out after high school. Half of them died progressively through the eighties and nineties. I had friends from the dance clubs, co-workers, roommates who died. I stopped counting after fifty people dying. There were even people I didn’t like, and they are gone too. I have post-traumatic stress. No matter how often I tell my story, I sometimes get emotional. I’ve learned to go with it.”

Through Positive Eyes‘ next stop is Seattle, at the Gates Discovery Center, in June. David Gere said he would like to tour the project for the next three years.

Larry Buhl is a multimedia journalist, screenwriter, and novelist living in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @LarryBuhl.