Global Lens Reflections on life, the universe, and everything

Be prepared

Wearing their scouting uniforms, children in the village of Toong-sa-tok in northern Thailand learn about HIV and AIDS during a session at the temple-supported Banhuarin School. Helping teach the class is Srisangwan Punyapeng (right), an HIV positive woman who works with Jai-Kao-Jai-Rao (the " Let's Talk About HIV" Association) doing public education. Here she helps two boys learn how to properly use a condom.

I was recently at a meeting where a church-based AIDS program made a presentation about its work. I was struck by how the photographs that it used had an inordinate number of people who were sick looking, as well as scenes of white people handing things to black people. For many, those images become the face of HIV and AIDS. Problem is, it’s the wrong picture.

I’ve had the privilege of working over several years with the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, covering creative and compassionate AIDS-related work around the world, as well as documenting the International AIDS Conference when it met in Bangkok, Mexico City, and Vienna. In mid-July I’ll be in Washington, D.C., to cover the next International AIDS Conference, an event that takes place every two years.

In all of those assignments, whether it was photographing home care givers in Malawi or children doing street theater about HIV prevention in Tamil Nadu, I’ve been struck by the imagination and dedication of people working in the field, as well as the courage of those living with or directly affected by the virus. Most of the former are not white, and most of the later are not black, much less sickly. Indeed, HIV affects all colors and sorts of people. I think many people get that today, and it’s too bad our church communications efforts don’t always reflect that. To do my part, I’m going to pick HIV-related images for all of the Pictures of the Week for July. And since it’s almost July, let’s start now. (Paul make executive decision.)

Here’s an image from the village of Toong-sa-tok in northern Thailand. It’s a class in the Buddhist temple-supported Banhuarin School, where children—wearing their scout uniforms on this day of the week—learn about HIV. Helping teach the class is Srisangwan Punyapeng, an HIV positive woman who works with Jai-Kao-Jai-Rao (the " Let's Talk About HIV" Association). Here she helps two boys learn how to properly use a condom.

Some back story: For weeks before this trip I thought the Thai segment was all nailed down, as an expat living in Chiang Mai was arranging where I would go once I got there. But he got sick a couple of days before I arrived, and told me I was on my own. It was too late to cancel that part of the trip, so I went ahead and went, and when I got to Chiang Mai started calling some contacts I hustled up. One said he thought the monk in Toong-sa-tok was doing some interesting AIDS stuff. But he had no phone number or other information. So the next day I hired a bellboy from the hotel as a translator, and hired a cab for the day. We drove a couple of hours to the village, and finally talked to the monk, after sitting cross-legged for hours in a room in the temple. He was skeptical, but I turned on the ol’ interreligious charm, and he invited me back the next day. I came back, this time with a woman from the hotel as a translator (which created some tension with the monks, but we dealt with it), and accompanied the monk as he went around visiting people living with HIV, many of whom participate in an income-generating project the temple sponsors. They have a dance group of children who are affected by HIV, and I had a great time photographing them. Then the monk invited me to accompany him to the school, where he teaches a religion class. And it just happened that Srisangwan Punyapeng and three other women from Jai-Kao-Jai-Rao were there that day (you can be good, but it’s even better to be lucky), and they happily agreed to let me photograph. They had a good time with the kids, which included both girls and boys (and they had female condoms as well). A very factual, scientific, and fun introduction to HIV and AIDS, which is what kids need. Maybe they could do a class for miter-class church leaders…

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