For artist Vasilios Papapitsios, going public with his HIV status has been gradual.
He was diagnosed at age 19, but about three years passed before he wrote an anonymous piece about his experience for a North Carolina zine. He presented his art project, a series of embroidered jockstraps and underwear referencing HIV, at a show anonymously. And in 2016, Papapitsios performed at the underground Chicago event Queer, Ill + Okay while wearing a mask.
Now 28, Papapitsios is sharing his story regularly — mask off — at UCLA’s Fowler Museum as part of “Through Positive Eyes,” a photo-storytelling project of people around the world living with HIV and AIDS.
Founded by UCLA Art & Global Health Center Director David Gere and South African photographer Gideon Mendel, “Through Positive Eyes” has been developed over the last decade. Gere and Mendel led a series of photography workshops in 10 cities including Los Angeles, Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and Mumbai, India, for more than 130 people with HIV and AIDS.
Workshop participants received point-and-shoot cameras with powerful lens and tripods. After learning photography basics, they began taking self-portraits. They‘ve captured details about how the illness has affected their lives, exploring such themes as relationships, joy, grief and desire.
The work is on view at the Fowler’s “Through Positive Eyes” exhibition, which runs through Feb. 16 and features photographs, videos, storytelling and a sculpture installation by artist Alison Saar.
In conjunction with World AIDS Day on Sunday, the museum will host an afternoon of free dance and storytelling performances and a film screening of the 2012 Oscar-nominated AIDS activism documentary “How to Survive a Plague.” The date also marks the release of Aperture’s “Through Positive Eyes” book.
A group of about 20 high school students recently toured the exhibition. Through her photos, they learned about Cida (the project identifies participants only by first name), a woman from a 2009 Rio de Janeiro workshop who became blind one year after being diagnosed with AIDS. They watched a video featuring photos of Priya, a woman from Mumbai who was rejected by her husband, parents and children.
Then they entered the Banishing Stigma Gallery, where several members of the Los Angeles collective of “Through Positive Eyes” shared personal stories.
Standing in front of a wall tagged with words and phrases like “You deserve it,” “Infectious” and “Diseased,” Papapitsios performed his monologue, telling the students that he grew up in the Greek Orthodox church in North Carolina. He said it took him five years after his HIV diagnosis to seek antiretroviral treatment because of the stigma of the disease and the lack of accessible care in the area. He told the students about his journey toward holistic health and inner-forgiveness.
Being part of the project has “really uplifted my self worth and my ability to talk to people,” Papapitsios said after his performance. “I used to have this idea that I wasn’t good enough … and that is brought on by the internalized stigma I faced in my earlier years.”
Stigma is the through-line connecting the experiences of each participant, said Gere, who referred to himself as an HIV-negative ally. “That’s why we ultimately, in building this exhibition, wanted to think about the worst part of stigma but also how it is we can overcome it.”
Gere became interested in studying HIV after moving to San Francisco in 1985 during the height of the AIDS epidemic. A dance and music critic at the time, he began paying attention “to what was going on in the art world in relation to HIV, and specifically to see how artists could be primary activists.”
In the early 2000s, while teaching a course at UCLA on AIDS activism through the arts, he read Mendel’s 2003 photo book, “A Broken Landscape: HIV & AIDS in Africa.”
“There was a sensitivity and a beauty about these photographs that was very different than any other AIDS photography I had seen,” Gere said. “It didn’t make me think about people living with HIV as victims of HIV.”
Gere contacted Mendel about chronicling HIV around L.A., and a prototype of “Through Positive Eyes” was born. “This idea of not an outsider taking photographs, but rather a person living with HIV having his or her own camera, and learning how to use it and getting a lot of support so they could tell their own stories,” Gere said.
They held the first workshop in Mexico City in 2008. Each year, Gere, Mendel and photo educator Crispin Hughes led workshops in a new city: Bangkok, London, Durban, South Africa.
The 10-day workshops began with learning how to use the cameras and concluded with intensive group editing sessions in which each participant narrowed down hundreds or even thousands of images into a set of 12 and one signature photo.
Gere calls the participants “artivists.” As the project continued, “there were more and more self portraits that were very revealing and beautiful, really tender and seemed to go deeper and deeper inside the experience of each person living with HIV.”
Gere also noticed a trend toward more hopefulness among participants because of medical advancements.
But even as HIV treatments are improving, 11 people who participated in the project, including Priya, have died.
“That’s been devastating for the group, for us who have learned to care about them,” Gere said. “And it makes us realize that even people who are on medication don’t always make it because it doesn’t work for everybody. And there are other co-factors, one of which is stigma.”
Using art as a way to share stories “is just so effective in getting rid of stigma,” said Kelly Gluckman, an HIV-positive artist, activist and “Through Positive Eyes” L.A. project coordinator.
She hosts performances at the Fowler and shares her own story set against the backdrop of her self portraits exploring what it feels like to age with HIV. “You can see it changes hearts and minds,” Gluckman said. “People don’t leave here without saying, ‘I’ve met someone with HIV.’”
When: World AIDS Day event noon-5 p.m. Sunday. “Through Positive Eyes” exhibition Wednesdays-Sundays, through Feb. 16