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The Faces of HIV/AIDS: The Photos of Andrew Petkun - 2003-01-15

When describing the HIV/AIDS pandemic, facts and figures not only become impersonal, but often incomprehensible. Forty-two million people infected with the AIDS virus, while more than twenty million others have died from the disease. Terms such as “viral load” and “anti-retroviral” do little to depict the impact of a disease, which strikes down those in the prime of their lives and leaves an endless trail of orphans in its wake. However, one man has dedicated his life to telling the story of HIV/AIDS one face at a time.

What does the face of HIV/AIDS look like? Its composition has millions of variations: Different hues, different angles, varying textures. It may be that of a pre-mature baby – a young mother bravely fighting AIDS, tuberculosis, pneumonia and malaria – or a grandmother awaiting the arrival of a nurse. Just some of the images of HIV/AIDS captured on film by Andrew Petkun.

He says, "I am frankly very honored to be with people who are suffering as they are, but who have extraordinary dignity. And I learn from them as I meet them about that dignity and their sense of humanity."

Despite the ravages of the pandemic, Mr. Petkun says these are photographs of life, not death.

He says, "I am anxious to find ways to photograph people as they would wish to be photographed. To photograph them, as I say, with the humanity and dignity they’re entitled to simply because they are fellow human beings. And I spend time with them – as much as time will allow – to try to capture their personalities and not to just have a snapshot."

He says not very long ago he was an exhausted – or what he calls - a “burned out” retail businessman from Boston. Although an avid photographer, taking pictures of the AIDS pandemic was the furthest thing from his mind. In fact, he says he knew nothing about HIV/AIDS. But that changed in 1999, when he was invited to Tanzania by a former US ambassador. Three weeks there changed the course of his life.

"I was living a comfortable life," he says, "but there was no substantive measure of it. As I became more aware of the terrible suffering that exists – not only in Africa but throughout the developing world – I had decided to take my camera which I had been using up to that point a vocationally for many years with great success – and turn it in a more defined way. To try to find a way to help people who are suffering, to lend a voice to those who suffer but have none of their own."

The experience, he says, has changed him for the better. Even though some days, he says, he collapses in sadness.

He says, "I am certainly far more thoughtful and more sensitive and more compassionate than I was before. I am also more angry that there is this terrible suffering which most of us in the West are ignorant of, unfortunately. Because we don’t see it. It’s not our fault. We just don’t see it."

The photographs of people living with HIV/AIDS are used to educate Americans and Africans alike. He says when he meets with African leaders he tells them they should treat the disease as they would an invading army.

He says, "If there were an attack from a neighbor, whose troops massed along a country’s borders, there would be no question about the response of the government. The government would not say, well, we’re thinking about it. We’re dealing with it the best we can, but we have other issues. They would mobilize the troops and they would send them out to the frontier by the thousands and they would repel the attacker. There is a new enemy within Africa, inside these countries, who will do and is doing to countries in Africa what no foreign invader has ever been able to do. The only difference between AIDS and a gun is that a gun kills more quickly, with less pain. And is far less costly than the HIV/AIDS pandemic. And it is something we must confront. All of us as human beings."

He gets little money for his work, mostly from lectures and exhibits and some from US State department assignments. But expenses outweigh income. But Andrew Petkun says he’s not in it for the money. In fact, he does not call himself a photographer, but rather a human rights advocate who uses the camera to fight for those who are suffering.

"These people were here. They existed. And by virtue of that they mattered," he says.

You can see more of Andrew Petkun’s photos of people living with HIV/AIDS on his website at:

VOA thanks Mr. Petkun for the use of his photographs.