Through Positive Eyes

Through Positive Eyes2017-02-03T13:46:36+00:00

An international photography project of HIV-positive people in cities around the world
A program of the UCLA Art & Global Health Center

Through Positive Eyes ( gives photographic voice to people living with HIV in major cities around the world, empowering HIV-positive people to pick up their own cameras and make their own artistic statements. In doing so, they create powerful tools for combating stigma, one of the most formidable barriers to reducing the spread of AIDS today. Since 2007, dozens of HIV-positive people on five continents have taken part in this unique initiative, creating powerful personal photo essays. Their work can be found on and in exhibitions around the world.

Through Positive Eyes was initially conceived and implemented in pilot form in Los Angeles in February 2007. Since then it has been produced in Mexico City (August 2008), Rio de Janeiro (June 2009), Johannesburg (March 2010) and Washington, D.C. (July 2012). In each project city we work closely with a local organization of people living with HIV and AIDS. In an attempt to redress a common absence in AIDS advocacy work, the insights of people living with HIV are central to this project. The participants’ visual explorations communicate volumes about ever-present challenges facing HIV-positive people around the world: stigma, fear, and access to treatment, among others.

The project is co-directed by London-based South African photographer and AIDS activist Gideon Mendel, who has been chronicling HIV and AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa since 1993. Since then his groundbreaking work on the issue has been widely recognized. Through magazine publications, multimedia web and video presentations, and his book, A Broken Landscape, Mendel has been commended for empowering his subjects rather than representing them as objects of pity.


Prior to the start of the project, a local partner organization selects a group of HIV-positive people who represent the disease profile in the region. Selection is based on a spectrum of diversity: race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, sexuality, geographic location, occupation, religion, and age, as well as the participants’ openness about their HIV-positive status and willingness to commit to having their images used to challenge stigma. Once chosen, these individuals take part in an intensive workshop directed by Gideon Mendel and photo educator Crispin Hughes. The workshop is designed to teach people with no prior visual training to explore their world and express themselves through photography. Armed with new skills and techniques, as well as small, high-resolution digital cameras, participants are then set loose to document their lives in any way they choose.

Next, Mendel travels to the home or workplace of each participant to make a portrait and to film him or her in personal surroundings. The result is a set of sensitive, dynamic, colorful images and video clips that reveal a great deal about each person’s life.

Alongside the visual process, we record interviews with each participant, asking them to share life-stories, experiences, and challenges they have faced living with HIV and AIDS. The interviews are transcribed so that they exist in both audio and text format. In the end we have a collection that combines Mendel’s portraits and film with the remarkable photo essays created by each HIV-positive artist.

At the close of the project, control is turned over to the local partnering organization. These organizations maintain contact with project participants and continue to nurture their growth as artists and activists through photography workshops, leadership training, and grassroots exhibition of materials. The process and products of Through Positive Eyes provide participants with the skills and resources to become influential AIDS activists.


This combination of participants’ images and text, as well as portraits by Mendel, creates the following outputs:

  • Website: A global Through Positive Eyes website includes the work from each country, presenting photo-essays and text from all participants, along with edited films for some.
  • Short films: Composed of still images and recorded stories, these 3-minute films are dynamic advocacy tools, which can be disseminated via the Internet, in classrooms, or on DVD. Films combine still photographs, video clips, and recorded voices of the participants.
  • Mobile exhibitions: Combining participant photographs, Mendel’s portraits, and narratives, exhibitions can be mounted on portable frames designed specifically for this purpose. The mobility of this exhibition is key, as it enables display in any number of public sites including galleries and museums but also schools, healthcare facilities, prisons, markets, etc.


We believe that Through Positive Eyes succeeds as both advocacy and art, drawing its strength from the combination of these impulses. The collection reveals how people in vastly different cultures, contexts, and circumstances respond when faced with the challenges of living with HIV. When taken together, these individual stories transform into a noisy, fractious, but ultimately unifying global narrative. As we enter the third decade of HIV/AIDS, these are important stories that simply must be told.

More Information

We thank you very much for your interest in Through Positive Eyes. To learn more, please contact the UCLA Art & Global Health Center’s Executive Director, David Gere (E:; T: 310.206.1334) or Director of Development, Elisabeth Nails (E:; T: 310.825.6938)