Positive Lives is a global photo-documentary project, begun in 1993, that has used images of people living with HIV as an educational and community tool in countries heavily afflicted with the condition.
As part of this project I travelled to Cambodia in 2001, where I spent several weeks working with local organisations to talk to and photograph people living with AIDS/HIV and those close to them who are affected.
In Cambodia, a large proportion of married men visit sex workers. Over 30% of sex workers are HIV positive. Men do not like to use condoms. Husbands get infected, infect their wives and sometimes their children. This terrible cycle has led to one of the fastest growing infection rates in Asia with over 170,000 HIV positive people.
Cambodia is one of the world’s poorest countries and has only about 8,000 hospital beds. Most AIDS victims die at home, leaving a legacy of medical debt for their families. It became clear to me soon after my arrival that my goal was to phtogoraph not just the infect but the affected. Over 30,000 children have been orphaned because of AIDS; this number will quadruple over the next five years. Many of these orphans end up on the street because their families, already poor, cannot support them. Once on the street, they are vulnerable to becoming sex workers.
Dr Tia Phalla, head of the National AIDS Association and an inspirational figure, gives an overview: “There are two sides to the problem – one is dealing with the direct problem, encouraging the use of condoms, education about the disease, trying to get the drugs, shortage of hospital beds, etc. The other, far more difficult, is changing the hearts of the people. We are a Buddhist culture and everyone needs to believe that we are on the earth a short time and should think of others before one’s own needs. Up to now in Cambodia, we are the passive object of change. There is an acceptance that men have second wives, regularly visit brothels, lie to their wives etc. We should now be the subject of social change, questioning our behaviour, responsibly working together, trying to consider the next generation as well as our own individual needs and desires”.