Heroines & Heroes: Hope, HIV and Africa

Cartier Bresson once said that taking photographs is “putting one’s head, one’s eye and one’s heart on the same axis”. This is the feeling that you get when looking at Steve Simon’s pictures of communities in Lesotho, Ethiopia, Zambia and Mozambique. Each image has a strong and striking composition that connects with its subject and tells a story that comes from a true alignment of head, eye and heart.

His subject is the people of sub-Saharan Africa who are affected by HIV/Aids. While the pictures are allowed to stand alone and communicate directly as images, detailed captions at the end of the book provide valuable information and context. This could be the fact that the body in a coffin, carried along a dusty track in the heat of the day, was a 35 year-old woman, or the sobering statistic that almost 10 per cent of children under 17 in sub-Saharan Africa have lost one or both parents to Aids.

While HIV and Aids, by necessity, permeates much of the story, what comes through again and again is Simon’s love of Africa and its people. He has concentrated on rural villages, where fertile plains stretch out to the mountains, and clouds hang low in the vast skies; where the colours in people’s blankets and shawls glow bright.
It is by remembering and capturing the beauty of the landscape and the people, that the tragedy and violation of this incurable disease is brought acutely into consciousness – into one’s own head, eye and heart. The book is paced carefully to take you from this point of awe and wonder, into the intimate homes, churches and community medical centres with people trying to cope, and on to the more harrowing scenes inside hospitals where people are dying and staring into the blank distance.

Simon documents how HIV/Aids has forced communities to reorganise themselves. He shows how it often now falls on grandmothers to care for large families where parents have died, and how they are summoning up strength – as the last generation largely unaffected by the disease – to run support centres. In Lesotho, where

28 per cent of the adult population is estimated to be infected with the disease, its funeral services are overwhelmed. They are photographed with coffins half open in order for relatives to identify the correct bodies, and we witness a chilling scene where coffins for infants, children and adults lie jumbled up in a back room. Outside, a line of women stand in-front of a hand-painted sign whose polite instruction might provide a gallows humour, if it wasn’t so pertinent: ‘Kindly ensure that the body you take out of the mortuary is that of your relative. UTH will not accept liability for any wrong identification.’

The mobilisation of energy and resources is shown in numerous and impressive ways – from aerobics classes to touring dramas on safe sex. The care and tenderness given to those suffering is moving and, at points, uplifting – a giant old lady in a red-striped dress is mobbed by a gang of orphaned boys in the centre she set up in Lesotho. There is a real sense that people are pulling together to help themselves in the very difficult circumstances.

But finally, the book ends with hope for the future: Africa’s children, their education, and those funny rubber things in little wrappers. Standing in classrooms, opening them up, the children have a look, wave them about and even make them pop-up and inflate from a special box. Packed in, the children are doubled up laughing at these pale balloons that, they may discover, are their best chance for staying alive. It is a good sight.
Ruth Hedges

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