Art Exhibit Tells Global Stories of HIV Treatment

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A new exhibit at The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., illustrates the effect free anti-retroviral treatments are having on people living with HIV around the world. Access to Life is a grouping of photo essays from across the world. Contributing photographer Larry Towell and one of his subjects, Thoba Nzima, from Swaziland discuss the project.

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CHERYL CORLEY, host:

I'm Cheryl Corley. This is Tell Me More from NPR News. Still to come, you see the pretty monuments that define the nation's capital. We'll talk about how they were made. But first, on Saturday, the Corcoran Gallery of Art here in Washington, D.C. opened a new photo exhibit titled Access to Life. It chronicles the effect that free antiretroviral treatments are having on AIDS patients around the world.

The exhibit is a joint project between Magnum Photos and the Global Fund to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. They sent an international team of noted photographers to nine countries to shoot photo essays of the before and after effects the treatments are having on AIDS patients and their families.

The photographic team included Larry Towell, who was sent to Swaziland and South Africa. One of his subjects was Thoba Nzima, in Swaziland, which has the second highest HIV infection rate in the world. Larry Towell and Thoba Nzima join me now to talk about the Access to Life exhibit. Welcome to the show.

Mr. LARRY TOWELL (Photographer, Magnum Photos): Thanks, Cheryl.

Ms. THOBA NZIMA (Photography Subject, Access to Life Exhibition): Thank you.

CORLEY: Well, Larry, can I start with you? What did Magnum Photos and the Global Fund to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria hope to really accomplish with this project?

Mr. TOWELL: Well, I'm a journalist. Sometimes you don't know what you're going to accomplish. I think you just go into the world and you discover it as you go. So I felt my role was to enter the lives of other people and discover it.

So I spent a time with a number of patients who'd just begun their antiretrovirals, and then went back four months later and visited them again after - you know, having been on treatment for that period of time. And so what we hoped to accomplish, I guess, was just to bring the daily life of patients back to America.

CORLEY: Well, Thoba, you, of course, are one of those patients and the mother of three. As I understand, one of your children died from AIDS when he was eight. Your oldest daughter, Nokwanda(ph), also has AIDS, and your youngest child, your son, is HIV negative.

How did the Access to Life project find you or hear about your story? As I understand, you had a producer named Adele Sokis(ph), who went into Swaziland, and that's where they found you, Thoba?

Ms. NZIMA: I met Adele at the clinic. They called me at home. They said I must come in and they told me all about this. So she asked me why do I search it or not. I said, I search it.

CORLEY: Why did you decide to accept?

Ms. NZIMA: I just wanted to be - to maybe be an example to other people. Maybe some people could copy what I've just done. To take the treatment properly and how - just to see how I live with the HIV and the treatment.

CORLEY: So you wanted people to know that perhaps that this sort of treatment actually worked?

Ms. NZIMA: Yeah, because you know, some people are stubborn and they just don't want to hear anything about this. So maybe if they hear one of those people, maybe they could take it easy.

CORLEY: Larry, why did you decide to participate in the project? I read your bio. It said you travel reluctantly, and yet you left your home and lived with folks and traveled around, photographing for months.

Mr. TOWELL: Well, I travel reluctantly. But I do travel. I'm a photo-journalist and I choose my stories wisely, I guess. Or at least, you know, I photograph things that are most important to me. And over the years - I mean, you know, I'm in my fifties now. And I spent my earlier life as a journalist photographing conflict during the Reagan years, in Central America. And then more recently, the past 15 years or so, in the Middle East.

And health care issues are something - I'm Canadian, so access to health care - free health care is, as far as I'm concerned, is always - should be a human right. So when I was invited to do this, it just seemed like a continuation of that theme of health care.

CORLEY: Thoba, how's the treatment going for both you and your daughter?

Ms. NZIMA: Very fine. You know, I've just seen many changes in my life and in my body and in my daughter's body, too.

CORLEY: When you say, very fine, were you very ill before or before you started taking the treatment?

Ms. NZIMA: Yeah, I was ill. I was admitted to the hospital. They say I had pneumonia. So I was weak, and I lost a lot of weight. But after I'd taken the treatment I became better, and my weight is OK now. Yeah.

CORLEY: Thoba, tell me about your daughter. She's 15, you say, a teenager. How did she get HIV/AIDS? And how did she feel about taking the treatment?

Ms. NZIMA: Oh, OK. A baby gets the HIV from the mother, yeah, at birth. But OK, she didn't know. And you asked me how you got it. I tried explaining it to her. It was hard at first. She just didn't understand everything. But I tried expressing everything to her. So now she's better, now she understands. And it was even hard for her to take that treatment.

CORLEY: How so?

Ms. NZIMA: She just didn't take it properly, you know. So I tried sitting down with her, and I told her everything. That this is your life, Nokwanda, so now she understands.

CORLEY: Larry, we of course are in an oral medium, but maybe if you could describe your photos for me, what can we expect to see in these before and after pictures?

Mr. TOWELL: I think in my case there wasn't as visual a before and after effect, actually, because Swaziland and South Africa are a little ahead of say, Haiti, in terms of public access, public education. And so people are getting treated sooner. The stereotypical image of a skeletal human being as they begin AIDS treatment is not that common because people are being tested sooner, there's a public education push to be tested, basically.

So I was just photographing peoples' lives, really, the community around them, the reasons that they live. I was more interested in their emotional state than their physical one. Patients who had community support - for example, their church or their family, if they knew what was going on, they did quite well.

Those who didn't - who did not disclose to their relatives, to their families, usually did poorly. So I was more interested in that aspect. Which is harder to photograph, but it's the world that I found myself in, and it was a challenge.

CORLEY: Larry, how did this project affect you personally? I mean, going and shooting photos is something that you do for a living but when we started, you said this is something about discovery, or has been about discovery. What did you discover?

Mr. TOWELL: A photographer - I mean, I think we gain meaning to our lives. It is other people who give meaning to our lives, I guess, is what I wanted to say. So being involved with - you know, patients who are living, who are discovering life again or have hope again, obviously is going to give me the same impact. It's going to give me hope.

CORLEY: Thoba, last question for you. What has your involvement in this project meant for you, personally?

Ms. NZIMA: I'm very glad to be in this project. You know, I think what is really exciting me is that I think I will have to be an example to other people. You know, other people, it's hard to explain these, and it's hard to get it in their minds about all of this HIV. But I think I'll make a better example to other people. Yes.

CORLEY: Thoba Nzima, whose AIDS treatment with antiretroviral drugs was documented in the new photo exhibit Access to Life, joined us from our bureau in New York City. And photographer Larry Towell joined us here in our Washington, D.C. studio. Thank you both so much.

Mr. TOWELL: Thank you, Cheryl.

Ms. NZIMA: Thank you very much.

CORLEY: To learn more about the Access to Life exhibit, go to the Tell Me More section of the npr.org web site.

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