Voices from Richmond’s Hidden Epidemic

Portrait of Rodney Lofton by Michael Simon.

Richmond’s rate of HIV infection is currently ranked 19th in the United States. While Americans on average have a one-in-99 chance of contracting HIV over the course of their lifetime, the odds for a gay black man are one in two. Black women have a rate of HIV infection 17.6 times that of white women. In Richmond, women make up a quarter of new HIV diagnoses.

Despite years of medical and social progress, misconceptions about HIV/AIDS persist today. Laura Browder and Patricia Herrera, both professors at the University of Richmond, recently collected 30 oral histories for a new exhibit opened at the Valentine on January 23 in an effort to put faces to these surprising statistics. 

The exhibit, titled Voices from Richmond’s Hidden Epidemic, aims to raise awareness through oral histories combined with black-and-white photographic portraits by local photographer Michael Simon that focus on the personal stories of those affected by HIV/AIDS in Richmond.

Portrait of Zakia McKensey by Michael Simon.

“Most people outside of the public health community think that HIV is a disease that primarily affects gay, white men. We learned how far from the reality that is,” explains Browder. “The people represented in the exhibition include great-grandmothers, undocumented immigrants, college professors, church deacons and transgendered people. They include public health officials, HIV educators, medical providers, activists, and those who have lost loved ones to HIV.”

Browder and Herrera say the process of creating the exhibited transformed their own understanding of not only of the epidemic, but the way people can turn what one assumes to be a life-destroying event into an opportunity for making change.  “Many of the people we met lived lives charged with purpose—including, most urgently, to prevent others from becoming infected with the virus,” says Herrera.

Portrait of Dr. Gonzalo Bearman by Michael Simon.

Bill Martin, Valentine Director, adds, “Featuring the powerful oral histories collected by Laura and Patricia and Michael’s phenomenal photography, we hope this exhibition contributes to an important ongoing discussion about the true impact of HIV/AIDS on the Richmond community.” 

In coordination with the exhibition opening, Nationz Foundation, a local non-profit providing education, information and programming related to HIV, will be conducting free on-site HIV testing (results available in 60 seconds) from noon to 4 p. m. on January 23 at the Valentine.

Voices from Richmond’s Hidden Epidemic will be on display through May 25, 2020.

Portrait of Zenia Williams by Michael Simon.
Portrait of Dana Kuhn by Michael Simon.
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