LEONIE MARINOVICH's series of portraits are the catalyst for a discussion in which urban African women speak frankly about the nuances and strategies of living with their HIV status, and of dealing with male violence in their societies.
Marinovich has long been photographing people in rural communities who are living with HIV, and this collaboration with UNAIDS was an opportunity to chat about the things people usually don’t discuss about the virus, and for women of all ages to speak about their life experiences.
One of the most emphasised themes to emerge was that of image, self-image and how women wish to present themselves to the world. The interplay between these intimate confidences and the confident, comfortable manner that these women offer themselves to the photographer’s camera interact in a remarkable way with the stories of their lives and emotions that they present verbally.
They don’t tell me. They take ten bottles of blood and they don’t tell me. They tell me to come back next week. I go back next week and I ask, Doctor, what is wrong with me?
He says, No, Maria, you must just take the treatment; take it.
Another nurse asks me, Did they tell you what’s wrong with you?
I say no, they didn’t tell me.
She says, Go back to the doctor that looked at you, ask him what’s wrong with you.
I go back to the doctor. Doctor, I want to know what’s wrong with me.
The doctor says, no, Maria…
I say, Doctor, I want to know what’s wrong with me. You give me this stuff, I don’t know what’s wrong with me. You have to tell me.
He says, But do you know what?
I say yes?
He says, You are positive. You have TB. And you have HIV.
Back at the nurses, they ask me, Where did you get it? I say I don’t know. I don’t know where I got it, because I don’t sleep around.
You know when you have AIDS and you have stress, you will never be healthy. You mustn’t think too much. When I had that stress, I almost, oh! I almost died.
I almost died, because I thought, I don’t have a husband, he left me in ’99. I don’t have any family, I have nothing, I have nothing, nothing, God must just take me. I prayed for God to take me.
Then I called them all.
I have two daughters and three sons. I call them all. I say, If I die, you must take this letter.
Oh, my children cried. They cried, all of them. They know they don’t have family. Where will they go? I don’t have a sister, or a brother, or an aunty; I have nothing. It’s just me, alone. I lost my mother, my father, everything. It’s just me. Today if their families need anything, they can only come to me.
If I die, you have to know what killed me.
With our people, you know, when we die without saying anything, the people will say that you were bewitched.
The miesies called my doctor. He told her I am HIV positive. When I returned to work the next Monday, I find the baas waiting for me at the gate. The miesies she joins him and she says, Maria, sit down. I sit down. She says, You know what, we called your doctor, and he told us you have HIV.
I say yes.
She says You can’t come to work for us anymore. You must know, we have children here. The people with HIV, have to stay at home. We are scared because we have children, you will pass it on to our children. We can’t keep you.
I had worked there for three years.
This one calls that one, then calls that one – they tell them not to hire Maria anymore. Maria has AIDS.
When I try and find another job, I would arrive and they would say, Maria, your boss called us. Why didn’t you tell us you are sick? You are working for us, you have to tell us what is wrong with you. I tell them I never thought of that because I can work, do everything. They tell me, no, the people with AIDS are not allowed to work for the white people.
Oh, my heart was sore.
That’s their guilt. You can’t take other people’s guilt away for them. Your life is your life. My life is mine. I work my path, you work at yours. We all sow what we reap. If you sow, you will reap. DM
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