Zadie Smith has written, “In the history of photography that has concerned itself with Africa and its diaspora, the concept of the portal has been central. In a newspaper, say, a photograph of a black subject is usually conceived as a window onto another world.” For the past thirty years, AIDS in Africa has been on view through this portal. For those of us that work in the field, what is striking is how consistent the images seen on the covers of reports, accompanying media articles, and online have remained.
We have both been working on and been affected by HIV for more than two decades. In different countries, contexts and communities. We have, in this time, undergone our own changes. We have gotten older; so has the fight to address AIDS in Africa and the US and everywhere else in the world. There have been changes in access to medicine, in discourses about women’s rights, human rights, queer rights, the collision of the biomedical solution, and the basic realities that complicate use of medical tools—PrEP, antiretrovirals, and more.
So, we have changed, the epidemic has changed. And yet a peep through the portal that the media still periodically opens, via photo essays and articles, onto AIDS in Africa suggests that nothing has changed at all. We look through the portal and see the same images that we saw five, ten, and fifteen years ago: packed benches of women holding babies in swathes of colorful wax cloth; children in used t-shirts; men, wearing coveralls or construction helmets signifying migrant labor; adolescents in flip flops on dusty roads; crowds of young people grinning for the camera, leaping upwards, looking for all the world like contestants on a game show. What is the prize? Who is winning?
This sameness seems specifically true as it applies to HIV and women in Africa, where the most common image that we see is a sad but determined looking mother, available to be helped. She exists. This story is important. But it is not the whole story; the image is not the only one that’s available today. We miss, when we look at depictions of African women in the context of HIV, glimpses of changing realities: professional Africa AIDS activist women exhausted after another panel where they stood in for all women everywhere; economically stable men and women looking sharp, raising families, remembering to take their meds after a long day at work; and so much more.
Of course, like the epidemic, technology and media have also changed. Newspapers, NGO reports and television news segments are not the only way in. There are now portals on our phones. The perfect circle of the Whatsapp profile picture, so small it’s like looking through the wrong end of the binoculars. Tap it, and it flies up to fill the screen. There are long nails and short hair, new dresses, fierce faces and romances, children on the first day of school, images from professional photo shoots, little love stories.
We—Yvette and Emily—exchange pictures all the time. We call each other “ninja,” we can’t tell you when it started, but it works. Whatever outfit we’re in, we’re prepared to fight. We see each other infrequently. We peer at each other through our social media portals in the meantime. Yvette goes to Winnie Mandela’s funeral and posts real-time pictures on Facebook. In one, she’s spreading the shawl she’s wearing like wings and turning her face to the sun. Here is Emily in front of a statue of lions in New York City. Yvette in a black beret. What does it mean, today, to be fierce?
Yvette is a curator and she is also one of the curated. She is a South African woman living with HIV. Emily writes about and works within the world of Americans engaged with AIDS in Africa. To do this work, you need to remember, every day, what you can and cannot see, what you do and do not know.
Earlier this year, we walked through the halls of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, through an exhibition about “outbreaks.” There was a cage of taxidermized guinea pigs and hamsters: hanta virus. A spiky virus design in the carpet on the floor. We knew what we were looking for. There, in the middle of the room: a portrait of Yvette under a quote, banner size, above them all. Her words: “Where the governments see statistics, I see the faces of my friends.”
Emily photographed Yvette there, beside her picture. The kind of picture we don’t see enough, the kind of picture that we need to see when it comes to the ongoing response to HIV/AIDS: the picture that shows us the faces of our friends. Yvette also photographed Emily there.
Our trip to the Smithsonian to see Yvette’s portrait came after we’d begun our own conversation about images, curation, the view of African women with HIV. We structured our conversation around specific images, a way to say more clearly to each other what we saw and what we knew.
The exhibition we’d talked about opened on World AIDS Day 2017. It was called Umema Omesibindi, Mother of Courage, and it hung in Constitution Hill in Johannesburg. It is a former prison and the site of the current Constitutional Court. The photos are of African women living with HIV, taken by a white woman who embedded herself with UNICEF for over a decade. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation pays for select images from the show to be available on The Guardian website to anyone who clicks a link.
Constitution Hill describes itself as a “living museum” and also posits on its website that, “There is perhaps no other site of incarceration in South Africa that imprisoned the sheer number of world-renowned men and women as those held within the walls of the Old Fort, the Women's Jail and Number Four.” We think again of Winnie Mandela, who was imprisoned there. Constitution Hill is a place to remember women kept behind bars: women of courage. What happens when confinement becomes the condition for courage, when that same woman, once free, is vilified and smeared for her foibles, her violence, her rage when she gets out? What happens to women when they step outside the role set for them? How do we capture them? How do we fit them into the confines of narrow portals?
These are the questions that face us every day. They are the questions we think about when we choose our clothes, our images. And they are the queries that we brought to a conversation, reproduced here, about the Mother of Courage exhibition.
Yvette Raphael: I just think it gives a picture of a very poor Africa. For me, the missing part here is most of it depicts women alone in a struggle, right? Example, the photo of the woman feeding the baby, has a picture of a man, but it's so distant it doesn't show as a family unit. So, what is he doing in the corner? And he's so old.
Emily Bass: He’s the only man, I think, in this whole series. And it's the only time that we see these women surrounded by, or not surrounded but even close to, anybody that either might be a source of support or a source of risk or a source of violence or anything.
EB: So, I noticed that as well. Do you feel like that's a pattern? Do you feel like these are absences that you see a lot?
YR: So, what I think we’re perpetuating with these images is that African men are always absent. So if we have to talk about why are they absent, it can be a whole political thing. Why are men this absent? I feel this exhibit specifically feeds on the weaknesses of African men, of their inability to be fathers in a unit, right? It also feeds into a certain narrative that says African men don't care. However, if we look at it politically, we will also realize that patriarchy and capitalism brought into the fact that the husband always has to be away. So, some of them are just absent fathers—but also that's the narrative that's been pushed. That the husband has to go out and go and work, and the woman has to stay at home.
EB: What I wanted to ask you about was the young women that you work with—how likely is it that they would see and exhibit like this and what do you think their reaction is? What does it feel like to see these images?
YR: I think first of all it would shock. They would not even think these women are in South Africa, for one. And it will also be to some extent disgusting and painful for them. I use the word disgusting because they would feel like these women are selling out. You know by portraying an image of poverty. "You knew you were coming to do some event, why didn't you dress up, why didn't you wear Sunday shoes, why didn't you put on your cloak that is for meetings like those?" You know what I'm saying? “Are you posing, are you asked to pose?” Those would be some of the questions.
I would also want to say some of these images can be empowering—for instance, the women in the fields. That's very empowering; it shows that we can work either way. But it brings back a certain extent of our vulnerability and also of our oppression because whose land are we working right now? We're working the land of somebody who owns the land. But in other countries like Malawi and Zambia, say, women are really working their own land.
EB: There is a way that the pictures are seeking to be beautiful in a certain way. And what I noticed particularly is this photographer really likes this kind of golden light rays, it almost feels religious in a way. Should these exhibits be aiming for beauty and what kind of beauty?
YR: What we see as beautiful entirely depends on who is looking at it. So, I would look at it as depressing me, because it doesn't depict the Africa I live in, the Africa that I want, the Africa that I would want to see. You know what I'm saying? However, some people can look at it and say, "Wow, what a beautiful black baby!" For me it was, why was this woman... my biggest pet peeve is women exhibiting their children.
It took a very long time for me to start showing my kids publicly as a mother living with HIV. I didn’t show my kids for a long time. I don't exhibit that part; I exhibit the better picture of a strong woman living with HIV, making it against all odds. So, when I look at [the exhibit], it's not beautiful. Why are these women making their children vulnerable? What happens if this young child does not want that part of her life exposed, ten years after her mother died?
EB: You regularly put up these beautiful series of images of yourself. Sometimes it's sets of a day of seriousness but also realness. I wanted to ask you about the choices you're making when you do that and who you think your audience is?
YR: First of all, like I say, my Facebook is to teach, to laugh and to learn. It's not just to show off; I use my social media to talk about my struggles of being a women living with HIV, being an activist but my work is very political, right? This an old coping mechanism that we've learnt as activists. So a lot of our humor is also a coping mechanism. When we are afraid, we laugh. I'm afraid of the realities of living with HIV, I'm afraid of the reality of being a single mother and raising my kids on my own. I make a lot of jokes around that I take care of eight kids that are not mine, that are my friends’ children, that I made a “stupid agreement.” I always call it a stupid agreement because ... I don't think it's humanly possible what I'm trying to do, it's to raise eight other children that are not kids. To say, "I'll take you through school, I will help you, I will be your mother." I actually laugh through that, I call it my stupid commitment to my friends because: how did I think I would be able to possibly do that? But when I was faced with the challenges of my friends dying, I needed to make a commitment to them, to say, "Listen don't worry."
So, I take care of their school uniform, making sure they don't go to school with torn and tattered clothes. At times I do not have money to literally go and buy a cake, but I have a brother who bakes. I want to move forward, that's what I want to do. That's the picture I want to paint.
I am able to get a new phone because I have a contract on that, right? So I give my daughter my phone, she gives it to the next one in line, and they all hand the phones down to each other like that.
But here's the trick, the one who has the last phone must give it to somebody outside the family that they know would appreciate it—they move forward. So, I'm teaching my kids to share. You know what I'm saying?
EB: I'm thinking about how most of us make our images of ourselves with our phones, right? So, when you're passing along a phone, that's also sort of putting into people's hands their ability to curate and their ability to make images and their ability to represent themselves and share that. None of the women in their photo exhibit is laughing; I just went back and checked, none of them are even showing their teeth. So if they have a sense of humor, they weren't asked to show it.
YR: Yes. Most of the time when you go into communities, we don't think these people actually have a creative side to them. So we need to tell them how to stand, we need to tell them how to walk, we need to tell them how to jump, you know what I'm saying? Unless you listen to them, will you hear? I don't think most of the time we listen to them because if you listen to them, you will hear, if you watch them, you will see.
EB: What era do you want to see pictures from, or do you not want to see pictures anymore?
YR: I would love to see pictures from the whole HIV era, right? I want to see pictures of what women want to be taken, right? I have friends who survived AIDS and are coming back and are looking at these pictures and don't want to see those pictures. However, these pictures are all over the world. So, if you come to me in my most vulnerable state, and I allow you to take a picture because I think my picture of me being sick and dying is going to help make government or in our case a government changes their mind about how to keep people living with HIV and actually give them treatment. Yes, I'm going to do that, if my vulnerability is going to serve a purpose.
EB: That's a powerful thing you just said, that of using our vulnerability to serve a purpose.
YR: I'm saying, I just felt you had a moment there.
EB: I'm having such a moment. We can have power when we share images of ourselves in vulnerability. But it's when we make that choice ourselves, I think, right?
YR: Yeah. That happened ... But also what happened is I survived it.
Yvette Alta Raphael is a consummate leader in the fight against HIV. As a woman who has been living with the virus for over 15 years, she has experienced first-hand what HIV stigma, insufficient prevention education, and reduced access to healthcare can do. She utilized her natural leadership abilities to co-found the Tshwaranang Care Center for People Living with HIV and AIDS (PLWHA). Ms. Raphael has spoken around the globe, including several International AIDS Conferences to advise researchers, advocates, and policy makers on how to best win the war against HIV and AIDS. Her passion has been to improve the health outcomes for young women and girls, but her trusted expertise has also been lent to developing policies in the workplace and to create better, more efficient structures to utilize the available governmental resources to End AIDS. Furthermore, Ms. Raphael is a trusted globally renown advocate on effective and efficient education to the general community regarding new and developing research for medications that treat and/or prevent HIV.
Emily Bass has spent more than twenty years writing about and working on HIV/AIDS in America and East and Southern Africa. Her writing has appeared numerous publications, including Esquire, The Lancet, Ms., n+1, Out, POZ, and Slice, and she received a notable mention in Best American Essays. For the past thirteen years, she has worked at AVAC, a New York-based advocacy organization where, as Director of Strategy and Content, she helps build powerful, transnational activist coalitions that use data to campaign for AIDS accountability and change. A lifelong social justice activist, she has served as an expert advisor to the World Health Organization and is a member of the What Would an HIV Doula Do Collective. The Plague War, her book on America's war on AIDS in Africa, is forthcoming from PublicAffairs Press in 2020. She has been a Fulbright journalism scholar in Uganda and received scholarships from the Norman Mailer Writer's Colony and the Vermont Studio Center. She is the 2018-2019 Martin Duberman Visiting Research Fellow at the New York Public Library. A Manhattan native, Emily lives in Brooklyn with her family.