Currently, 39.5 million people are estimated to be infected with HIV/AIDS worldwide — a staggering statistic. But some wonder if even figures like this are enough to draw public attention to this international crisis.

In commemoration of World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, activists collaborated with the Chicago art community in an effort to humanize the devastating consequences of the global pandemic. Several area museums and universities opened film and photography exhibits to individualize the stories of those who are suffering –about 28,000 in the Chicago area alone.

“People are getting overwhelmed with the numbers,” said Jeff  Richards, vice president of the Abbott Fund, an Illinois-based philanthropic organization which sponsored a children’s photography exhibit. “But through images people can see that these numbers translate into people.”

The exhibit of black-and-white photography, which opened last Friday at Columbia College’s Hokin Gallery, is one of the art events in Chicago inspired by the cause of AIDS.

It’s not the content of the photographs that infuses them with  meaning and brings them halfway around the world for the exhibit, “Picturing Hope: Through Their Eyes,” at the Hokin Gallery — it’s the story behind their creation.

Each of the images was taken by a child between the age of 10 and 18 whose life has been touched by AIDS.

The young photographers are part of the Picturing Hope program, a nonprofit organization that teaches children in developing countries who are affected by AIDS to express their emotions and tell their stories through writing and photography.

“It gives kids a voice to talk about what their feelings are and what their needs are,” Richards said of the Picturing Hope program.

Most of the images are of children, reflecting the unique  perspectives of the photographers.

In one of the photographs, a group of girls in Burkina Faso play a game of jump-rope; in another a tall, lean boy wearing a soccer shirt rests pensively against the side of a building in Tanzania. Some of the images are portraits: a young Indian girl with two black pigtails and a hand full of chalk takes a break from her sidewalk art to gaze up at the camera; a toddler in  Africa grasps the hands of two faceless men as she takes a wobbly step across the rubble-strewn ground.

The program, developed by professional photographer Craig Bender, provides donated cameras and instruction through a network of volunteers.

“It not only provides an outlet for these children to express themselves, but at the same time it helps educate people around the world about the plight of children who have been orphaned or otherwise affected by AIDS,” Bender said.

So far about 300 children have participated in five countries:

Burkina Faso, India, Malawi, Romania, and Tanzania.

The opening of the exhibit also introduced visitors to three of the photographers: K. Revathi, 17, from Vijayawada, India; Gheorghe Alexandru, 18, from Constana, Romania; and Maiga Moussa, 18, from Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.

They expressed a common goal — using their photography to help reduce the sense of shame often attached to AIDS.

“You should not be shy to talk about HIV/AIDS,” said Revathi, whose parents are both HIV positive. “This is what leads to the stigma.” Revathi’s younger brother, Srinivas, died of AIDS last year at the age of 13.

Alexandru’s insight into the realities of the disease is even more personal. He became HIV positive after he received a contaminated blood transfusion when he was four years old, something not uncommon in his town. “I want to stop the stigma because many kids say, ‘Don’t play with him, he has HIV,” Alexandru said.

Richardson hopes that these children and their photography will bring more attention to the global AIDS pandemic.

“It is important for all of us in this field to keep finding new ways to tell about AIDS,” he said. “We need to do things to keep it on the radar screen of policy makers, because if it drops off the radar screen it will be difficult to sustain the energy we need to fight it.”

Other images from the exhibit can be found at

The children’s work has been exhibited at the 2004 World AIDS

Conference in Bangkok, Thailand, the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., for World AIDS Day 2004, and the United Nations General Assembly 2005 Special Session on HIV/AIDS in New York.

It will be at Columbia’s Hokin Gallery, 623 S. Wabash Ave., through Jan. 10.

Two exhibits at the Art Institute commemorate World AIDS Day

In a small room, Nan Goldin looks pensively into a mirror — her haunting reflection stares back from behind a silver-dye bleached photograph. With a paper, glitter-encrusted New Year’s Eve hat perched on her head, Goldin appears blurry in this yellow, almost fluorescent, glossy print titled, “Self-portrait at New Year’s Eve, Malibu, 2006.”

Goldin, edging almost out of the frame, is alone without even the camera visible in the mirror’s reflection. The intimacy of the image, however, is offset by blurriness and the apparent double exposure that reveals itself upon closer examination.

This compelling photograph is just one work in a unique group collection titled “So the Story Goes,” which was exhibited Sept. 16-Dec. 3 at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Goldin’s collection of 23 photographs and her 40-minute slide show, “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” inspired a series of special programs at the museum including gallery talks, film showings and a lecture series.

For the past 35 years, Goldin has documented her life — a seamy world of drugs, AIDS, bisexuality, domestic abuse, sex and death.

The slide show, which comprises more than 400 photographs, is set to an eclectic soundtrack that includes Dean Martin, James Brown, Charles Aznavour and Marlene Dietrich.

Like the slides, Goldin’s photographs — which have been exhibited all over the world — deal with her ideas about relationships between couples of various types and the different ways in which both men and women construct their gender roles.

It is the complexity of this social construction juxtaposed withunadulterated reality that emerges from Goldin’s lens, making her
photography captivating.

In one of the more shocking pieces of the collection, Goldin  presents five full color photographs hanging vertically along the wall. Spanning a several-year period, the images document the decline and eventual death of Gilles, a Parisian gallery owner who contracted AIDS.

Portrayed with his lover Gotscho, Gilles, who sports a tattoo of a gun on his bare chest, is the picture of masculinity. This contrasts starkly with the final two images of Gilles.

The first is an isolated shot of Gilles’ skeletally thin arm lying limply on his hospital bed. The second depicts an emaciated Gilles being kissed by Gotscho. Here the viewer is privy to Gilles’ last moments of life.

Sandwiched between this series of images and another photograph — a glowing, almost gilded metallic embossed image of Goldin’s best friend, Cookie, lying dead in her casket after having lost her own battle to AIDS in  1989 — is a quote by Goldin that reads:

“I used to think I couldn’t lose anyone if I photographed them enough. In fact, they show me how much I’ve lost.”

But Goldin’s collection is not a memorial to the dead. Her work is a cruel, beautiful celebration of life.

Like her self-portrait which hangs in the entrance of the exhibition, Nan Goldin’s collection simply tells a story — one that is sometimes a little out of focus, sometimes grotesque — but always real.

The facts about AIDS/HIV

According to the Centers for Disease Control:

  • Worldwide, about 40 million people are infected with HIV/AIDS.
  • In the United States, more than 1.2 million people are infected.
  • In Illinois, 42,000 are infected.

And in the Chicago area, according to a 2003 study by the AIDS Foundation of Chicago:

  • 28,000 are estimated to be living with the disease, giving metropolitan Chicago the fourth-largest population of people living with HIV/AIDS.
  • 7,000 residents (of the 28,000) are estimated to be HIV-positive, but do not know it.
  • 1,000 residents are estimated to be newly infected with HIV every year.
  • Nearly twice as many African-Americans are living with HIV/AIDS as whites and Hispanics.