American Family Children's Hospital

Living with HIV/AIDS: Perspectives Through the Lens

Photographer snapping a pictureMADISON - It doesn't affect me.


It doesn't affect anybody I know.


I'm not at risk.


It can't be that big a deal or I'd know about it.


I didn't think it was an issue anymore.


Heidi Nass, a patient advocate and activist in UW Hospital and Clinics' HIV/AIDS Comprehensive Care Program, invokes the misconceptions she hears frequently in her work at the HIV Clinic and when she talks to people about the continuing spread of HIV/AIDS.


"There's so much ignorance and judgment and stigma around HIV," she says. "There's nothing in the United States that's really driving us to get better about it. There's a void of leadership."


A direct line exists between that leadership void and a litany of false assumptions, the most prominent of which, Nass says, is that HIV/AIDS is no longer a public health quandary, that after a period of high visibility and alarm in the 1980s, the problem has been solved.


Not so, says Nass, and the numbers support her case.


"A Tipping Point"


According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), more than 1.1 million people in the United States were living with HIV as of 2006. That's the most ever and an 11 percent increase since 2003. And from 2005 to 2007, deaths for people diagnosed with HIV increased 17 percent.


Wisconsin's statistical profile mimics national trends. According to the Wisconsin AIDS/HIV Surveillance Report, 443 cases of HIV infection were reported in the state in 2009. That's an 11 percent increase from 2008 and is up 32 percent since 2001.


The news is even more dire for racial minorities. In Wisconsin African-Americans comprise 14 percent of the population but accounted for 54 percent of all reported HIV cases in 2009. The HIV infection rate for African-American males was nine times greater than those of white males. The infection rate for Hispanic males was four times greater than the rate for white males.


"We're reaching a tipping point," Nass says. "The numbers are escalating to a point where we'll have a broad epidemic."


Now Accepting Applications for Photography Project


Knowing tri-fold brochures and PowerPoint presentations have limited appeal, Nass has come up with a more creative way to increase exposure for HIV/AIDS. For "Living with HIV/AIDS: Perspectives Through the Lens" she is asking Wisconsinites with an HIV diagnosis to express themselves and document their lives through the medium of photography.


Nass is now accepting applications, which consist of two sample photographs and supporting text, for anyone who is living with HIV/AIDS and interested in the project. Applicants should send two .jpg image files - one depicting "loss" and the other "inspiration," both accompanied by a short, written description of the images - to with "photo submission" as the e-mail subject line.


Ten applicants will be selected to meet weekly at UW Hospital in Madison and work with four professional photographers to develop specific themes. Their work will be displayed at The Overture Center from November 15 to December 15, to coincide with World AIDS Day on December 1.


"We really always need to be thinking of a variety of ways to present information (about HIV/AIDS)," Nass says. "There is something about photographs, and especially photos taken by someone with a particular motivation in mind, that is very appealing. It's another way to tell a story, and if this epidemic is anything, it's a whole series of stories."


Nass wants to make sure potential applicants understand they will not be judged solely on technical skill and merit, and their work can be displayed anonymously, if they prefer.


"I'm worried someone might feel like, ‘Oh, that sounds interesting and I'd really like to do that, but I'm not a photographer.' We want a group that really wants to be here, to learn about photography and have the opportunity to use this medium to tell their stories," she says.


The application deadline for "Perspectives Through the Lens" is September 17, 2010. Nass left the project requirements intentionally vague, and it's the open-ended nature of the endeavor that appeals to her.


"We have no way of knowing how people will translate the assignment," she says. "For me that's really thrilling. Something as simple as a photography exhibit helps confront issues like denial and ignorance because it's so inviting. I'm hoping this is a way for people to approach this issue and once they get close, start to learn about the people who created these photographs."


"If we," she adds, "can have people walk away saying, ‘I never understood where we were with this and I never understood I could be at risk,' then we'll have done something very important."

Date Published: 07/02/2010

News tag(s):  hiv

News RSS Feed