February 18, 2005

AIDS photo exhibit brings new light, if not catharsis, to sensitive subject

The AIDS pandemic is such a multifaceted issue that it's virtually impossible to break down into its most human elements. When the issue is viewed in terms of politics, public health, human rights, socioeconomic status, and discrimination, it can become quite easy to lose sight of the fact that—at its most basic level—AIDS is something deeply personal that affects individual lives.

That is the goal of the Chicago Cultural Center's Pandemic: Imaging AIDS, a photography exhibit running through April 3. It's a very high goal to set, one that's a little too ambitious for what the exhibit actually accomplishes. The goal is even harder to attain with the impressive variety of photography genres. The exhibit contains mostly art photography and AIDS posters from around the world, as well as some photojournalism and even a dash of medical photography. While the exhibits fail, for the most part, to show AIDS at its most human level, the sheer vastness of photographic viewpoints on the pandemic makes the exhibit invaluable.

To the exhibit's credit, it doesn't completely fail to show the human side of AIDS. There are various pictures that do effectively demonstrate the personal reaction to the virus. Most of these are self-portraits by AIDS-inflicted photographers, or photos that show AIDS victims interacting with their loved ones. There are plenty of more abstract takes on the feelings attached to AIDS, but for an issue as real and alive as this one, the abstract is simply not as effective at garnering sympathy as would be more realistic portrayals in depicting the turmoil the virus inflicts.

In that respect, the works most effective at personalizing AIDS are photographic profiles of individuals around the world afflicted by the virus. These individuals have lost their jobs, their wives, their children, and the support of their communities, in addition to losing their health. Yet, while their lives were seemingly destroyed when they contracted their syndromes, they have all recovered to some extent and gotten their lives back on track. The selection of success stories (while obviously not a reflection of the reality of the virus) gives a sense of hope to the exhibit, a sorely needed contrast to the anguish imbued in the other images. The exhibit thus makes an honest effort toward a very difficult goal.

Regardless of the difficulty of its goal, there are some pitfalls the exhibit stumbles into that it could have and should have avoided. Nan Richardson, the curator of the exhibit, tries to take an apolitical stance on the issue, which she flat-out fails in accomplishing. While I certainly sympathize with AIDS victims' socioeconomic and human rights and the need to promote condom usage, there are far too many works with too strong a stance than suits the subtlety of the exhibit.

In many cases, the call against discrimination takes a unique and powerful approach—most notably a work called "Faggots," where 70 men boldly assert their identity by posing in a unique manner, but in identical position. (The only information they were given about the work was its title.) Yet the inclusion of posters by support groups, global AIDS educators, and condom distributors throughout the exhibit are too overzealous for the exhibit's goal.

It's also hard to deal with the issue from a global standpoint without dealing with the various levels and stages of the issue. While American photos are the most prevalent in terms of the chronology of the outbreak, the AIDS issue has taken a unique form in regions as vastly different as Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe. To have an overriding theme on the effect on the individual, then, is virtually impossible.

Despite these issues, or even because of them, there are plenty of accomplishments that make this exhibit a success. The best part about the exhibit is that it chronicles so many different takes on the outbreak, the outpouring of issues AIDS created, and the divisiveness it caused in societies around the world. While admittedly not a complete take on the photographic world's response, it succeeds in exemplifying the AIDS pandemic at every level of its existence. While the exhibit may not go the extra step and break down the issue to what matters most, it shows, quite thoroughly, how deep a problem AIDS is and what we must overcome to prevent it. And it does succeed in showing that through hope and determination, the problem can be overcome.