Photo display highlighting HIV AIDS fight in PNG | Pacific Beat

Photo display highlighting HIV AIDS fight in PNG

Photo display highlighting HIV AIDS fight in PNG

Updated 28 November 2012, 11:39 AEDT

A new photographic exhibition opening this week in Sydney is highlighting the fight against HIV AIDS around the world.

The series of powerful photos has already toured the world, aiming to put a human face on the disease that affects tens of millions around the world. The exhibition includes photos from Papua New Guinea, taken by acclaimed British photographer Chris Steele-Perkins.

Presenter: Geraldine Coutts

Bill Bowtell, Executive Director of the Pacific Friends of the Global Fund.

Chris Steele-Perkins, British photographer

STEELE-PERKINS: Well, the whole place was a surprise, I've never been there before and it's a fantastically interesting place. But I suppose the biggest surprise was really how cooperative and helpful people were who had, were suffering from HIV in that they were prepared to discuss openly and tell us in some cases very emotional situations whereby how they've contracted it and what it impacted their lives like and allow themselves to be photographed. I wasn't anticipating that, because there is a lot of stigma and there's a lot of persecution still unfortunately, which they can endure by sort of admitting that they have this problem.

COUTTS: Chris Steele-Perkins, if that's what surprised you, is that what also inspired you?

STEELE-PERKINS: Well yes, I guess so. I mean unfortunately we didn't have a huge amount of time to work, so it was really important that we were able to get people to cooperate so readily and the stories are inspiring, because the treatment does work. You can see it and you've got these people who tell you about how they were half their body weight awhile ago and they've kind of built up and their robust and they're holding jobs, and they're looking forward to having children, and a real life.

COUTTS: And staying with you Chris Steele-Perkins. We've got the surprise and the inspiration, but given the subject and we have to say taboos that still surround HIV and AIDS. Was it unsettling a project for you as well?

STEELE-PERKINS: Well, it's always unsettling when you've got people who kind of seriously ill and stories being told to you about people who've died and have been very close to the people who tell me the stories and they sometimes breakdown themselves while they're telling you these stories. So this is always kind of difficult to handle, but it's also hopefully part of the strength of the whole exhibition, trying to get this sort of intensity of life through the people.

COUTTS: And Bill Bowtell, Executive Director of the Pacific Friends of Global Fund. How did you and Chris Steele-Perkins get together on this project?

BOWTELL: Well, I met Chris as a result of the broader photos shoot that was done in nine other countries from about 2007, countries all around the world, Peru, Russia, South Africa and so on and it really was a before and after shoot, what the lives of people were like before they had access to anti-retroviral therapies and as Chirs said, in Papua New Guinea, what happened to those same people after they had access. And while in some cases, of course, the interventions came too late and the people died tragically. In many cases, it was the difference between life and death, so Magnum Photos is a very world renown agency collective of photographers and they take their talents to go out into these countries and to bring back these fantastic stories as Chris has done in Papua New Guinea.

COUTTS: Mr. Bowtell, if we can stick with you as well. You're also saying that we're at the tipping point of gaining control of HIV globally. How effective is the fight against AIDS in the Pacific at the moment?

BOWTELL: Eh, well, it's a story of hope, there are lots of challenges, places like Papua New Guinea, it is very difficult to get to the rural and remote areas and to put the pills in the mouths of all the people who need them. But the Papua New Guinea authorities are trying against great odds and doing pretty well. And that's the story generally around the world. But for all of that, there are eight million people in the world today who do not have access to these lifesaving therapies and treatments. In the last ten years, we've put eight million people onto treatments, but there's another eight million people to go.

And, of course, it's very good to get the treatments. If you're ill, it helps you and saves your life and so on. But, in a general sense, it makes you much less infectious. It is much more difficult to transmit the virus when you are on treatment. So both the sake of the individuals concerned, but generally, it is going to be a very big thing to get the rest of the world on the treatments they need. And once we get them on those treatments, we're a big step down the road to the eventual eradication and elimination of HIV from the planet, which, of course, is the goal that we all fervently share and hope we can achieve in the next 25 to 50 years.

COUTTS: Well, we keep getting conflicting reports Mr. Bowtell on what is actually happening in Papua New Guinea. Some are saying it's levelled out and you say we're at the tipping point, but is what we're doing working? I mean is it turning around in Papua New Guinea, because we also hear these stories of truck drivers up and down the highway not using condoms?

BOWTELL: No, well, it's a bit like turning around a supertanker. There's no doubt every gain is very hard one and we try to shift the figures, but bit by bit thanks to the efforts of the Global Fund in Papua New Guinea, to the Clinton Health Access Initiative, to the funds made available by AUSAid and the Papua New Guinean authorities, we are getting the treatments into the mouths of the people who need them.

What I think has got to happen more in Papua New Guinea though is to overcome these questions of stigma and discrimination, because it's those issues that stop young people being effectively educated about how not to get the virus in the first place. Preventions cheaper than cure, It's better than cure, so the Papua New Guinea government have a big job in front of them to educate their young people about how to prevent infection by using condoms and so on. But this is a very tall order, but it's something that must be done.

COUTTS: Well, how important is it Bill Bowtell in getting government support? There's a new government under Peter O'Neill at the moment and a long time stayer in Michael Somare, Sir Michael Somare. Is there a different approach, I mean is it a change of government that was necessary, are you getting the help that you require?

BOWTELL: Yes, I think it's a change of government, partly it's a change of generation. It has to be said that older people, wherever they are find these questions and issues very difficult to address directly, but in Mr. O'Neill, I think we've got a younger generation of leader now taking responsibility for affairs in Papua New Guinea. The Prime Minister will be launching the Papua New Guinea Supplement, the pictures of "The Access to Life Exhibition" when he comes to Sydney next week, so that's a really great step forward and together with Prime Minister Gillard, he's contributed a very nice and generous forward to "The Access to Life Exhibition". So we can see in the Papua New Guinea Government now a new sense of engagement around HIV, which is really welcome. It's a tough job, it's a rather thankless job, but, of course, it will make life so much better for the people of Papua New Guinea if we can get universal coverage for treatment and much better prevention education.

COUTTS: Photographer, Chris Steele-Perkins, the process and the delicate process clearly of taking these photos of people who are ill. We've talked about whether it unsettled you or not, but I just wondered whether your emphasis was on the people suffering or their resilience or both?

STEELE-PERKINS: Well, I mean the emphasis came out of the people really. I mean you meet somebody and they behave in certain ways and you kind of. It's necessary for a photographer to spend as much time as you can with people and you're not just sort of click, snap, against a wall, you want to try and experience a bit of what they're life is actually like. And then it's up to the people if they're prepared to let you into their life, which they were, and take you back to their homes, for example, in as a small subsistent farmer in the countryside and I mean it's pretty tough when you're doing hard work like that and you've got a disease that's weakening you, to be able to survive at all. So these treatments really as it has been said before are the difference between life and death.

COUTTS: Is there a photo, whether it's in the Pacific or Papua New Guinea or just generally in the exhibition that tells a bigger story for you than others?

STEELE-PERKINS: Not particularly. I mean I think the whole point about the exhibition really is that the whole thing is greater than the parts. When you add these different stories together and you see the different perspectives and you see some stories about families that have supported their people and others where the people have been rejected, then you build up a more complex and more realistic picture of the issues involved and I think it's the sum total of the pictures that I'm really hoping will have the affect, rather than individual images.

COUTTS: Are we, the public, becoming in danger of becoming desensitised with all the images thrust at us on television, on the Internet, UTube, the whole works of disease and war and starvation or is photography still a powerful tool?

STEELE-PERKINS: I'd like to believe it is. I mean, yes, I mean remember it's not just photography. We've got very powerful quotes from people on the walls as well, which are integral to understanding the situation and I do believe that strong photography does communicate in a way that as it were weak photography doesn't and get through to people and affects them mostly, hopefully in a way that will sort of stick with them.

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