Andres Acosta Ardila smiled wide as he spoke passionately about his experience participating in the “Love and HIV” campaign created by photographer Noel Garcia and the HIV Stigma Taskforce.
The campaign, which is a photo series by Garcia intended to demonstrate the joy and beauty of loving relationships uninhibited by HIV, will debut on Feb. 25 in a gallery at the LGBT+ Center Orlando.
Each photo in the series features both HIV-positive and HIV-negative individuals laughing, hugging and loving each other.
“Love and HIV” is also partnered with AIDS United to launch a national social media campaign as well as the Florida Department of Health to distribute printed materials to all HIV health care facilities in the area and received contributions from Pineapple Healthcare as well as the Orlando Immunology Center.
Along with being a participant, Acosta Ardila is also the leader of the HIV Stigma Taskforce. He says that showing these happy and loving interactions was the biggest priority of the photo series.
“I think representation matters and I think that’s something that Noel did a beautiful job with capturing images of HIV that were pure joy. All the pictures are joyful and they’re beautiful,” Acosta Ardila says. “We need to show images of people living with HIV that are happy and healthy, because that’s the reality of HIV now. It’s no longer what it used to be, and this is going to have an impact on newly diagnosed individuals.”
Garcia’s inspiration for the campaign came when he told his partner he was HIV-positive, and he simply replied “I want to build a life with you. It doesn’t matter to me.” It was the beauty of this simple unimpeded love that led him to create the photo series.
“He wanted to capture that in photographs, the spirit of love and how it’s not defined by HIV,” Acosta Ardila says.
The project began with highlighting romantic love and HIV, which meant it was very important for them to show couples being intimate with each other.
“With the couples we wanted to show some intimacy, so some kissing, some closeness, because that is the biggest taboo with HIV-positive people,” says Acosta Ardila.
Acosta Ardila says they conducted a survey of HIV stigma in Central Florida and many people reported that dating with HIV is one of the most difficult challenges with the way HIV is perceived. It is very common for people to immediately discount an HIV-positive person before they even have a chance.
This feeds into a major message the campaign is trying to push “Undetectable equals Untransmittable,” or U = U, meaning that when a person’s viral load is suppressed, they can no longer pass HIV to someone else.
“There was a huge barrier to love that used to exist before U = U was validated, because people thought that if you had HIV you were pretty much damaged goods, and this concept helped change the tide of that,” Acosta Ardila says.
While the project started with romance it became more when they realized that love goes much deeper than just romantic relationships, leading them to include family love and motherhood as well with a mother and her newborn child and a grandmother with her daughters and granddaughter.
This development was huge for the project, Acosta Ardila adds, because it allowed them to attack other parts of the HIV stigma and ease other concerns of those with HIV.
“We were really moved by the mother with her baby because that was such a beautiful story of someone taking care of their health in order to make sure that their daughter can be born healthy,” Acosta Ardila says. “We are showing that motherhood is still an option.”
This is at the core of what “Love and HIV” is trying to do. The photo series will show HIV in a new way, without the stigma attached to it, while also encouraging those with HIV to not be ashamed of themselves and not fear their condition.
The photos intentionally are composed in a way that you cannot tell who has HIV and who does not. Each person photographed looks happy and healthy, Garcia says, adding that this is the true face of HIV.
“I created this project to break the stigma and show people the faces of HIV. When some people think about HIV they think about people looking sick and that’s not real in this time,” says Garcia.
A stigma, such as that surrounding HIV, is built over a history of misconceptions and ill-informed judgments, along with systems that did not always help those in need.
Acosta Ardila says that the beginning of this stigma came from it being both a sexually transmitted disease and a disease associated with homosexuality.
“We already have a lot of stigma and shame around sex … and when HIV was discovered it was treated as a gay disease, and the LGBTQ community already has a stigma attached to it as well,” says Acosta Ardila.
These stigmas are especially common in communities of color, adds Acosta Ardila.
“HIV is something that disproportionately affects Black and Brown communities because we have uneven access to health care,” he says. “If you look at Central Florida when the first prep trials for HIV were happening, they were primarily recruiting white individuals. White people were getting into clinical trials, so we were left out of the conversation for a very long time.”
According to the Central Florida HIV Planning Council website, 39% of the 15,693 people with HIV in the Central Florida service area are Black, despite only making up 15% of the population in that area.
“This is why we wanted to show the community families of color that were happy, healthy and loving. Where everyone knew everyone’s status and there was no shame,” Acosta Ardila says.
At the end of the day, Acosta Ardila says the photo series and the campaign is all about loving relationships and the fact that HIV does not have to get in the way of them.
This was what Garcia loved so much as the photographer doing this campaign, getting to capture people’s love and share it along with their story to contribute to the community in a way that they had never been given the opportunity to.
“It was a really special moment because Noel was such a good photographer that he saw how to capture the love that is there,” Acosta Ardila says. “The most beautiful experience about it was just the joy, like if there’s a theme to the campaign it’s joy.”
Photos used in Noel Garcia’s Love & HIV campaign will debut at the Love & HIV Art Show at the LGBT+ Center in Orlando, located at 946 N. Mills Ave., on Feb. 25, starting at 5 p.m. This is a free event to attend.