In April 2002, seven of PhotoSensitive's 'originals' - Peter Bregg, Dick Loek, Steve Simon, Patti Gower, Andrew Stawicki, Bernard Weil and Tony Hauser - hopped on a plane to Zambia to capture the face of HIV/AIDS. It would be the first of three major projects capturing AIDS images for PhotoSensitive, taken on between 2002 and 2008.
"This trip into Zambia was our first NGO project outside of Canada," recalls Andrew Stawicki. "Until then, we'd gone to Scarborough, Red Deer, up to Canada's north. But this was across the ocean and into an entirely different world. We partnered with CARE Canada, and Peter Bregg was the driving force behind it."
Peter Bregg had a friend at CARE Canada, Doug Small, who was the director of communications. Peter showed him a beautiful book produced to celebrate PhotoSensitive's tenth anniversary. Doug immediately passed it around the office. Two weeks later, CARE approached PhotoSensitive and a partnership was struck. Peter had been on countless international assignments, but he was dumbstruck when he arrived in Zambia.
"I'd been to Zambia in '79. Twenty-three years later, I couldn't believe the poverty and the degree to which HIV/AIDS was overtaking life there. I went to a little village where the kids were so poor they couldn't go to school; they couldn't afford the uniforms. They went to a makeshift school with volunteer teachers, and at recess they played soccer with a ball made of plastic bags they'd tied together. I asked my translator to find out how many of them were orphans. Two-thirds put up their hands.
"This was the trip that opened my eyes to HIV/AIDS. Seventy per cent of the world's HIV-positive population lives in sub-Saharan Africa. The oldest and the youngest band together, because those in their twenties, thirties, forties are the ones who have died from HIV/AIDS. So we connected with the children and the family elders," said Peter.
Peter also connected with the former president of Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda. Kaunda's son had died of HIV/AIDS, and the president was an impassioned supporter of educating his people about the disease. Peter had photographed Kaunda in 1979, at a state dinner with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. On this trip, he wanted to give Kaunda the framed photograph as a gift. Peter went to a trade union hall, where Kaunda was speaking, and before he knew it, he was asked up on the stage to present it to President Kaunda personally.
"I'd been a photographer since 1967 and to meet someone who, in his country, was considered a saint, that was something. Afterwards, I invited him to dinner with the team from PhotoSensitive and CARE Canada, and he talked to us about Zambia and HIV. We all sat there, listening to every word. That, too, is the power of PhotoSensitive: making connections. Eric Foss from CBC-TV was with us and he ended up making a documentary about the whole project," said Peter.
Peter Bregg is very clear about why he continues to give his time to PhotoSensitive.
"If you have something to give, you should give it without hesitation. That's what we all do at PhotoSensitive. I was a seventeen-year-old copy boy for Canadian Press, on Parliament Hill, when someone gave me a camera and showed me how to make prints. Forty-three years later, I've been to seventy-five countries, I've photographed royalty and presidents and prime ministers, people who were assassinated shortly after I met them, people like the grandmother I met in Zambia.
"I have been given a gift of being there. I like to use that gift to help others. In the last eight years I've done more charitable work than ever before, and the seed was planted with PhotoSensitive. Photographs can - and do - change the world. They have power. Pictures from Vietnam helped change American policy in Southeast Asia and stopped a war. The power is there and we use it wherever we can. This belief would carry over into future projects with a similar subject, including HIV Positive and the images of Rwanda captured in a project on the aftermath of that country's genocide and AIDS crisis.
"If you take our photographs into high schools and universities and public places, one kid might see a picture of a child with AIDS and think 'I'm going to be a doctor' or 'I'm going to talk about this with my parents' or 'I think I want to volunteer in Africa one day'… The possibilities and the power are kind of endless and they renew themselves, with each project, each photograph, each exhibition," said Peter.
A simple story brings it home
Tony Hauser is one of Canada's leading portrait photographers and a founding member of PhotoSensitive. He has been involved in almost every PhotoSensitive project since 1990. There have been many memorable stories, but his favourite recollection comes from HIV Positive.
"In Zambia, I went out with a local woman who gave micro-loans to grandmothers. The grandmothers in Africa are true matriarchs; the middle generation has been devastated by HIV/AIDS, so you meet grandmothers who care for five, ten, twenty grandchildren. The loan lady happily announced, 'Today, Tony, we'll see seven grandmothers!'
"I said, 'No! Stop the car. I can't shoot pictures of seven grandmothers in one day!'
"'But, Tony,' she said, 'they're all expecting you. They will be broken-hearted, if you don't visit!'
"We arrived at the first grandmother's house. She had seventeen grandchildren.
"She'd been given a loan to buy food and sell it locally, but her wooden stand was empty. She had all these mouths to feed, or maybe the fruit was going bad, and so she probably said, 'Eat it up!' It takes awhile for the lessons of 'buying-selling-making a little profit' to settle in. But my lady with the micro-loans assured her she'd get some more money and they'd try again. And then she rounded up the children.
"Eventually all seventeen came outside to see me. After all, with no TV, 'the stranger in town' is the big attraction. I started taking pictures and then noticed one of the little boys was shivering. He had his hoodie up - and remember this is Africa and it's hot - yet he was shaking. I took down his hoodie, asked what was wrong and he pointed to his armpit. There was this awful, oozing lump. I turned to my guide and said 'Forget the rest of the grandmothers, we have to take this boy to a doctor.'
"The doctor said the boy just needed five days on penicillin and he could cut out the infection, or maybe drain the lump, but first he needed to be paid for surgical gloves, bandages and the medication. I asked, 'How much will it all cost?' He said, 'seventeen thousand kwacha.' Well, that's about $3.50, so I said, 'That's fine - you treat him, I can pay.' And that was it. The boy got his medicine and a big fat needle. We bought him some cookies, took him home and I assume he's okay today.
"But the experience haunted me. When I got back to Canada I told my story and a co-worker said, 'My God, Tony, you spend that much every day at Second Cup!' And that was true. When I told my guy at Second Cup, he said, 'I'll get a big container, you put up some of your photos from Africa and people will throw in their pennies.'
"So we set out this enormous water-cooler jug - but people didn't just toss in pennies! They put in loonies, toonies, twenty-dollar bills. It was remarkable how it grew in only a few weeks. I called Jesse Moore at CARE and said we should go to the bank, ask them to count the money for us - for free - and then send it off to the village in Zambia.
"Well, we couldn't lift the jug, it was so heavy. We decided we'd get someone to help us take it to the bank the next day. The next morning, I arrived at work and all the girls in my office met me with long faces. Someone had broken into Second Cup. Someone had probably seen the jug filling up with money day after day, and once it was almost full, they broke in at 4 a.m. and stole it.
"I was stunned. All this high drama, and now the money was gone. There must have been close to five thousand dollars. So I sat down and I emailed all my friends and clients and attached a picture of the little boy. Cheques poured in and, within a week, we again had five thousand dollars to send to CARE.
"It's such a simple story but it says it all. Without the photographs, I don't think people would have been so generous. That little guy in his hoodie, he moved people to do something. And that's what PhotoSensitive is all about. We bring it home. The pictures we take remind us - all of us who are lucky enough to live comfortable lives - that there are people living through incredibly difficult circumstances.
"PhotoSensitive tapped into my compassion as a human being, and gave me an outlet to do something with that compassion. And that's why I keep going on PhotoSensitive assignments. It's the hope that with all these images we take, small changes will occur - like the Second Cup money jar - and that bigger changes will eventually come. If we don't bring it home, if we don't hold up pictures to say 'this is what is going on, right now,' how is anything going to change?" said Tony.
Kinship with other photojournalists
Steve Simon, part of the team for ten years, says an interesting aspect of the PhotoSensitive story is that it's not only the people in the photographs and people who see our photographs who are touched by the experience and undergo a social transformation.
"We're often changed as well. The inspiration I get from PhotoSensitive is practical, tangible. It has helped me evolve as a photographer. When I went to Zambia for HIV Positive (1992), it was my first time visiting Africa and it led me to a great deal of personal work. I published a book on HIV/AIDS; I got involved with the Stephen Lewis Foundation; and right now I'm working on a project on the grandmothers of Africa. PhotoSensitive has given me life experiences and I take them and incorporate them into my life, my career.
"I'm not sure I would have left Loyalist College in Belleville and gone to work in New York City had it not been for PhotoSensitive. I feel a kinship with these people. It is profound, to share your thoughts and impressions and feelings in ways that only other photographers can understand. Being with this group is joyous, and helpful, and rare. That is a very powerful part of it for me.
"Andrew's courage to take on difficult issues and sensitive subjects and his enthusiasm to include others: that, too, is unique. Everyone has an ego - and Andrew must have one - but I have been on a planeload of photographers where we were one seat short of everyone being able to sit together, and who spoke up and said he'd take a seat at the back of the plane? Andrew. I think that's another reason why the group works. That was so telling to me: I think everyone realizes it's not about each of us; it's about all of us and what we can do, together," said Steve.