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Exhibition tells stories of HIV/Aids


Looking Forward, a new photography exhibition by Khmer photojournalists, aims to share the lives of people living with HIV/Aids and educate about practising safe sex

© Yin Leang Kong

A Cambodian at work in a garment factory, one of the pictures by Yin Leang Kong that features in the photo exhibition.

A GROUP of leading Cambodian journalists have collaborated to produce a photo exhibition showcasing Cambodians living with HIV. The show aims to  increase awareness of the prevention and treatment of the disease as the Kingdom, one of the countries in the region hit hardest by HIV/Aids, helps to commemorate World Aids Day.

Titled Looking Forward, the exhibit is the final product of a four-day training session funded by the UK's Department for International Development and overseen by photojournalists Tang Chhin Sothy, of Agence France-Presse, and Mak Remissa of the European Pressphoto Agency.    

"Our main aim was to improve coverage of the issue of HIV and Aids in the country, and to encourage journalists to engage with people who are living with HIV, and understand their lives better," said Kathleen O'Keefe, project consultant at Internews, the international media development group that organised the project.

Internews set out in 2004 to improve media relations with people living with HIV/Aids in the greater Mekong area. The Cambodian project ran from 2006 to 2008.

Photographer and writer Visoth Davun of local magazine Samay Thmey explained: "I used to write about this issue for the magazine, but not many people knew a lot about the disease, and it was very hard to get information.

"This project brought together many people related to this issue and taught me how to use the camera to help tell their stories."

Breaking boundaries

Journalists covering HIV/Aids in Cambodia often find it a daunting subject to tackle due to difficulty in obtaining statistics and accurate information, lack of media skills within the HIV community, corruption within the media and the stigma attached to the topic. The project set out to break down some of these barriers.   

The eight journalists who participated in the project were primarily writers for Khmer-language newspapers and magazines, as well as one photography student.

Many of the writers often shoot their own photos for their respective publications, and were interested to learn more about not only photographic techniques, but also how to better serve the interests of the people they write about.    

Sharing stories

Many of the people living with HIV/Aids in Cambodia featured in the writers' photo exhibitions were eager to share their stories.

"Some of these people are leading normal lives, just like anyone else, while others are poor, uneducated, and have lost hope. So it's important to learn how to tell all of their stories with dignity and respect," said Visoth Davun.   

As in most countries, many Cambodians living with HIV/Aids face discrimination and are misunderstood in society, and as such, are often wary of having their photo taken for major publications.

"We tried to focus on the content of the photographs, using composition and light to give meaning to the image, and contribute information about the subject without revealing their identity," said O'Keefe.

These are not the same techniques that Khmer newspapers use, as Cambodian editors frequently demand photos that portray a clear image of the subject's face - something that is often ethically prohibited when photographing HIV subjects, she added.

Spreading the message

One of the hopes of project coordinators and photographers alike is that the exhibition will be attended by not only the general public, but by Cambodian editors as well.

"If [the editors] attend the event, I hope they will see an acceptance of these images in a wider community and realize that this is not necessarily a bad way to present the subjects," O'Keefe said.

"This is a very important exhibition," said Visoth Davun. "It will hopefully change people's minds about HIV/Aids and allow them to see these people in a new light, as well as promote awareness about [practising] safe sex and show the public that people living with HIV/Aids deserve to be treated with respect and dignity."

The show is a fringe exhibit of PhotoPhnomPenh, the city's first international photographic exposition, and will run for two weeks at the New Art Gallery. 



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