Having a camera in my hand gives me both a rare privilege and a profound responsibility.
Andri Tambunan has been documenting the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Tanah Papua since 2009. A passionate advocate for education on this issue, he started the Saya Positif initiative to tell the stories of seven individuals who are HIV positive and leading strong, healthy and productive lives. “Words with negative connotations such as suffering or sinful are often used to describe someone with HIV. I realized that my project is not finished until I find a way to help change things.”
What is the Saya Positif initiative and why did you start it?
Tanah Papua, made up of Papua & West Papua and located in the easternmost part of Indonesia, has the highest HIV/AIDS infection rates in Indonesia. I’ve been documenting the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Papua since 2009. In the first half of this project, I investigated some of the causes and convey the devastating impacts of this epidemic.
Now 2015, many improvements have been made to create better access to quality care and medicine. However, the biggest obstacles that remain are the stigmas and discrimination directed toward people who live with HIV/AIDS or at a risk of HIV infection. The majority of the public in Tanah Papua still perceive HIV/AIDS to mean suffering, dishonour, and death.
Due to fear of discrimination people often postpone or avoid getting tested for HIV. Without knowing their status, individuals who have contracted HIV are less likely to take preventive measures and will often transmit the virus to their spouses or significant others. Stigma and discrimination also discourage those already living with HIV/AIDS to seek out lifesaving treatments such as (ARV) Antiretroviral medicine necessary to maintain their health.
Internal stigma perpetuates shame, guilt, rejection, and hopelessness that undervalue social roles and a sense of belonging. In the end, suffering and mortality are inevitable. It’s a vicious cycle because the images of anguish and death reinforce the stigma and discrimination.
Positive depictions of HIV/AIDS in the media are rare in Tanah Papua. Individuals with HIV who are profiled by the local media have their faces hidden or blurred out as if they are criminals. Words with negative connotations such as suffering or sinful are often used to describe someone with HIV. I realized that my project is not finished until I find a way to help change these things.
Contrary to the negative stereotype, my goal is to show that they are strong, healthy, productive, resilient, and hopeful.
Saya Positif profiles seven individuals who are HIV positive. Contrary to the negative stereotype, my goal is to show that they are strong, healthy, productive, resilient, and hopeful. The people that I profiled are devoted parents, loving sons and daughters, and contributing members to their families and communities. Their incredible testimonies are not only a source of inspiration but also act as evidence to counter the misconceptions of the illness and to help end stigma and discrimination in Tanah Papua.
What sort of influence or impact do you hope the campaign to have?
Earlier this year Indonesia’s Directorate General of Health approved my informative multimedia for viewing and distribution in many hospitals and clinics in Tanah Papua. As a part of Saya Positif, I produced 1000 newsprints containing images and testimonies of those I profiled and distributed them to the Clinton Foundation and the UN Headquarter in Jakarta, local NGOs, support groups, and activists in Tanah Papua. For World AIDS Day on December 1, I am collaborating with Kompas, the biggest newspaper in Indonesia, to publish Saya Positif on an interactive web platform taking advantage of more than 6 million online followers. At the moment, I am continuing to use social media to post images from the project. I distributed digital cameras to my friends who are living with HIV and by sharing their photographs I hope to continue the discussion and engage the audience.
I hope all of these things will help me get closer to my goals for Saya Positif: To educate the public on HIV/AIDS, to counter stereotypes and change the negative perception associated with the disease, to encourage the public to get tested for HIV and to know their status, to encourage those with HIV to seek help and to start or continue taking Antiretroviral (ARV), to help end discrimination against those living with HIV or facing the risk infection, to demand accountability from the provincial government and health department and to pressure them to implement effective preventive programs and provide better long-term support to help end the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Tanah Papua.
In an interview with The New York Times Lens’ blog, you said that you were inspired to start the HIV project in Papua because of an HIV survivor, Mama Yuli. Can you tell us about it?
I started my personal project documenting the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Tanah Papua after reading a brief article in 2009 about Mama Yuli, a housewife who contracted HIV from her husband. Mama Yuli lost both her husband and child to the disease and experienced discrimination from neighbors. Fortunately, Mama Yuli received help from a local NGO who helped her to get on Antiretroviral Treatment. After Mama Yuli recovered, she courageously testified about her status in front of her church congregation. She became an activist and often shares her experience to the public urging them to get tested for HIV and promoting Antiretroviral medication (ARV).
At first I was just curious to learn more about this issue and I never think that I would do a personal project. After meeting her (Mama Yuli) and others with similar experiences, I realized that I needed to tell this story.
I was intrigued after reading this article because I didn’t know about the HIV epidemic in Tanah Papua. I searched online for images to better understand the situation but found just a few. A week after reading the article to satisfy my curiosity I flew to Papua from Jakarta to meet Mama Yuli face to face. At first I was just curious to learn more about this issue and I never think that I would do a personal project. After meeting her and others with similar experiences, I realized that I needed to tell this story. Tanah Papua is a volatile region in Indonesia with a long history of human rights abuse and separatist movement. The Indonesian government has put restriction barring foreign journalists from entering the region but my Indonesian background has given me total access. Having a camera in my hand gives me both a rare privilege and a profound responsibility.
There is a growing number of photographers taking active measures to affect change with their work. What, in your opinion, is the function of photography in affecting change? And how far can it go in doing so?
Photography is not the perfect tool to affect change but it’s the best thing we have because it’s the only medium that can instantly capture humanity At a glance, it’s easy to think that the power of photography in implementing change has somewhat diminished. Maybe it has or perhaps we have created an environment where photography doesn’t mean as much.
Currently, good journalism has become so expensive and more dangerous but the news media are offering less money and refuse to cover insurance for photographers, the public thinks that information, regardless if it’s good and require time and money to deliver, should remain free. Also, looking at the countless horrific images today of the war in Syria, the refugee crisis in Europe, the persecution of Rohingya in Myanmar, the fire in Borneo, etc nothing has really changed because these things keep happening.
The idea of bearing witness as a photographer is no longer the final goal.
The media serves the agenda of the proprietor and often publishes articles that the people want rather than what they need to see to sell advertisement, the public consume images one thousand times faster and darts from one headline to the next in a blink of an eye without taking the time to digest what they’ve seen, images documenting Climate Change battles for attention against pictures of Kim Kardashian, kittens, and our vanity and it’s always loses. Perhaps it’s us who has become calloused.
The idea of bearing witness as a photographer is no longer the final goal. We need to have more conversation with what we do after with those photographs to engage the audience and put it in front of those who are in position to spark change. I admire photographers like Tim Matsui, Robin Hammond, Stephanie Sinclair, Marcus Bleasdale, Ed Kashi, JR, and many others who are continuing their project after taking the last frame and utilizing unique approach and any available platforms to share, to inform, and to move people to take actions, to question the status quo, to change laws and regulations, to empower those powerless to tell their own story.
You’ve mentioned in your bio that you were caught up in the terrorist attack in Mumbai in 2008, and your first instinct was to grab your camera and photograph the events as they unfolded. Was that a major turning point in your life? Tell us about it and how it led to your switch to photography.
I started photography in high school. I used to skip my AP classes to print in the darkroom. A couple of years after graduating, I got a job working for Verizon Wireless, the biggest cell phone company in the States, and I was making good money. My company had a college tuition reimbursement program. To move up in the corporate world, I needed a Bachelor’s degree so I decided to do my degree. I chose photography because I enjoyed it, and also because it’s the only degree that I could earn without affecting my work schedule since I was working 40+ hours a week.
I never had the courage to pursue photography. But after Mumbai, I realized that I was lucky to have a second chance at life.
After earning my Bachelor’s I continue working for a couple of years until I discovered that I was unhappy with my life and I needed to get away and clear my head. Fate led me to Mumbai and I was fortunate to be alive. The terrorists opened fire inside Café Leopold killing many patrons inside. But thirty minutes before I was outside the café checking out their menu and decided to go to a different place since the beer was fifty cents cheaper.
Looking back, photography has always been my passion. Truthfully I never had the courage to pursue it. But after Mumbai, I realized that I was lucky to have a second chance at life.
You were born in Indonesia, but raised in the United States. How do you think this mix in cultures has affected your photography or the way you work, if at all?
I believe that we are the sum how we react to the events and moments we encounter in life. Growing up in California I was exposed to many different cultures without needing a passport.
Contrary to what many people in Indonesia believe, I come from a working class. In fact, I lived most of my life in America as an illegal immigrant. In 1991, my Mom told me that we were going to America. I was 9 years old and excited to go to Disneyland, a magical place that I’ve only seen on TV. In truth, my mom only had $500 to start our new life. She used a fake work permit to get a job and worked triple shifts to provide for us. She sent most of the money back to my older siblings back in Indonesia. I started working odd jobs to earn some money to help out and to be more independent. The first real job that I had was at 17 as a janitor at Jack in the Box, a fast-food restaurant, cleaning bathrooms and wiping down tables. For most of my early adulthood I was chasing the “American” dream and by the age of 22 I bought a 5-bedroom house in the suburb earning almost six figures yearly.
I gave everything up in 2008 when I discovered that I wasn’t happy and destiny led me to the terrorist attack in Mumbai. Living in the United States with it’s social, economic, and racial implications has allowed me to experience the importance of having a good work ethic, the fear of getting caught by Immigration, the bitter taste of discrimination of being pulled over by cops or called racist names for being Asian, the insatiable yearning of buying “things” for self definition, and the relief of letting everything go. But all of these things the good, the bad, and the in betweens, had led me to this path, where photography and life converge.
What are you busy with now?
Right now I am busy promoting Saya Positif with various NGOs and activist groups as well as pushing the project for publication in both domestic and international media. Starting next year I will be focusing on my commercial work. It’s a new venture that I hope would yield a more sustainable income to fund my personal projects. Also, since this year I spent most of my time in front of the computer than shooting, I am doing research and sorting out contacts and logistics for new projects to pursue.
www.sayapositif.org (Bahasa Indonesia)