Of the eight men and women whose photographs have gone up on the walls of the Overture Center’s Playhouse Gallery this week, five are using pseudonyms such as “Anonymous,” “Your Neighbor,” and “Could Be You.”
The fact that some of the photographers featured in “Living with HIV/AIDS: Perspectives Through the Lens” didn’t want their identities revealed is itself a statement about the stigma that still surrounds this disease, said Heidi Nass, a patient advocate for the HIV/AIDS Comprehensive Care Program at UW-Health and one of the show’s photographers. All of the photographers are HIV positive.
The exhibit, which runs through Dec. 12, coincides with World AIDS Day on Dec. 1 and a panel discussion at Overture on Dec. 2 titled “Hidden in Plain Sight: The U.S. HIV/AIDS Epidemic.”
It’s the culmination of six weeks of work by the photographers, all amateurs and armed with their own digital cameras to explore themes such as anger and love, frustration and hope.
The group met regularly to learn photo skills, have their work critiqued, and share common experiences both in photography and with HIV.
“Ultimately, some people chose not to use their names because they do not feel that it is safe for them to do so,” Nass said. “They fear for their jobs in some cases. They fear judgment. They fear rejection.”
But then there are people like Sonja Ortman, who wants it known that the person with HIV “can be anybody,” she said.
Ortman signed on to the photo project as something “HIV-related that wasn’t the typical gala dinner or AIDS walk, something where I could really be open to the mystery to what would come out of this,” she said.
“Over the last year, I’d say, I’ve been wanting to express myself as — and there’s no judgment attached to this — a functioning female that’s outside what the public sees as the norm of HIV positive,” said Ortman, who works for a firm for medical nonprofits in Milwaukee. “I’m pretty underground: living, working, family, friends. There may be people that recognize me that know me from my office building. And that’s OK: Give it a face, because it could be anybody.”
Nass, who enlisted the volunteer help of professional photographers John Maniaci, David Nevala and Kevin Miyazaki for the project, had in the past run an AIDS-related art show and last year helped bring the national AIDS Memorial Quilt to the Overture Center. She came up with “Perspectives Through the Lens” to help viewers “see what the experience is like for people living with HIV and AIDS,” she said.
“Photographs are really approachable in a way that other things are not,” she said. “You know, I go into the community and do all these talks and pretty Power Points. Those are important, but they don’t reach people the same way that something like a series of photographs does. Because photographs are stories. And the HIV/AIDS epidemic is, if anything, a series of stories.”
Each photo is accompanied by a short narrative — like Ortman’s photo “Along for the Ride,” a portrait of her 6-year-old son Liam aboard a train. The picture is meant to convey a sense of “wonderment,” Ortman said.
“When I was diagnosed — and this was 21 years ago — I never thought I would have a chance at a family,” she said. “(At that time) it was mother-to-child transmission and I wasn’t willing to risk that. But now we’re doing those family things, the weekend outings, the homework. I’m just chugging along and that’s what I believe everybody else is doing. (HIV) is definitely not a wonderful diagnosis, especially with the stigma attached. However, it’s about how you choose to go along for the ride.”