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Portraits of HIV/AIDS Patients Give Hope for Future

Forty million people are living with HIV/AIDS worldwide. Antiretroviral drugs– or ARVs – can slow down the progression of HIV and delay the onset of AIDS by decades or more. However, these medications are available to only one-third of those who need them. The impact ARVs can have is graphically depicted in a new photo exhibit, jointly produced by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malariaand the photographic cooperative Magnum. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports the organizers hope the exhibit will bring the need to support universal free access to the drugs into sharp focus.

Thoba Nzima is a domestic worker in a rural farming village near the capital of Swaziland. Her job is a short walk from her mother's house, where she lives with her 5-year-old son and 15-year old daughter.

Nzima is HIV-positive. So is her daughter. Their situation is common in Swaziland, where one out of every three women is infected with the virus that causes AIDS.

Nzima has traveled a long way to see "Access to Life," the new photo exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Artin Washington, DC. She is a tall woman in her mid-30s and stands by her portraits in a long fitted red and white print sundress. She attributes her good health to the free ARV protocol she started in 2007, and is delighted to see her story on the gallery walls. "I didn't expect something like this."

Nzima's two partners both died of AIDS. She says ARV treatment has given her life new meaning, and – like mothers everywhere – she has dreams for her children's future. "I wish that my children can learn at school and grow and know about life."

Canadian Larry Towell photographed Nzima at home, at work and at her medical clinic. He says the pictures bear witness and allow each person to relate their own story. "My hope is to bring the viewer there to make the viewer feel like they are present and make them feel the place."

On another panel Towell chronicles the life of 19-year-old South African Litho Nyanda, who lives in a humble wooden shack with her family in an impoverished neighborhood in the outskirts of Capetown.

He documents Nyanda's transformation over four months of treatment with ARV, from a skeletal teen in a wheelchair to a dynamic young woman balancing a broomstick on the end of her finger. "She was very open to me being there and I really liked her a lot." Towell left her with a disposable camera to continue to photograph her own life."

Towell is among eight artists who photographed people with HIV/AIDS in nine countries. Their images range from a Russian man riddled with AIDS-related sores on his body to the soft smile of an Indian woman in a market place.

The Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria has helped provide free access to antiretroviral drugs for about a third of the people who need them. Global Fund spokesperson Jon Liden says the exhibit puts an intimate face on this quiet revolution in drug treatment, and is a call for action for more support. "By giving access to antiretroviral treatment, we have made a commitment to millions of people for life… something that can't be changed according to political fashion and priorities."

In the next few months, the U.S. Congress will debate renewal of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which includes support for the Global Fund. Liden hopes that before lawmakers cast their votes, they will visit the nearby Corcoran Art Museum to see "Access to Life."Slide Show_Access to Life