My life is rich. I have no pain.

Doing some business within Central Market sometime in April this year, I found myself stalled by photographs of laughing children. My, my, how cute. Then I saw the title of the exhibition: “Positive Lives – positive responses to HIV”.

It is easy to winge sympathy with pictures of suffering children. But these photos at Central Market of these little monsters, going wild in the playground or just having fun around adults, are remarkably without any overt tragedy, nor sentimentality. The photographers, having achieved a bond with these bundles of joy, must have struggled to be as fiercely objective as they can in order to capture the reality in which they also live. Most of the kids pictured are either HIV positive or are orphaned by parents who have died of AIDS. But the photographs are nothing like those of emaciated North Korean children plastered all over buses some time ago. It is precisely because of the unadorned joy exuding through the pictures of doomed innocence, combined with the equally honest captions, that found me crying embarrassingly in Central Market that day.

This growing exhibition started 10 years ago in UK as a collaboration between the Terence Higgins Trust (an organisation dealing with HIV/AIDS) and the photo-journalist group Network Photographers, with the sponsorship of Levi Strauss Foundation, to document the stories of people living with the virus. It now consists of images from four continents, featuring everyone from drug addicts, exotic dancers, sex workers, doctors, parents to monks.

The particular exhibition I saw at Central Market struck very close to home because it featured mostly, including Malaysian, Asian faces. For a long time, I have been complaining that our government, in its promotion of ridiculous record-busting achievements, seems unable to acknowledge that we have sick people in our midst. The public also wondered why the government handled Sudirman’s death so mysteriously, and whether it was too embarrassed to admit that one of the country’s biggest stars had acquired the Rock Hudson disease.

By hiding the individuals associated with this infection and promoting fear with the “AIDS Kills” campaign, the population at large remains ignorant and becomes prejudicial towards sufferers. A friend of mine who had graduated from a top local college thought that AIDS results from sodomy, when the genital comes into contact with, well, shit. There are also many who still prefer their one night stands without protection. To them, AIDS seems as remote as Ebola.

Surely, out of the 4400 Malaysians who have died from AIDS and the 45000 presently HIV positive, we know at least a few. If not, there is no wonder that people don’t feel the presence of this virus in the country. This exhibition provides us finally with Malaysian faces. The two stories presented by Shahidul Alam, the Bangladeshi photographer assigned to Malaysia, are about Roslan, who has been HIV positive for 11 years, and the Persatuan Pengasih Malaysia, a drug rehab run by former addicts, some of whom are HIV positive. The picture of Roslan playing with kids should calm the paranoia of every sensible parent.

Having spent about 12 days and 90 rolls of films last year on this project, Shahidul regrets he couldn’t show more. The problem, however, isn’t one of limited space in the gallery. Some of his subjects, after signing their waiver early on, had subsequently retracted their permission. One woman, whose husband had died of AIDS and who is actively educating her community about the disease, grew concerned about what the publicity would do to her five children.

The Malaysian AIDS Council hopes that through this exhibition, by putting faces to the dreaded acronym, they can help take away the stigma from the syndrome, which may then embolden folks to come out. But sadly, Malaysians can be unceasingly narrow-minded. Roslan, whose beautifully stoic expressions are captured on black and white, had been accused of being “gila glamour” for his participation in this project.

Nevertheless, the Malaysian AIDS Council is fearlessly combating the deep misunderstanding by bringing a smaller version of the exhibition to schools, colleges and villages around the country. Which is where they really need it, says acclaimed photographer Eric Peris.

Perhaps those of us who read this website are a little more enlightened and have come across enough Mr Rubber ads to last a few lifetimes. But among us jaded souls, there are also those who indulge in the kinds of recklessness that comes with a combination of youthful invincibility and millennial fatalism. What is affection without a tinge of desperate risk? I have been there. The day following my visit to Central Market, I finally went and got myself my first HIV test. Three days later, the doctor called to say, “Good news.” But he added, “Just to be sure, you should come and test again in three months’ time.”

You could say the exhibition had frightened me into it. Yet I have previously read enough to know about the depleting t-cells, the fungus that grows on your tongue, and how one can die from a flu that only affects cats. It wasn’t fear. I was, in fact, emboldened. I am grateful to the photographers who were able to win the trust of their subjects, as well as to these subjects for their courage to share their stories. What has truly inspired me, ultimately, was their love for life, even at this end. This exhibition has been the most life-affirming and dramatic work of any genre I have witnessed in a long time.

Those who missed it at Central Market, can now catch the exhibition at the National Art Gallery. It was launched on Saturday May 18, with our dear deputy PM in attendance – to show the government’s beneficent involvement. Unlike Central Market, however, the National Art Gallery has no ability to arrest people going about their daily chores. Still, it is the best chance you have now of catching this exhibition that, according to the Positive Lives statement, “sought to use the unique power of photography, and personal testimonies, to communicate the human story behind this terrible pandemic, to speak to the heart of our common humanity.”

Note: Some of the pictures on the right are details of a larger photograph. Some captions are edited for space.


First Published: 22.05.2002 on Kakiseni

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