Fighting Stigma and Surviving Life with HIV

With his ongoing project Humans as Hosts, chronicling the life of individuals with HIV, Taiwanese photographer Kairon Liu raises awareness about the syndrome and fights the stereotypes and stigmatisation spread by society.

© Kairon Liu, from the series Humans as Hosts

The sight of a single apple, or a small bunch, appears in each frame of Kairon Liu’s work Humans as Hosts, a compassionate series of environmental portraits taken in Taiwan and the United States, conveying stories of individuals who are HIV-positive.

Some apples preserve their rounded shape, their glossy skin intact; others have been bitten or eaten down to the core. If the biblical reference is implied, further meanings emerge: the fruit recalls original sin, but its fullness suggests enduring resilience. Bitten, it hints not at downfall but rather nourishment, what the subjects told Liu they experienced.

From a soul-searching, self-medicating ritual, Liu’s work becomes a larger meditation on the condition of HIV patients, raising awareness about a syndrome still branded with stigma, “the action of swallowing a pill reminding you of living with a label,” Liu says. “The initial idea of this project [was] to find a way to stay alive and to fight the stigma… through all the diversity of the people who are living with HIV,” Liu says. “Now, it has become some kind of activism, to educate the public.”

© Kairon Liu, from the series Humans as Hosts

It also reclaims the narrative of the people he portrays by empowering the ailing humans as hosts, as the title suggests: as they face both their personal drama and the stares of a society that cures them but also judges them, he voices their right to reclaim control over their bodies. “You're still the owner of your life,” Liu says, “and you're living with this virus and you might still find a way to find a balance with it.”

The objects in each photograph are not accidental but the result of a collaboration between Liu and the patients, representing their lifestyle and existence. The most treasured items are on display: books, items of sentimental value, and pills, lots of pills, loose or in cylindrical vials, their vital purpose battling the virus, the pain, the fear. There is a hairdryer, as one patient is a hairstylist; the tape measure of a tailor; a Nashville Soccer Club scarf; a ukulele - because it can happen to any of us.

© Kairon Liu, from the series Humans as Hosts

As of 2017, almost 37 million people were living with H.I.V. worldwide. Since the beginning of the epidemic, in the 1980s, more than 70 million people have been infected with the HIV virus and about 35 million people have died.

Qualms about being photographed are tangible: the disease is still met with shame and some degree of blame. In the United States, some states have enacted laws requiring the disclosure of a known HIV-positive individual to their sexual partners. Failure to do so can lead to sentencing and incarceration. Although liability adds to the stress of living with AIDS, medicine is making progress. Patients who undergo suppressive antiretroviral therapy are unable to infect their partners, a recent European study has found, as the amount of virus in the body is too low for transmission. This advent is an enormous step forward.

Still, some men, especially in Taiwan, chose to conceal their faces from Liu’s lens. Women didn’t concede to pose. In the United States, his subjects were more open, their faces exposed.

© Kairon Liu, from the series Humans as Hosts

Liu aims to make one hundred portraits, the last being a figure concealed under red drapery. Nothing is devoid of symbolism: a copy of John Milton’s Paradise Lost against their chest, Christmas lights like a crown of thorns. The mouth bites a disk, like a holy communion, carrying a sour pill, but a vigilant eye spies from behind the drape: their inquisitive look demonstrates that a new, attentive life goes on, and Liu and his Humans as Hosts are here to witness it, to teach it, to prove it, every new given day.

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Kairon Liu is a Taiwanese photographer, visual artist, and curator based in Taipei. Liu's practice reflects his observations on diverse beliefs in human society through the creation of narratives exploring issues related to religion, disease, and universal values. Follow him on PHmuseum and Instagram.

Lucia De Stefani is a multimedia reporter focusing on photography, illustration, culture, and everything teens. She lives between New York and Italy. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

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This article is part of the series New Generation, a monthly column written by Lucia De Stefani, focusing on the most interesting emerging talents in our community.

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