Eight years ago, when I had to photograph HIV-infected persons as a photojournalist, it was invariably with their faces turned away or veiled. Seen against this context, the six months that I spent travelling across the country to document those battling the virus, made me conscious of a gradual, though definite, change in attitude. All the subjects agreed to be photographed. Many were even confident and enthusiastic. Some were shy and reticent. But they all wanted to tell their story.
Click here to view a slideshow of portraits that break the stereotypical image of being HIV positive
Over the years, the perception of HIV/AIDS that dominated the public mind was engraved with images of despair and hopelessness. Magazines and public service campaigns reinforced this image. So when the Indian Network for People Living with HIV/AIDS (INP+), an organization based in Chennai, approached me for this project in early 2009, I took it up as a unique opportunity to break the stereotype.
The organization has been working largely in rural districts, addressing issues such as social discrimination and providing access to medication. It has been working with technical assistance from Family Health International (FHI) and funding support from Avahan, the India AIDS initiative of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Several other domestic and international organizations—NGOs and government agencies—have been working tirelessly at the grass-roots level on similar lines.
Through the last decade, HIV has cut across all categories of employment, with cases being reported by individuals in disconnected professions—from weaving factories in Maharashtra to sugar-cane farms in Tamil Nadu. What has changed with time is the acceptance of these infected people. Many have now come out in the open with their HIV status, and families, employers and colleagues have accepted them as one of their own.
There is far more work to be done, however. The impression of HIV/AIDS among the general public largely lacks clarity and, worse, is coloured by several wrong concepts. This photo documentation project is part of my effort to dispel such notions. Case studies and personal stories display revealing insights into the lives of individuals, families and communities who are affected by HIV/AIDS, reflecting the issues and emotions which confront them in the daily realities of living or working with the disease.
Shaju John’s photographs have appeared in Positive Journey —The Triumphant Spirit: People Living with HIV/AIDS, a book published by INP+ for its outreach efforts. John previously worked with The Hindu for 10 years and plans to exhibit these photographs across the country.
Photographs by Shaju John