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New Photography Exhibition Brings Attention to Richmond HIV/AIDS Epidemic

man in front of photographs
Michael Simon is the photographer behind Voices from Richmond's Hidden Epidemic. (Photo: Alan Rodriguez Espinoza/VPM)

*This story was reported by VPM intern Alan Rodriguez Espinoza

A new exhibition at the Valentine Museum in Richmond showcases the portraits of 30 individuals who have been affected by the city’s HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Recent data by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that Richmond has the 21st highest rate of new HIV diagnoses and the 19th highest rate of people living with AIDS out of 2,300 localities in the country. 

Curators Laura Browder and Patricia Herrera spent three years collecting the portraits of HIV victims in Richmond for Voices from Richmond’s Hidden Epidemic. The exhibition also features photos of the victims’ loved ones, medical professionals, activists and others affected by the disease. 

According to Browder, a lot of the women she spoke to for this project say the stigma is often the worst part of living with HIV. Michael Simon, the photographer behind the portraits, says it is important to “shine a light into the dark corners” of this crisis in order to combat it.

“It helps dissolve a lot of the stigma,” Simon said. “I feel like the more we know about our neighbors and our family and our friends, the more we can relate to their stories.”

Browder says this crisis is also a sign of racial and gender inequality in the city.

“People in the general population have a one in 99 chance of getting HIV over the course of their lifetimes. Black men who have sex with men have a one in two chance. Black women have an almost 18-fold chance of getting HIV compared to white women,” Browder said.

She says over half of all new HIV diagnoses take place in southern states, making Richmond “ground zero for HIV.” Browder says Richmond’s history of racial and economic inequality has resulted in low-income communities facing the brunt of this epidemic.

“If you're middle class and you have HIV, that becomes your number one priority, making sure you take that pill every day,” she said. “But if you are struggling with homelessness, if your employment status is very tenuous, if you don't have transportation then it's very easy for your HIV status to fall to your fifth priority or below.”

Voices from Richmond’s Hidden Epidemic includes excerpts from interviews with the portraits’ subjects. Browder says The Valentine will house transcripts of the full interviews of the subjects photographed in the museum’s archives in an effort to preserve a rich oral history of the city’s HIV-affected community.

The Valentine worked closely with VCU Health, Diversity Richmond, Health Brigade and St. Paul’s Baptist Church to put together the exhibition, which will be on display at the Valentine through May 25, 2020.

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