It is widely recognized that art can accomplish broader community goals. Here at the O’Neill Institute, the Health and Human Rights Initiative has been exploring art as a tool for making health and human rights issues more visible and comprehensible. Program Director Alicia Ely Yamin launched Dialogues on Being Human: The Intersections of Art, Health and Dignity with a reflection on this role. At an event with artist Jesse Krimes on February 23, 2017, Yamin stated, “Aspirationally, there is nothing more powerful than art, nothing more powerful than the portrait of one person to convey what is universal about human dignity, much more than a hundred international treaty texts or articles.”
The significance of Rae’s project lies in its approach to the needs and realities of people living with HIV/AIDS. Rae does not present a hopeless community, but rather emphasizes the resilience of people living with HIV/AIDS and their families. His project reflects the real difference that outreach and education can make when conducted by peers, especially those living with HIV/AIDS. Underlying the entire project is a call for supportive, peer-based treatment and care where people living with HIV/AIDS are not stigmatized but rather empowered to advance prevention and improve health.
In one of his photographs, a mother with HIV in Cambodia appears with her HIV negative daughter. After transmitting the virus to her first child, she joined an outreach program that taught her how to protect her child from HIV. Rae’s photographs feature vulnerable groups such as sex workers, drug users, inmates, and orphans living with HIV/AIDS, but avoid sensationalism and focus on the different interventions (including food, housing and education) that are working in these communities across the world.
The Positive Community shows the importance of peer education in HIV prevention and, at the same time, the need to move toward a more socially responsible approach to HIV/AIDS in visual arts. Rae stresses in the exhibit abstract that “HIV infection is no longer a death sentence and living with HIV has become an issue of maintenance.”
Almost 30 years have passed since Nicholas Nixon’s photographs of AIDS-affected Tom Moran, which depicted Moran as the Other, someone fragile and cut off from the world. In her book Art About AIDS, author Sophie Junge explains how in Nixon’s project “AIDS is portrayed as the fate of an outsider. The photo arouses horror and fear, but it does not call for political action or social action against the discrimination of people with AIDS.” Decades of progress in HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention allow for contributions like The Positive Community, where a message of hope and support for HIV community outreach can eventually give visibility to the work done by peer educators and have an enhanced impact on people living with HIV/AIDS.
Similarly, yet from a legal perspective, the O’Neill Institute’s Health and Human Rights Initiative and National HIV/AIDS Initiative work to move beyond the traditional approach to academic scholarship to create real-world policy solutions through research in partnership with local, national, and global communities. Our work rests on a collaborative and interdisciplinary approach that brings together diverse stakeholders including many of the groups that Rae’s project presents.
The views reflected in this expert column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law or Georgetown University. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.