Seeing ME: Profiles of Resilience [interview]

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Seeing ME: Profiles of Resilience is the second collaboration between the Salt Institute and the Frannie Peabody Center in the past two years. It serves to inspire observance, meditation on and examine of World AIDS Day. This show in particular profiles "the stories, struggles and victories that form the changing face of HIV/AIDS in Maine." It features photo and interviews by photographer Smith Galtney.

We talked with Galtney, Salt Institute Executive Director Donna Galluzzo, and Frannie Peabody Center Director of Development Katie Rutherford about how this show came together and why collaboration between the community-based HIV / AIDS service organization and the documentary school makes sense. Further, they explained why documentary can be an optimal medium for keeping the public abreast of abstract, emerging developments in public health and the realities of those living with a virus and related stigma that remains cryptic to most.

You can see the show starting on First Friday November 7th at The Salt Institute. It runs into December and a special reception will be held on World AIDS Day (December 1).

All photo credits belong to Galtney.

How did this collaboration come to be?

Donna Galluzzo: Last year we had a wonderful and successful exhibit, a short exhibit, that showed the history of HIV/AIDS in Maine. The community reaction was awesome. We also hosted a World AIDS Day event, which was well received. At the end of that, Katie and I talked about wanting to do something bigger. We talked about starting an annual show and World AIDS Day event in partnership with the Peabody Center. We decided to mirror the kind of storytelling we do here at Salt and trying to find people around the state that show the diversity of HIV/AIDS in Maine. We wanted to show photographs of people, both outreach workers and people with HIV/AIDS, and tell their stories as well as show strong images of them on our gallery walls.

We then thought "Who could do this?" We started brainstorming alums and Smith came to mind right away. He's a Salt photography alumnus and we thought he would really enjoy the project. I knew he was back in Maine after completing a program in New York, and we thought he would be a perfect fit.

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What do you want people to come away with after seeing the show?

DG: I want for people to come away with something as simple as possible to see themselves somewhere in there. When you can look at the walls, you can read somebody's eyes and see those similarities. You'll be able to walk through the show, read about their experiences, and find yourself in the written pieces and images.

Smith Galtney: Considering the reaction people had to me engaging in this project at first, I would love for them to come away filled with wonder. AIDS is not done, there is no cure. Young people think there's a cure. This is treatable but this is not something you want to live with. The subjects reiterate this. A lot of people are dealing with after illnesses now. I would love for people to just get the sense that it is not all about condoms and safe sex. This is a way of life. This is part of the American experience. It's not just about safe sex anymore and it never was. It is about lives. It is about a woman who is not responding to her medicine, or one who is having a perfectly healthy baby, or other people who don't match your assumptions. I know people who walk through will try to identify which of the subjects are HIV-Positive and which are not. I think they're going to rethink stigma and I hope they leave and realize how much of it looked familiar with their lives. There is no formula, and I think that applies to so many things in life we think we have answers for.

Salt has long been telling stories about Maine, and those sorts of stories have changed as Maine has changed. Why does this partnership make sense in the context of that evolution and why partner with the Peabody Center in particular?

DG: Part of our relationship with the Frannie Peabody Center is that it serves as a wonderful reflection of what Salt's approach to storytelling is in Maine, and what we have come to be in the past two decades. If you look at Salt way back, we started by telling stories about neighbors, friends and families. People called it ethnography, and it was much more about how to build lobster traps and where the great hunting was going on. Those are beautiful stories and they capture Maine's culture, which is really important. Way back 40 years ago, we were more focused on capturing Maine's cultural history.

Now it's really important to the school and to our student body to do stories that also have social impact. In the genre of documentary I think one of the things we all want to accomplish is to make social change. We want to tell those important stories. Thinking about how many people in Maine are connected with HIV/AIDS from those doing outreach to those struggling with the disease—an issue that has a very intense social context—storytelling becomes a way to address and educate the public and have impact. We are hoping to create change, hoping to create a better future. All of those things make sense in the contet of what Salt does as well.

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Where the Frannie Peabody Center has a number of potential collaborators at its disposal, why did this particular partnership make sense for the organization?

Katie Rutherford: We're always looking for a chance to get the word out. Initiating last year's project was an opportunity for us to explain to people what's happening with HIV/AIDS now. We want to remind them of the journey we have gone through, starting from when this was a death sentence through where we are now helping people to live healthy lives. It's still a major issue and I think a lot of people have forgotten that. There has been a lot of fatigue regarding attention to it. Talking with people about what I do, I find that many don't know that what the Frannie Peabody Center itself does, or even that HIV/AIDS is an issue in Maine. It was important for us to find a place and project that would reach new audiences. Our loyal base is wonderful, but from a prevention and outreach standpoint, we really need to find a way to attract new supporters and reach those who are no longer paying attention.

I really wanted to do it here because I am a huge fan on Salt and I have spent many First Friday Art Walks at the exhibits here. I appreciate the diversity of projects that they have presented, ones that aim for social impact and telling stories that people have either forgotten or otherwise not heard. It was a great partnership for us in that we have gotten to benefit from their exposure. Last year we got such a positive response from both the general public and that base of long-term survivors. People who came to that First Friday, which showcased our journey, would see images of people they hadn't seen in 20 years and were brought to tears. It was a really beautiful experience for a lot of people. This year's project, where we are highlighting people who are living or working with people with HIV/AIDS, or impacted by it in some way, enhances our ability to get the message out that this is still an issue. We should all be reminded of that, and it is very relatable to the Maine experience.

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In a lot of traditional education campaigns, there is a lot of broadcast communication where one entity speaks to many. Of course there is some discourse, but the broadcast model is relied upon somewhat heavily, especially when fundraising. A gallery show is sort of a hybrid of broadcast and discourse, as attendees are immersed in an experience.

KR: We're not allowed to share a lot of our stories because of confidentiality. We don't have the kind of abilities that other nonprofits have where they can put up a lot of pictures of people that benefit from their programs. We just can't do that on a regular basis. This was a chance for us to take a step back and really think about a project where we could go through the process of talking with specific people who were willing to come forward. It is still such a stigmatizing issue. We wanted to also make sure that people felt safe in that environment while also telling the stories and express their struggles and challenges with the disease. It's something we can't do on a regular basis in the way that some groups can. I think doing so with this show makes our voice louder. I write grants all. day. long. [laughs] and we are so often prompted to tell stories that illustrate need. I tell stories stripped of details to protect identities over and over, and in doing so impact is downplayed and it is much harder to stress how important this work is.

The way that people react to photos and the interviews we have used to illustrate the perspectives of this community has been wonderful. It has been a great way to share with people the real stories about how this is something that we all deal with. It is something that affects every community differently. Seeing the pictures is one thing, but then matching those up with the interviews was where it came together in my mind. It is better than any grant I will ever write. The impact these stories will have is better than anybody standing at any podium, or discussions about safer sex practices. It gives so much strength to our efforts to get in front of people.

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SG: Everybody has busy lives and photos resonate. Every time I go to a show, I am immediately engaged with the images being shown and then I will go to the text panel because I want some sort of context. In the case of this, we have drilled down the quotes to very succinct, sharp stories about peoples' experience and you have that context for these images. It can affect you quite quickly.

How did you approach your subjects, Smith?

SG: This project is everything you want as a photographer, where you get to meet people and hear their stories. The approach itself was super casual. Whenever I told people that I would be doing a project with those living with HIV/AIDS, people would react by offering a very concerned face. Not that this is not a valid reaction, but my experience going forward was one where I was just hanging out, laughing, and having a lot of fun with those I spent time with. The one thing we wanted was to not do a very shadowy, grainy, grave hard realism. We wanted to capture people in their lives and it turns out that wasn't hard to do because there were so many nice moments to be captured.

A lot of those reactions, where people might seem startled to find you'll be spending time with someone living with HIV/AIDS, are partly the result of the era in which all of the photographs taken of people living with this were exactly those grainy, hard documentary essays you were just talking about—back when it was an entirely different reality. Now part of your mission appears to be one where you are bridging the gap between that reality then and this one now.

SG: I'm a gay man and the thing I have been telling people is that this isn't your gay uncle's disease anymore. I met mothers, women, and others who trumped my expectations. Being a gay guy I had certain ideas about what it was. God knows I have been at however many dinner parties or in conversations where we end up discussing its absence. But there was one day that I was driving home and where I was kind of knocked over. I was really affected because I met a guy who was in his mid 50s who had been an activist since the early 80s. He was from a time where he had seen extreme ignorance and a lack of treatment and eventually found himself in a time of great awareness and expanded facilities. In recent years, hospices have closed in part because nurses have gone from helping people die to helping them live. And here is this one man who has lived his whole life and seen all of that, but just 4 years ago his partner was diagnosed. Within a few weeks of his diagnosis he transitioned to AIDS. This man feels sort of left behind. He is watching his partner deteriorate and he is going through so much, regardless of how much HIV/AIDS has supposedly changed. That was tough.

There was a stillness in his house and to have him get vulnerable with me meant a lot. You could tell that his home was a home. He had one of those little hand painted signs you get from a gift shop and it read, "I would never say that I am better than you. It's true, but I would never say it." [Laughs] I think that one object really emphasizes his home. We were going to take a photo with his partner, but is partner was unable to do so because he was so sick. In a way, that signs represents how sporadic and uncontrollable his homelife is becoming. It really emphasizes the kind of home he has, and the lack of a presence of his partner. It is a little devastating and that story was really intense.

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What does the show look like?

SG: The approach was super casual. They are mostly portraits. It might sound like a strange word, but they're very mundane. They're nothing sensationalistic about them, and nothing boring either. I just wanted to sit down and capture them. The panels tell the story. I told them to pose at certain times, so it is kind of a stylized, every day… I am just going to say it. Some of the photos are really pretty and look like a magazine shoot. Some of them are really kind of pretty and look very stylish.

What is the contemporary reality of AIDS here in the state?

KR. At this point people are able to achieve health and live very long lives thanks to medications available. With the general public we don't expect everyone to know the science behind it. We are really seeing our first round of long-turn survivors and they are coming back with different outcomes. We have the medications to help people live longer lives, but for some it can still be a real threat to life. It can come with severe challenges, and it can be a very difficult disease to deal with. There is no one combination of treatment that works for everyone.

We were in touch with one woman who lost both of her parents and she referred to herself as an AIDS orphan. There is this whole generation of people who grew up in proximity to it where this defines them, where they learned that if mommy gets cut, don't come near her and don't tell anyone about it. These people would experience serious stigma as a result early on and it has shaped who they are today. For me, that nailed home how far we have come culturally.

It sounds like when HIV/AIDS stopped being a unanimous death sentence, it became difficult to explain it to a larger public. The progress is good on the whole, of course, but also seemingly complicated to communicate. How does storytelling help to catch people up?

DG: Documentary storytelling is so important right now. I think one of the beautiful things in the presentation of this work is Smith went out to the subjects. There is a time and a place to call people into a studio with lighting and video and to send messaging that way, but there are other choices that can and should be made in occasions like these. Smith went out to meet these people, to see them react in their environment, in the comfort of their home and with people they love where they lived their battles. The comfort is reflected in the image making, and that comfort lets people tell their story in a way that matches the types of environmental portraits that he's making. I think such a big part of the success of this project is that Smith is reaching out to where people are and capturing their stories, selves, and environment. When you see these photos and it is down to the look in the subject's eyes, or see the look on their faces, you are seeing what they are bringing into the conversation whether it is courage, drive, tenacity or love.