Photographing the Fight to Eradicate Aids in South Africa

October 10, 2016

By Conor Risch

As the 2016 International AIDS Conference prepared to open in Durban, South Africa, this past July, the Seattle Times published a two-part story that connected their readers both to the conference and to communities half a world away. The special report detailed how Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center is working in South Africa to develop a vaccine for HIV/AIDS. The African nation is home to an estimated 6.5 million people infected with the virus, and a clinical trial there could play a pivotal role in the charge to eradicate the disease.

Seattle Times staff photographer Erika Schultz and reporter Nina Shapiro traveled to South Africa to report on the clinical trial in May and June. Shapiro earned a fellowship from the International Reporting Project, which helped support the work. Schultz joined her for a week in South Africa, and then worked on her own for a second week. In Johannesburg, Cape Town and the impoverished townships that surround the cities, they interviewed and photographed scientists, activists and educators, and members of township communities who are participating in the trial. Schultz also shot video, which was edited into three pieces published on the Seattle Times website.

For Schultz, foreign assignments represent a significant change from her typical work in the Seattle area. Working abroad is “doubly hard,” she says, “because you don’t have your relationships in the community.” Language barriers and cultural mores also present challenges. Days are longer and the pace of work is accelerated. With local reporting, she says, she can go back if she misses something. In South Africa, she had two weeks to get all of the images, video interviews and b-roll footage she needed.

Schultz was a good fit for the assignment, says Seattle Times photo editor Fred Nelson, because, among other reasons, she is good at working closely with her subjects. “People are at ease with her presence and she’s able to make pictures of people going about their daily lives that are really compelling.”

She had a month and a half to prepare for the trip. She recalls that she and Nelson spoke about telling women’s stories, “because that’s the group right now that’s most affected.” Infection rates are eight times higher among 15- to 19-year-old women than men, Shapiro reports in the story.

“We talked about photographing a variety of neighborhoods and economic levels,” to give readers a sense of the complex social and political fabric of the country, Schultz recalls.

Corinne Chin, one of the video editors for the story, interned at The Star newspaper in Johannesburg in 2012, and she was able to connect Schultz with journalists there. Among the things Schultz learned from them is that the HIV/AIDS crisis “doesn’t look like it did years ago,” she explains. “When you look at pictures from the ’80s, people are really gaunt and they look sick,” Chin says. Now, South Africa has the biggest antiretroviral (ARV) drug program in the world, and many HIV-positive people are able to manage the disease and bear no obvious signs of infection.

© Erika Schultz

Fikile Mthombeni, an HIV counselor in Soweto, who was infected with the disease by an older man—a sugar daddy or “blesser,” as they are called. © Erika Schultz

The stigma around HIV has also lessened. Yet one in five people are HIV-positive, so the disease still constitutes a major crisis. In both the photographs and videos, Schultz had to find ways to explain the issue and the complex science behind the trial. Personal stories from activists and local people about their experiences with HIV/AIDS convey not only a sense of the crisis and how it’s perceived locally, but they also reveal hope for a solution. “Medical stories are complex and they’re not easily relatable. The goal is to try to make it as human as possible,” Schultz says.

In Johannesburg’s Soweto township, she followed community-engagement worker Puleng Nkase as she canvassed her neighborhood, inviting residents to an event designed to educate local people about the clinical trial. She also spent time at Nkosi’s Haven in Johannesburg, a home for HIV-positive mothers and their children, and orphans. Some of the orphans are themselves HIV-positive.

In Khayelitsha, a township outside of Cape Town, Schultz photographed and recorded video interviews with Andile Madondile, an HIV-positive, 38-year-old man who works for a local activist network that is enlisting 1,500 HIV-negative women for the clinical trial. She followed Madondile as he spoke with his neighbors, and she photographed his wife and children, who are not infected with the virus. In the video, he speaks about being diagnosed with HIV, and about how he tried to hang himself in despair but was saved when his daughter discovered him and called for help.

Shultz also visited labs where the clinical trials are taking place, and made photographs and video in different neighborhoods in both Cape Town and Johannesburg that give readers a sense of place and of how people live. She shot everything with available light, and worked with two Canon 5D Mark III bodies, shotgun and lavalier microphones, and a Zoom audio recorder.

Schultz and Chin knew going in that subjects such as Madondile would be talking about experiences with HIV that occurred in the past, so it was important to add “more impressionistic and scene-setting” footage to the videos, Chin recalls. Shots of Madondile with his family were also important for the story, and for engaging viewers, Chin says.“We thought it was very important to show the family structure, because that’s something that almost everyone can relate to.”

The videos also rely heavily on interviews. In one three-minute piece that ran with part two of the report, scientists and doctors in both Seattle and South Africa explain, at times with great emotion, the effort to find an HIV vaccine in our lifetime.

Having a second week to work allowed Schultz to fill in some of her reporting, follow her own leads, and focus in-depth on people who were characters in the story. “I always get the best images when I spend time with people…and get to know them well and feel comfortable that they feel comfortable,” she says.

“[Schultz’s] work is so thoughtful and it’s very personal,” Nelson says. “You feel like you get a sense of the people she’s photographing, who they are and how they live.” If people have opened up to her, she wants their photographs to be in the story, Nelson says. She also cares deeply about her subjects, he adds, which can make the editing process challenging. “Erika not only lobbies for photos for journalistic reasons but she feels a personal commitment to her subjects.” The online gallery featured 48 pictures and even editing down to that was a challenge.

Though Schultz’s images and the videos correspond with Shapiro’s written story, she says the Times didn’t want the visual reporting simply to provide evidence for the written piece. “The Times has always been a very photo friendly newspaper…. Having that freedom to be able to explore and having that trust from my editor is a really big deal.”

Related Links:

Eric Gottesman Helps Aids Orphans Tell Their Stories in “Sudden Flowers”

Joseph Sywenkyj on Winning The 2014 Eugene Smith Grant For Photo Project Documenting HIV-Positive Family

Picture Story: Everyday Africa on Instagram

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