AIDS and HIV. People think they've heard all the horror stories before. They don't want to see the thin, tired faces of the "victims." None of the pain. None of the sickness.
But Peggy Blythe's exhibit of documentary photography, The Face of HIV/AIDS in Kentucky isn't about a lecture.
With this show, the illness stops being about the virus and starts being about the people. And Blythe joins a long line of artists and writers who have successfully put a human face on the tragic numbers. It's not statistics. Blood transfusions. Shared needles. It is people working and learning, struggling to come to terms with themselves. And now, they're trying to make a difference by making themselves vulnerable for Blythe's lens.
Even though they know this could open them up to harassment or even persecution, most of the subjects were candid with Blythe, letting her know how they contracted the disease. However, they want to point out that it's not relevant anymore. What matters to them now is learning to live with it and helping others prevent it from happening. At least partially because they are so active in helping to spread the word, they do not see themselves as victims.
To many, being diagnosed with HIV has been a life-changing aspect that has ultimately come to have some surprisingly positive aspects. "I think having HIV has taught me a lot," says Timothy, "I believe it's made me more spiritual."
And Gary talks of his new life with the disease, "To me this disease has been a blessing; it has changed my life. My life is a lot more peaceful."
Most people don't suspect that the athletic-looking guy sitting next to them at a restaurant might be HIV positive or even have AIDS. Not all people with AIDS are house-bound skeletons or invalids.
Blythe addresses the education process, "There are a lot of people who are infected. They're people you'd hang out with. They're not horrible looking people that you would never get near, and I think some people have that misconception."
And of course, that's a new spin on prevention that most people don't think about. Blythe admits that it's human nature to adopt an immunity philosophy - mentally confining the virus as exclusive to lower classes or gays or drug addicts. "Most friends and the people I talk to think, 'the people I date are not gonna have AIDS. I date nice people. I'm not out picking up people in bars that I don't know.' But the fact is that everybody needs to think about it and protect themselves. The reality is that you can't tell from looking at somebody, and most of us don't think twice because we think we know somebody."
As you walk into this exhibit and see the range of people, the colors, the walks of life, the sexual preferences, scattered throughout Kentucky - it hits a different nerve. The denial that AIDS has made it out of the big cities and into the heartland is put to rest. It's here. Believe it.
Take Larry. His photos show him working. And his job is physical. He works on a horse farm. This isn't Angels in America.
And he's smiling in the photos. "I cherish every moment that I am breathing," he says, "I mean I cherish everything good and bad in my life. I think it's all for a reason, all for a purpose." He's not in his room feeling sorry for himself.
And that is exactly why Blythe is putting this exhibit out there. She wants to bring the real face of AIDS to the public. She says, "I think with a lot of things like AIDS or homosexuality where people have a lot of [stigma] attached to it, it's easy to say 'those people' or have it be a 'thing out there.' What we're trying to do is personalize it, and when a personal connection is made, perhaps people would be more open to learning and responding."
But what about the drug addict? What about that woman who got it from shooting up with a dirty needle? What of it? Just because there's a darkness to some methods of transmission - and with them a tendency to blame and point fingers - doesn't mean this woman's out of the range of the public's understanding.
Alfreda doesn't want pity. She wants to be heard. Nobody chooses AIDS. She wants to get the word out. All of these people do. They want to put a stop to the disease, show that it's out there and everyone is vulnerable if we're not careful.
"This illness doesn't discriminate," Alfreda says, "and once you get it there's no turning back."
However, some people still see a choice in it and want to find fault with a person who lived a high-risk lifestyle. "They would see a child as a victim," says Blythe of the public's tendency to look for guilt, "or somebody getting it from a blood transfusion as a victim, but any other behavior as guilty. This isn't about blame. This isn't about saying somebody's evil or bad."
It is about seeing and believing and learning.
The Face of HIV/AIDS in Kentucky opens Sunday, August 27, with a reception to be held from 2-4 pm at the Living Arts and Science Center, 362 North Martin Luther King Boulevard.