FRONTLINE/World FlashPoint editor Mimi Chakarova spoke to Pep Bonet by phone at his home in Mallorca about what this project meant to him personally and the surprising number of uplifting memories he took away from Africa and its struggle to combat HIV/AIDS.
AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa
Mimi Chakarova: Your photos display a lot of dignity and a certain sense of quietness. Can you tell me more about the thinking process behind the images, how you chose the subjects and why?Pep Bonet: The reality of AIDS is very, very hard. I’ve seen more people suffering from AIDS than people living with AIDS, and that has been my experience in Sub-Saharan Africa. But you cannot only show that. There is a hope, and this is one of the main things that I really like in Africa. People have hope, and they are very strong. Just photographing the chaos and the sick people would not show all that was happening. There were people going back to their lives because of ARV [anti-retroviral] therapy and because they had learned to accept their HIV status. I wanted to also show the other side, not to stigmatize people more than they already are, because this is the reality in Africa. People are stigmatized by their neighbors and their communities because most people don’t really know about HIV.
How did you decide on black-and-white versus color photography?
My choice of black-and-white or color or different cameras, like 35 mm or 120, depended on how I felt about how that story should be photographed. I never made a choice before I was traveling to the place. I always took all my cameras and different film and, depending on how I saw the story, I decided on what to shoot.
Do you think photography, as a medium, is enough to evoke social change?
No, it’s not enough because we photographers and writers can bring awareness, but there is the other side of the picture: People have to do something with what we offer them, and this is not always the case. I’ve been working hard; I chose to work with NGOs [non-governmental organizations] because of the logistics. But I don’t see a real big change happening. However, I do believe photography has the power of allowing people to see and to feel for themselves. They can see something they didn’t know about or see it through different eyes, from a different point of view.
How did this project on HIV/AIDS personally affect you?
The problem in Africa was that what people needed was not there. But when you give them the resources, African people are very capable. And this is what really affected me: to see this positive approach, this positive attitude. This is something very beautiful to see in African people; they are able to accept their HIV status and pass on the information to their communities. I remember a lot more nice scenes from this HIV project than bad scenes. I mean, I photographed a lot in hospitals and a lot of people who had different illnesses and were dying, but what was really touching was the other side. All of a sudden, people had a chance to survive because we had something to offer them, which was ARV therapy. And that was a historical moment for me to photograph -- the first pills coming to Africa and people seeing that hope was a reality, that their disease was no longer a death sentence.
When you are working on a project like this, what is your responsibility as a photographer?
Photography shows, but it doesn’t change anything. Somebody capable of doing something has to decide to do something. We are giving viewers the information, a point of view and in-depth essays that are done over the years. There are many photojournalists that are doing this type of work, and I think we cannot take responsibility for changing anything. We have enough to deal with -- surviving economically, sometimes surviving physically, to do this job. I would love for my photography to change everything; that would be great, but it’s not the case.