A picture may
be worth a thousand words, but some things are better left unsaid. That
was the message sent by organizers of the 13th International AIDS Conference
when the selection committee of the event's Cultural Program banned
award-winning Dutch photographer Geert van Kesteren from exhibiting
his images of people in Zambia living with -- and dying of -- AIDS.
"Banned is not the appropriate word,"
said Fakazile Myeza, communications coordinator for the conference,
adding that the powers-that-be had strict criteria for images to be
associated with the conference, themed "Breaking the Silence." "Visuals
that have got death and gloom -- scare tactics -- we don't believe in,"
Myeza said. "People don't respond to scaring. They shut off." Even similar
images used by the Department of Health weren't acceptable, and the
conference refused to allow its logo on any banners with images it considered
According to van Kesteren, only three of the
36 images he submitted to the committee depicted the dying. Other subjects
included a hospital with a leaking roof and cracking walls and a sparsely
attended Zambian AIDS memorial service. "They could have said, 'Listen,
this is what we don't want to show," van Kesteren, 34, told POZ.
In an e-mail informing him that his work would not be used -- just weeks
before the conference began -- organizers were similarly unspecific.
"They just said, 'It doesn't fit the ethos of the community program.'
Period," he said.
To van Kesteren, the fact that the conference
nixed his photographs smacks of a desire to keep the truth about AIDS
in Africa hidden. "My work is about 'breaking the silence' --
about AIDS being a complete taboo in Zambia," he said.
Considering that this event was meant to herald
a new truth-telling about the African epidemic, some are crying censorship.
But shock's value is in the eye of the beholder, and others say that
conference chiefs were justified in their verdict. While leading art
theorist, activist and HIVer Douglas Crimp will not comment on the photographs
in question because he hasn't seen them, he has long been a critic of
such "victimizing" art as the late '80s photographs of PWAs by Nicholas
Nixon, which he said convey only the horrors of disease and death. "The
idea is that you look at something terrifying and you want to make it
better," Crimp said. "One example would be photographs of liberated
concentration camps. Do we need to know that? Yes. Do we learn
about it through these images? I'm not sure."
Van Kesteren is anything but undecided. "It's
not about 'shocking' photography," he said. "It's about what AIDS is
doing to Zambia." The photographer takes solace in the fact that 10
of his images were printed in a Newsweek last January, illustrating
a cover story on Africa's 10 million AIDS orphans. "The photographs
were a powerful body of work that spoke to the horrors of the issue,"
said the newsmagazine's director of communications, Roy Brunett. "We
found them to be compelling and newsworthy."
Crimp isn't surprised that Newsweek chose to
give global exposure to van Kesteren. "Mainstream journalists have always
published these kinds of photographs," he said. "In fact, they win Pulitzers."
But the rush of worldwide news organizations
toward the ravages of AIDS in Africa is relatively new. "There were
almost no media running to Africa, even two years ago, when I started,"
said van Kesteren. "That's what made me do it."
Maybe all it will take for the photographer's
work to be welcome at the next conference is a little 20/20 hindsight.
"When I first saw Nixon's work, I thought it was gloom and doom when
there were no images of happy, smiling PWAs," said Robert Atkins, editor
of the online magazine Artery: The AIDS-Art Forum. "But now I
think they're tragic, deeply felt and brutally realistic."
In the meantime, van Kesteren is releasing
Mwendanjangula: AIDS in Zambia, written with journalist Arthur
van Amerongen, which gathers together all 76 of his controversial images.
Unswayed by the recent brouhaha, he is still on assignment in Durban,
capturing the faces of AIDS there for the German magazine Stern.
He's just trying to convey the story from his side of the lens. Simply
put, "It's about real life."