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Monday, February 23, 2009

Speakeasy with photographer Kristen Ashburn

click to enlarge WAITING ROOM: "Stella"
  • WAITING ROOM: "Stella"

Kristen Ashburn doesn't flinch. Training her lens on some of the hardest to look at sights in Iraq, Gaza and New Orleans, she's become versed in the art of not looking away. The photographer’s most recent excursion found her in sub-Saharan Africa documenting AIDS-ravaged communities and families. The result, Bloodline: AIDS and Family, runs through March 15 at Composition Gallery.

What first drew you to this topic?

Millions of people are sick and dying because they lack medicine that we as Americans take for granted. As a journalist, this pandemic is something that I could not ignore.

What countries did you visit?

I documented the AIDS crisis throughout Botswana, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Malawi.

Which was the hardest to document?

As I began making visits to communities, hospitals, and homes, I quickly realized that Zimbabwe was in bad shape. Not only was the country going through political and economic turmoil, but the basic social fiber of society was being torn apart by this disease. I spent most of my time in Zimbabwe, but it became too dangerous for me to work there without the official press credentials. Journalists are not allowed to work in the country without government-issued press credentials, which are rarely given out. If caught working without these papers I faced up to a two-year jail sentence.

Tell me about your “focus on the human story and condition?”

Throughout my work documenting the effects of this virus, the strength of people humbled me. There are too many moments, too many stories, but here [is one]: After years of faithful marriage, a mother of four discovers that her husband's death is due to AIDS and that she and two of her children are sick with the disease. No medicine in sight to prevent the virus from destroying her immune system or to keep her children alive. Faced with the prospect of leaving them as orphans, she wakes every day with strength and resolve to make sure they are fed and get to school on time. She had no time to pity herself. Her faith would carry her through.

What do you hope visitors take away from your exhibit?

I hope that visitors take away a better understanding of what millions of people face throughout Africa as they fight for their lives against this horrific virus. If life-saving anti-retroviral drugs were truly accessible, lives would be saved.

(Photo by Kristen Ashburn)

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