Portraits of Commitment exhibition puts a face on the
fight against AIDS
By Romany Arrowsmith
Based on a book
by the same name, "Portraits of Commitment" renews the perspective
on the South Asian AIDS problem for the first time in Sri Lanka by
depicting outstanding individuals - characters who have suffered but
have ultimately survived and continue their fight against
Shahidul Alam has been a photographer for 27 years,
although first obtaining a degree in Chemistry, and was nominated
the best photographer of the year by the London Arts Council in
1983; he was soon to become the president of the Bangladesh
Photographic Society. Alam has used varied techniques - from the
muted light and shadow that half-hides the face of a transgender who
has been marginalized for her entire life; to the vivid colours and
spontaneity in the portrait of former drug user Rajiv Kafle, who is
surrounded by a tangle of children smiling cheerfully at the camera.
Alam however chooses to acknowledge that two sides
inherently exist in the creation of a tour de force, downplaying his
own long-standing talent.
"Photographs are not something the
photographer takes. It is something the photographer and the person
being photographed make together" said Alam. "It is the product of a
mutual relationship. Unless you have that relationship, you do not
get the portrait."
One can see the truth of Alam's words in
the portrait of the husband of the first woman to admit that she had
AIDS on National television, who subsequently died. The portrait is
simple, with no photographic 'tricks': the man stands on a balcony
looking skywards. Yet his story is made completely clear from the
tears forming in his eyes, and the lines of genuine sorrow that web
across his face.
The exhibition, held at Barefoot Gallery,
has been a project between UNAIDS, APLF (Asia Pacific leadership
Forum on HIV/AIDS and Development) and the Phathshala Institute of
Bangladesh. It is also to feature a mobile exhibition that will cart
around the pictures in trishaws to eight different regions starting
from Wellewatte beach and ending at Maharagama.
the importance of getting the exhibition out of the 'cocktail
culture' into the society in which AIDS is not fully
"Literacy is only valued in terms of the written
word. Sometimes we deny or forget the practice of something that
people have had…which is storytelling. The language of words is
restricted to a much smaller community - the urban elite, which is
an important group but not the native part of our world." By
enabling a mobile exhibition to take place Alam has ensured that the
pictures will be "taken out of the gallery to places that people are
not intimidated…open up our experience to a much wider
Alam also compared the art of images to the art of
words as defined by typical journalistic ethic. He pointed out that
he wanted to "show passion, conviction, energy" through his pictures
without being lured into using sensationalism to get the point
across. He mentioned that there has been a tendency for "white,
western photographers" to portray AIDS in a very generic way,
calling for the need to challenge the stereotyping - not just about
AIDS, but gender and career stereotypes as well.
"We look for
things that will make the headlines…we should suppress those
feelings and let the individual speak."
Each individual is
certainly given a voice as each portrait is accompanied by a caption
that repeats the words of the outstanding person beside
"I have no choice. If I don't do it no one else
"I can't stop. I have to work harder."
"I speak to
powerful people and people listen to me."
"I choose to
Messages such as these are not elaborate or
necessarily highly complex, but perfectly express an important fact
about the subjects of Alam's work: that these characters have made
an initial choice that has led them to their achievements. Not all
of them have AIDS; none of them have been compelled by external
forces to act against the virus. In fact many have pioneered their
way forward against AIDS. There are several 'firsts' carefully
recorded in the individual accounts- from Dr. Sushil Shakya, the
first doctor trained to use antiretroviral therapy in Nepal, to
Sherman de Rosa, the first homosexual man in Sri Lanka to admit his
orientation to the public, to Noor Jehan Panezai, the first female
member of the Pakistani National Assembly and the only woman in
senate from 1988-1994.
APLF Manager UNAIDS Teresita Bagasao
described the portraits as "celebrations of life and courage…shows
of crisis, anguish and difficulty and how they came out of it" as
opposed to the usual negative portrayals of disease that have
appeared in the past. Looking at the five Asian countries
represented on the walls of the Gallery - Sri Lanka, India, Nepal,
Bangladesh and Pakistan - it is evident why, behind the potent
positivity and confidence in the portraits, there is indeed a sense
of terrible struggle that has been overcome.
have a cumulative average of about 30% of their population living
underneath the poverty line of US $1; as a result of this poverty,
leading to a lack of adequate education, ignorance about the
incurable virus is rife. Those who have the virus are stigmatized
and driven to the fringes of society in order to be punished or
ignored, and eventually forgotten.
Huma Khawar, a journalist
from Pakistani whose face is in one of around fifty portraits in the
gallery, was present in person and expressed some of these
difficulties that many have faced in the fight against HIV/AIDS due
to the social structure of the developing world. Her natural
demeanor echoes that of her portrait - arms folded, and looking
directly into the eyes of the person she addresses. She spoke simply
and frankly about the experience as a journalist pushing for
adequate news coverage of the nature of the virus in her native
country. "Pakistan is a very high-prevalence/low-risk country. The
culture and religion make it very difficult to talk about an issue
like HIV/AIDS. The media was not willing to accept it as an issue.
It was very difficult to convince editors and give some space to the
issue" she said.
The caption next to Khawar's portrait
perhaps sums up the purpose of the exhibition best: "I realized that
unless you give a human face to the AIDS story, you can't convince
people that it is here" she says.
If there were to be such a
'human face' placed on the fight against AIDS, Shahidul Alam's
favourite portrait, depicted on the cover of the programme, posters
and invitation for the exhibition, might be it: the picture shows
the young Bangladeshi Sabina Yeasmin Putul dressed in the attire of
a martial artist, one fist thrust upwards defiantly and the other
held in defense by her side. Her face is set, her eyes focused;
strength is written deeply into the angled lines of her
Stepping back to read the description accompanying her
portrait, you will find that she is just seventeen years old,
daughter of a sex worker. The 21st century 'culture of the victim'
allows those who have had bad childhoods to blame their present
failures on the failures of past generations. But this girl has
unconsciously challenged this attitude by proving that the choices
of the present are nothing to do with the events of the past.
It follows then that most of these people, like Putul, are
not 'extraordinary' in any sense of the word as we use it today.
Alam's pictures show the faces of those who are neither extremely
poor nor extremely rich, neither marvelously intelligent nor
unusually talented. Certainly there are a few familiar names
(Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty and former international cricketer
Rahul Dravid stand out as the celebrities within the collection) but
the majority, from all walks of life including doctors, journalists
and housewives, are merely carrying a torch that third world society
failed to pick up and strode forward with whatever resources they
had to instruct their communities.
Many would say that what
we can learn from this is the importance of leadership, commitment
and determination to achieve great things - indeed true; but Mr.
Alam pointed out a message far less apparent and far greater that
can be taken away from this experience. On being asked what he had
learned from compiling the portraits of outstanding individuals, he
replied that "People in themselves are special.
need to go looking for leaders. You don't need to go looking for
those stories. There are those stories in all our lives. What I came
back with was that there are no ordinary people. We are all
Perhaps this is the real story behind the images:
that the people of Sri Lanka, Asia, that we, the people of the
world, are no ordinary people. We are waiting to make that choice -
the initial choice to fight against that which holds us and our
society back - the choice that will prove our mettle as heroes of