Editor's Note: In 2012, The Well Project was thrilled to help sponsor Caitlin Margaret Kelly's international photography project (then titled, "I am...Women Living with HIV") to be on display at the International AIDS Conference in Washington, DC. We saw many parallels between the goals of Caitlin's project and those of A Girl Like Me--to give women living with HIV the platform to tell their story and to decrease stigma by showing that living with HIV is just one layer in the complex lives of women and girls. During this collaboration, Caitlin photographed several A Girl Like Me bloggers, both before and during the conference. The is past summer, as Caitlin's project evolves, she took to the road to photograph and interview women living with HIV around the U.S., several of whom are also A Girl Like Me bloggers. We asked Caitlin to blog about her project and her experience, which is posted below. We look forward to continuing to collaborate with Caitlin, and plan to feature her work on The Well Project's website in the near future.
By Caitlin Margaret Kelly
I’ve been contemplating lately how I want my images to live in the world. What they are supposed to say when I am not around to explain them, when there are not words nearby to contextualize their meaning. This project, ‘Please Call Me By My True Names,’ portraits and audio narratives of women living with HIV, has matured and changed (even the title) and I believe, improved. It is more complex, it questions, it thinks, it represents. I’ve asked it to do a lot and I always doubt whether or not I’ve been successful. *
I need to take a short detour for a moment because I feel it is important to explain the doubt, the emotion. It is not something we (think US culture in general) are comfortable with. We should be happy, confident, advancing, or that is what I am told in a myriad of small ways, from television ads, to television sitcoms, to the latest greatest drug, from the smile that greets me at a favorite store, to being told, I’d be prettier if I smiled more myself. We obviously favor certain emotions.
But I like doubt – to a degree, of course. It can become debilitating, but that is not the doubt I am talking about here. I am talking about doubting the details, doubting my approach, doubting my results, doubting if I did enough...can I do it better? This doubt is productive. This doubt is what keeps me thinking, keeps me moving. It looks ugly from the outside on occasion, I’ll admit to that. It drives me nuts too. Why can’t I just say, “Yes! This is the way it is done!”? Because, I think, that is when I will really become unsuccessful. That is when I would become closed. That is when I would stop needing to ask questions because I would always know the answers. That is not what this project is about, nor am I.
Questions are lovely things. I’d hate to stop asking them. Questions are functional, in that they elicit information. “What is your name?” “How old are you?” Those questions are nice. But questions at their peak are about relationships. They create space for speaker and listener. They create shared time together. They create physical moments. And this is what I’ve learned so well working this project and hanging out – if for only brief moments – with each woman who has consented to be photographed.
I can’t even begin to imagine the decision-making process that each woman has undertaken to arrive at the moment when she is sitting before my lens. Some have more practice at it than others, but it never strikes me as nonchalant.
This past summer I spent it on the road (a favorite place of mine). I drove nearly 10,000 miles through 14 states to photograph 20 women living with HIV. To date 68 women have allowed me to photograph and interview them. This summer alone, starting in North Carolina, I went as far north as Minneapolis and then all the way down to San Antonio, Texas. I stopped in Kansas City, Philadelphia, Boston, NYC, not to mention several cities in Ohio, Indiana, the panhandle of Florida and Louisiana.
Each of these places I stopped to photograph and interview a woman, and I had the pleasure of asking questions, to sit and listen, and create a relationship. And I doubted whether or not I did my work well enough. Did I listen well enough? Was I open enough?
I suppose what I didn’t realize was the effect my doubt had on the women. Here I assumed it would be negative. They’d think, “Oh boy, what is this photographer going to do with my image?” Instead, what I found out was that this project was the first for many women, a national coming-out, if you will. One woman later blogged that my questions about her life, her HIV, her triumphs and challenges, made her feel like a person. She said later in a blog post that I made her feel “special, valuable and worthy.”
It still reduces me to tears.
None of that comes from knowing what I am doing all the time. A large portion of that comes from doubting what and how I do what I do, and throwing in a little reminder of why I do what I do.
I look at my negatives and am reminded the sheet of 16 frames sitting flat on a light table and illuminated from behind is a woman. I question how I use each image, what it means, how it will live without me to explain it. I am attached to the physical moment I was privileged to share with that woman, but those who view the final photograph are not, and I believe, I need to truly consider that question if I am to fully respect the women who sat in front of my lens. And so, I am much more comfortable with my doubt now. I wear it better, because I see it also as a form of respect.
*How do I measure success then? Doubt. Can you leave the images and the audio and the exhibit and do you doubt? I’d love it if you leave with questions.
Selection of images can be seen at: http://caitlinmargaretkelly.com/womenlivingwithhiv/
Scheduled exhibition in March/April 2014, Durham, North Carolina
Caitlin can be reached at: Caitlin@caitlinmargaretkelly.com