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A Day With HIV: Annual photo shoot promotes compassion, understanding of disease

Citizens of the world, use your digital camera, cellphone or any other photo-taking device to participate in the annual photo shoot, “A Day With HIV.”

On Friday, Sept. 21, people from across the globe are invited to document their lives for the third annual “A Day With HIV.” People, whether HIV-positive or not, can participate in this collective photographic portrait designed to remove the stigma of HIV and to advance international understanding and compassion.

Three celebrity judges will review the entrees: Chuck Panozzo, bass player for the band Styx; Sheryl Lee Ralph, actress, singer and activist; and Diego Sanchez, the first openly transgender person to work on Capitol Hill in the offices of Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass), and a leader for LGBT rights and an advocate for HIV/AIDS causes.

Participants are asked to record a special image, such as spending time with friends and family, or going to work or out to play, as a way to showing how HIV impacts people, loved ones, friends, colleagues and communities.

Photos must be submitted by Tuesday, Sept. 25, to the “A Day With HIV” website.

The event is sponsored by Positively Aware magazine, which is devoted to HIV treatment and wellness.

San Diego Gay & Lesbian News speaks with Jeff Berry, editor of Positively Aware magazine, about "A Day With HIV" and other issues involving HIV and AIDS.

SDGLN: How has the annual “A Day With HIV” fared in its first two years?

Jeff Berry: When the campaign originally started it was called "A Day with HIV in America," but we decided when we were first going into it that we would never exclude anyone from the campaign based solely on where they live. And even in the first year we received several submissions from people outside the U.S., and so this year it's just "A Day with HIV" in an effort to make it more inclusive and increase participation.

SDGLN: How many people participated, and how many photographs were taken in 2011?

Jeff Berry: Last year around 125 people participated with a slightly higher number of photos actually submitted.

SDGLN: What kind of feedback to you get from participants?

Jeff Berry: The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, and I think in some cases even empowering and liberating for some of the participants. For example, last year several people who submitted their photos were publicly disclosing the fact that they were HIV-positive for the first time by taking part in the campaign. Others are very proud and happy to be able to support a friend or family member who is HIV-positive by standing alongside them in the photo. You can tell that many of the participants put a lot of thought into the photo and caption that they submit, and see it as a teaching moment to inform others about life with HIV, such as a visit to the doctor's office, taking their daily pills, or even the receipt from the pharmacy for one month of HIV meds.

SDGLN: How is this changing public perception about people living with HIV?

Jeff Berry: While I hesitate to use the term "normalize" when it comes to HIV, there has been a movement or shift within the HIV community recently encouraging more people to "come out" about their HIV status if they can. Of course, participating in A Day with HIV does not mean you are HIV-positive, quite the opposite. Our goal is to show that everyone, both negative and positive, is affected by HIV. I also think that by showing your support of others living with HIV, you are saying that you've "got their back."

SDGLN: Does this project provide a vehicle for people to “come out” about their HIV status?

Jeff Berry: Yes, see above. We are very careful about making sure we have signed release forms from everyone who submits a photo, and honor and respect anyone's decision to remain anonymous or not use their full name if they so choose.

SDGLN: Why has it gotten more difficult for HIV organizations to raise money over the past few years?

Jeff Berry: This could be an entire article on its own! But I do think that organizations have got to become much more savvy in not only raising money, but in how they spend it. Gone are the days when you could pick up the phone and ask a funder for this or that. There are so many restrictions and everything and everyone has to be completely transparent and showing no bias or conflicts whatsoever. While this is ultimately a good thing, it's really made it difficult for some of the smaller orgs to compete on a level playing field with the big players. Also there is a lot of donor fatigue out there, so again you really need to know your audience and who you are talking to, and clearly communicate where their money is going to end up, and demonstrating that it is going to have a real impact. Finally the economy has made it very difficult for people to give at the level that they used to be accustomed to, so many donors have cut back to giving to only a few charities, or even just one HIV organization, per year.

SDGLN: As someone who works day in and day out in the HIV community, can you assess the status of medical treatment and do you worry that enough is being done to find a successful vaccine?

Jeff Berry: The advances in treatment we've seen have been amazing, really, when you think about it. Breast cancer and other fields of research have modeled their advocacy to emulate HIV activism efforts. HIV activists and advocates accomplished so much in the early days of the epidemic and continue to help guide the research and development of drugs as well as ongoing research in areas such as prevention and eradication. Unfortunately there are still 20% of people who are HIV-positive who don't know it, and only 28% of people with HIV in the U.S. are on treatment and undetectable, so we really need to also work on improving the delivery of and access to the treatments that are currently available. In terms of a vaccine, there have been some great strides recently in the field but developments continue to take time, money, and research, but I still think it is important to pursue. Some of the most interesting and encouraging developments lately have been in the area of HIV cure research, we have a long ways to go, but it's still exciting stuff and an area where advocates can make a significant impact in helping to guide the research.

Ken Williams is Editor in Chief of SDGLN. He can be reached at ken@sdgln.com, @KenSanDiego on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to (877) 727-5446, ext. 713.