Documenting the Path to A Better Life With AIDS

Posted June 11, 2008 at 4:31pm

When photographer Jonas Bendiksen first met the Marie Sonie, a young Haitian woman living with AIDS, her immune system had collapsed. In the pictures he shot at the time — now part of a new exhibit showcasing the effects of antiretroviral treatments — she was so weak that she could barely lift her frail frame off the dirt floor of her family’s home. But just a few months later, he returned to find she had gained enough strength to bathe herself.

Sonie is one of more than 1.4 million people estimated to be receiving free antiretroviral treatment for AIDS through groups supported by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The story of how the drugs affected her life and those of 30 other individuals and families is documented in “Access to Life,” a new multimedia exhibit opening at the Corcoran Gallery of Art on Saturday.

Global Fund partnered with Magnum Photos to dispatch eight photojournalists across the world to capture its treatment programs.

The exhibit, which organizers say is aimed at spreading awareness about the need to continue supporting efforts to spread the distribution of antiretroviral drugs, doesn’t just capture the devastating effect of AIDS and the benefits such drugs can provide. The collection combines video, collages, pictures from the patients’ family albums and traditional documentary photography to tell the stories of the subjects from a broader perspective.

“The exhibit surrounds us with words, images, sounds,” said Philip Brookman, director of curatorial affairs at the Corcoran. “It includes the viewpoint and point of view of those on both sides of the lens — the photographer and the subjects of the photograph.”

The exhibit chronicles the changes in the patients’ health and quality of life over four to six months. In many cases, the photographers met the subjects at their weakest, most vulnerable states. While some patients grew stronger and flourished with the help of the medications over the time frame of the project, others died or were in the process of dying. In both cases, the result is an intimate and powerful look into living and dying with AIDS.

“I was worried when I went into it that three months wouldn’t be enough time to show progress in people,” Bendiksen said. “But I proved myself wrong.”

The photographs give a human face to the virus, which has killed an estimated 20 million people worldwide, according to the Global Fund.

“[The] credit is to the patients that said, ‘I don’t want this to happen to other people, so if I die, let this be a lesson to other people, and if I survive, let this be a lesson to other people,’” said Mark Lubell, director of Magnum Photos.

Many of the subjects participated in the hope that their experiences would inspire others to seek treatment, even in countries where the stigma of the virus often keeps people from getting help until it is too late.

“It was just to be an example to some other people in other countries that when you take the ARV you have a better life and you get a better future,” said Tobha Nzima, a 35-year-old woman from Swaziland who began treatment for AIDS about nine months ago. “I think they can learn many things about our lives and how we are treated in Swaziland.”

Organizers say they hope the project sheds light on the work being done to combat AIDs and the need for continued support of organizations such as the Global Fund.

“We all know the devastating effect of AIDS, but there’s hope, there’s real hope, and these photos show that,” said Natasha Bilimoria, executive director of Friends of the Global Fight Against AIDS, TB and Malaria, which organizes support in the United States for the Global Fund.

“Access to Life” will be on display Saturday through July 20 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The Corcoran is located at 500 17th St. NW.