I was heartened by the news on Friday that Sub-Saharan Africa is leading the global decline in new HIV cases. It seems that countries in this region have seen an infection rate drop of 25% apparently due to better education and preventative measures.
A few years ago, I was commissioned by Positive Lives to spend a month on the Rwandan/Burundian border looking at the lives of those affected. The Rwandan government had made great strides in their efforts to get people tested and educated about the risks but crucially about how to live and cope with the illness. The work won the Amnesty International Award in 2006.
As I said at the time, it seemed to me that the Rwandese, packed tightly into their borders, had learned the real meaning of forgiveness and acceptance.
Without labouring the point, it was a pleasure to be taking pictures that weren’t simply showing people dying. I see so many photographers making work that purports to show an explanation of a subject but actually is little more than graphic cliche of a situation. That, at a time of crisis for visual journalism, isn’t enough. It isn’t enough to simply point a camera at someone and say ‘how terrible’. It says much that everybody has a camera and thinks that they have a right to call themselves a journalist by photographing the nearest horror without context or understanding. We earn a dubious and tenuous ‘right’ to report the world to itself by entering into a dialogue with it: an impossible covenant with a subject that tries not to perpetuate stereotype, easy answers or sloppy conclusions. It isn’t enough to go and photograph beggars on the streets of India for example to further our own purposes under the cover of journalism. We had better have a damn good reason to invade people’s spaces and lives. If you need an example of what is decent and committed about documentary practice look no further than that of my former Network Photographer colleague, Gideon Mendel who has spent more than a decade committed to the portrayal of HIV/AIDS in exactly the way I am talking about.