"It’s 1995 in a remote area of South Africa and it’s breaking my heart: AIDS is here for sure and it’s going to spread like wildfire. After having witnessed what the parents and grandparents sacrificed to ensure a better future for their children, it’s obvious now that many of those young people will not live long enough to accept that gift of freedom that culminated just one year before with the first democratic election that brought Nelson Mandela and a bright new future to this beautiful and complicated country.

In 1997, when I left my job at the Philadelphia Daily News and moved to South Africa, I actively sought opportunities to publish stories I had been producing about the impending epidemic. Since the world had been so concerned for the welfare of the people of South Africa during the struggle against apartheid, there should also be concern that a social and economic disater was in the making. I was wrong. There were no takers for the story.

Then I realized, those stories really should go out to the people who are the most vulnerable, the  women of that region. If they could understand the realities of the disease, then they could prevent the spread of it. Thus, Ubomi Magazine ( the Xhosa word for life) was born.

Ubomi published 12 issues over three years, distributed free of charge to those residents. My use of the photographic image and real life stories was to reach the readers on a personal level, as well as to communicate to the many who are illiterate.  This was as good as it gets, the opportunity to use my skills and experience for a greater good. Producing Ubomi was the culmination of 20 years of experience as a photojournalist, mostly at the Philadelphia Daily News, combined with a self-imposed independent body of work I had been producing in South Africa for nine years.

Before the introduction of antiretroviral medications,  HIV was a certain sentence to a horrible death. Information about imminent tragedy is a hard sell. I won some and I lost some. It got easier when I could offer a glimpse of hope through a story about a young woman who was surviving well, with positive living and the medications.

The power and the possibilities that come with the opportunity to use the most powerful form of communication – the photograph – are an awesome responsibility that has immense rewards. One of those rewards is to experience the gift of trust that is given to us when a subject allows us access to his or her life and heart. Another reward is to witness the impact a story or image can create.

In a harsh world full of cinicism  I am heartened by the capacity of some individuals for generosity, courage and resillience. That they give to me the opportunity to document their lives and then share that experience with others is an act of faith in itself, a small but important facet to counteracting despair. It gives a voice to the otherwise ignored members of society, those who push forward without hope of fame or gain, just that what they do is the right thing to do. That my telling of their story may inspire or inform another, to create a spirit of possibility and unity, is the honored role of a messenger.

In the past, our stories usually had just one opportunity to be seen and absorbed. Now those stories can live on indefinitely. From my  years as a newspaper photographer in Philadelphia to a single voice in rural South Africa, the potential for compelling images never ends and the combined  voices of every story becomes a chorus that in summation, says to me...


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