AIDS: Picture Change was an incredibly ambitious international project led by CARE Canada, that began in 2005. CARE had asked a bright young fellow, Lucas Robinson, to write a proposal for funding from CIDA (the Canadian International Development Agency). Initially, they wanted to show what Canada was doing in Africa for people with AIDS. Once CARE secured CIDA funding, the project expanded to include seven agencies, eight photographers and five countries. Lucas-then just twenty-seven years old-became the project manager.
"My paycheque came from CARE, but the project was financed by CIDA and supported by four primary NGOs-CARE, World Vision, Plan Canada (which used to be called Foster Parents Plan) and Save the Children. Two other agencies, Engineers Without Borders and TakingITGlobal, were instrumental in making sure the pictures were seen when we returned," said Lucas.
Deciding where to send the PhotoSensitive photographers was a matter of some debate and they settled on Kenya, Mozambique, Ethiopia, India and Cambodia (some places they would later visit in the wake of the 2004 tsunami for Beyond the Wave). Once they were on the ground, doing the work was, in Lucas Robinson's words, "extremely challenging, hugely rewarding, creatively inspiring and — to be honest — pretty heartbreaking."
Andrew Stawicki recalls the project was "monster" in every way: the number of agencies, the extensive travel, the people they met and photographed, the stories, the memories and the opportunity to do such important work. And once they got back home, there was a golden ticket: Toronto was hosting the XVI International AIDS Conference.
"Imagine the opportunity. When the conference opened, our images would be front and centre," said Andrew.
Capturing those images was, of course, the collective work of the photographers in the field and Lucas Robinson remembers first going with Patti Gower and Benjamin Rondel into Kenya, then with Andy Clark, Peter Bregg and Steve Simon into Mozambique, and then taking Dick Loek, Andrew Stawicki and Tony Hauser into India and Cambodia, and Steve Simon into Ethiopia. He recalls each photographer was totally engaged, despite lots of challenges.
"Try to imagine what parachute journalism feels like. You fly in. You meet your driver, your translator, people with AIDS, people helping people with AIDS, innumerable local staff … and for this massive project, the photographers had to get signed permission slips for their pictures. Many resisted at first, but they needed to do it, because they were providing all the NGOs with a library of pictures. CARE Canada, World Vision, Plan Canada, Save the Children: they all needed signed release forms. The photographers would often take the shot first and then ask for permission — otherwise the spontaneity would have been lost.
"It was such an intense year. Planning began in March. We did all the travelling in April and May. Then in June, July and August, we put together the exhibition-printing the photographs, writing the captions. In September, we started going across Canada. Engineers Without Borders set us up in more than three hundred schools, and it took us till the following May to finish touring. It all wrapped up at the International AIDS Conference in Toronto in August 2006. We celebrated with the flagship exhibition at BCE Place, with PhotoSensitive's distinctive black-and-white photos beautifully printed, mounted and displayed," said Lucas.
In shooting the pictures and in choosing the images for the exhibit in Toronto, Andrew says PhotoSensitive wanted to celebrate hope, not despair, in the faces of those living with AIDS.
"If we show people suffering, what does that do? If we show people with hope, that helps. One sex trade worker said to me, 'I have to do this; I have two small children to support.' But I took pictures of her at home, with her children. This is mommy when she is not being a prostitute. And then we found someone who had stopped being a sex trade worker and photographed her in the small shop where she worked. That suggests choices and hopefulness. Along with CARE and the other good agencies, we try to educate. They are doing that awareness work; with our cameras, we were just a small part of it-but I think we did a good job," said Andrew.
For the world to see
Lucas Robinson says the images have been seen by millions of people, thanks to the travelling exhibits, and the Internet.
"We were, in many ways, ahead of the curve: working together on an international stage in new and creative ways, and using Engineers Without Borders' contacts to take the images into Canadian high schools and universities. Then they were shown at the International AIDS Conference. And then they went global: TakingITGlobal designed the website for the images. That was our primary portal, and millions-I mean literally millions-of people have now seen those photographs.
"I remember choosing the name AIDS: Picture Change because both 'picture' and 'change' have double meanings. 'Picture' can be the verb imagine as well as the noun photograph. 'Change' suggested both that we wanted to change people's opinions about AIDS and that it was time to take action, change the world, do something! That's what PhotoSensitive helped us do," said Lucas.
The life of a photojournalist
For AIDS: Picture Change Tony Hauser travelled through India and Cambodia. The life of a photojournalist isn't always as 'romantic' as people imagine.
"It took us thirty-six hours to get to India. NGOs are paying for our flights, so they book us on the very cheapest flights they can find, which is how it should be. But it can be exhausting. On this project, there was seemingly endless travel-by plane, by train, by taxi, by bus-in 40-degree weather. You can image the heat. And then tea, tea and more tea to drink with people who arrange the meetings. And then, finally, you drive to a remote village to meet the people you will eventually photograph. And how do you take sensitive photographs after all that? I'm not sure, but somehow we do. It's probably because the people themselves capture our attention.
"I like it when there is a certain intimacy in a picture. I found it with an Indian fisherman who was fixing his net, with his young son in his lap. He was very open about AIDS. He said the fishermen have a short season and then they travel to factory jobs. They have affairs, they bring home money and HIV/AIDS-and the whole disastrous cycle sets in. He was brave to talk about it, quietly, sitting with his son.
"In Cambodia, I met a local guy at the border in Poipet. People would latch onto us, offering to be guides or translators. This one young guy would not let me go! So finally I asked if he'd take me to meet his family. It was in a slum, right beside a huge casino. Such a juxtaposition. I asked if he would take me to a pagoda and I met the monks. By random coincidence, one had been trained by CARE to talk to people dying of AIDS! Edwin became my friend and I took a beautiful portrait of him. He came from a very poor family and, to me, looked like the incarnation of purity, a young god. But guess what he wants to be? An accountant! An accountant in the casino in Poipet," said Tony.