Pictures of a refrigerator, a pile of garbage, and a profile in shadow'these images are part of a new project that allows HIV-positive women to document their lives, express themselves, and call for change through photos.
Last year, when Michelle Teti was working as an assistant research professor at Philadelphia's Drexel University, she initiated the effort by giving digital cameras to 10 HIV-positive women. Now at the University of Missouri, Teti brought the project to St. Louis this spring. The idea of women photographing their own lives initially came to her after she got involved with more traditional HIV programs.
'I was helping HIV-positive women with condom use and talking with their partners about HIV,' Teti says. 'Sometimes they weren't interested in talking about issues like safe sex because they didn't have a place to live or they were in a violent relationship.'
The catharsis the women felt when they discussed their problems resonated with Teti. She was familiar with a British organization that encouraged marginalized people to document their lives through photography, and she thought that idea would work for HIV-positive women. After giving cameras to the women she was working with, Teti asked them to go home and capture their lives. The women then met back up to present their pictures and discuss positive changes they can make.
'There was one woman who took a picture of her poor housing situation and used those pictures to advocate for better housing,' Teti says. 'Other people tried to capture the transformation they made in their lives from when they learned they were HIV-positive and felt hopeless to being a hopeful and healthy person today.'
The pictures were then showcased at an HIV prevention event in Philadelphia. The success of the Philadelphia pilot program helped Teti win a grant that brought the work to the University of Missouri. This time featuring 12 women's stories, the photos were shown in a Columbia, Mo., film festival in March and at a St. Louis Regional Arts Commission event March 19 to commemorate National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day.
'I think women documenting their stories through photographs has a positive impact on their health,' Teti says. 'This is a project where we hope women realize they're not alone and that they can work together to solve some of their challenges.'