New York-based reporter and photographer Julie Turkewitz jumps at the opportunity to talk to other people living with HIV and AIDS activists outside of the Big Apple. While HIV is a serious affliction wherever it exists, many HIV-positive New Yorkers have better access to care and support than those who are more isolated, without access to basic medication. So when she met members of AIDS Action in Mississippi, an organization working to break down stigma and get the state to do a better job at funding care programs, she was moved to capture the faces and stories of people she met there. What most inspires Turkewitz about her subjects in her photo series, Scarred By Stigma, is their tenacity in their work as activists and in their lives, despite the hurdles they face.
'They are really saying, 'This is a part of me, but it's not who I am,'' says Turkewitz, a staff writer for the AIDS and poverty advocacy group Housing Works.
Mississippi is far from a paradise for well-being. For the past two decades, the state has been consistently ranked as one of the least healthiest states in the country by insurance company United Health. HIV-positive Mississippians face a high poverty rate, housing discrimination, and a lack of access to medical care spurred by institutionalized prejudices, according to an extensive report on people living with HIV/AIDS in Mississippi, released in March by Human Rights Watch. And these concerns don't even touch upon the rampant stigma and discrimination that HIVers feel on a day-to-day basis at home, at the office, or even among friends. In fact, Turkewitz says that speaking to the group of Mississippians harkened back to the early days of the mysterious AIDS virus, when many people acted out of fear rather than understanding.
'When people started telling me their stories, it felt like I was hearing all of these things that came about in the 1980s when no one knew anything about HIV/AIDS,' she says. With this series, Turkewitz hopes to put a real face on the epidemic by enlightening people who have HIV-positive co-workers, friends, and family members. The goal is to reduce stigma, to humanize the disease, and to make tangible the struggles of marginalized HIVers.
Government decision-makers and community leaders are a target audience as well. 'The government is the leader,' Turkewitz says. 'They set the tone. If they treat people with HIV without respect, other people are going to treat them the same way.'