Exhibit Seeks New Vision of HIV/AIDS

JONATHAN DEVIN | Special to The Memphis News

A photographic portrait exhibition at the Church Health Center aims to alter the vision of those who see it from 20/20 to a new kind of perfect.

“30 Years/30 Lives” by Kimberly Vrudny shows the faces of those in the developing world affected by HIV/AIDS and begs audiences to question how they typically respond to it. The show runs through July 31. The exhibit also runs simultaneously at Methodist University Hospital and St. John’s United Methodist Church.

A documentary portrait exhibition now showing at the Church Health Center titled "30 Years/30 Lives" shows the faces of those living with HIV/AIDS in the developing world. Theologian and photographer Kimberly Vrudny created the exhibit to widen the discussion about AIDS and the church's response to it.

(Photos: Kimberly Vrudny)

“The photographs are about vision,” said Vrudny, who teaches theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. “20/20 is of course perfect vision. So 30/30 vision would also be perfect vision, but with a recalibrated scale when you’re standing 30 feet away. With ‘30/30’ I’m trying to recalibrate the scale and change the way we perceive.”

Vrudny got interested in how churches respond to epidemics while writing her dissertation, which focused on parallels between Medieval churches of Europe during the plague and modern churches during the AIDS pandemic.

She noticed examples of how Medieval churches in some cases abandoned hospitals that they had founded.

“I think that we don’t have a good way of talking about suffering within faith,” Vrudny said. “I think we still struggle with how to appropriate suffering in relationship to God. Some churches are still conveying the idea that if you acquire an illness, God has struck you.”

So Vrudny and her students later worked on several service-learning projects that involved delivering meals to AIDS patients, volunteering in hospices and doing advocacy. Then she herself went back to school to study photography specifically for this exhibition.

Noting that the AIDS pandemic had hit the developing world hardest, she contacted 10 organizations working in Africa, Thailand and Mexico and with their help made arrangements to take the portraits of 30 people living with HIV.

Then she took a sabbatical and got to work. The composition of the images is simple – human faces in black and white, sometimes in full view, sometimes only in partial, such as one of a man blinded by an opportunistic infection of the eyes. That photo focuses on his eyes.

Another portrait shows a faceless woman from South Africa with hands folded in her lap. Vrudny explained that the woman was in a difficult relationship with her ex-husband and did not want to be identified. In those cases Vrudny worked with each subject until they were comfortable.

“I was really thinking about it as documentary portraiture,” Vrudny said. “Faces are what I was after unless of course (the subjects) did not want that.”

Another shows a boy or eight or nine wearing a crisp white collar and a black sweater who from all appearances could fit in visually with any elementary school in Memphis. It’s hard not to notice the universality of Vrudny’s imagery.

Others are downright joyous, such as one of women also from South Africa, who had broken down in tears while reading journal entries about losing their children to AIDS to Vrudny. Then they wiped their tears for the portraits saying that they believed Americans had seen plenty of sadness in Africa already. They wanted smiles in their portraits.

“I really hope that people will see my schema for putting this together and start to think about the structures behind this,” Vrudny said. “I keep questioning the word ‘cause’ because I don’t want to fall into the camp that says certain things cause HIV. That’s a huge issue in South Africa. There are structural inequities that make people become vulnerable.”