Portrait of an activist

Photographer Ziv Koren went to the front lines to record humanity’s struggle against AIDS.

Ziv Koren is no stranger to hard-hit disaster areas. For over two decades, the man considered one of Israel’s preeminent photographers has captured breathtaking – not to mention heartbreaking – images of war and devastation. From Gaza to Lebanon, from earthquake-ravaged Haiti to tsunami-racked south Asia, from portrait images of prime ministers to gruesome shots of dismembered bodies hanging from the ruins of charred buses on the streets of Israeli cities, the prolific Koren has earned a reputation for intrepid photojournalism the fruits of which have been splashed across the front pages of some of the world’s leading publications.
Now, to coincide with AIDS Awareness Month, one of Israel’s most active champions dedicated to raising awareness of the disease once again got behind the lens and onto the front lines to document what is perhaps the world’s major battleground in humanity’s struggle against the epidemic – the eastern South African province of KwalaZulu Natal, ground zero in the global race to contain the illness.
This week, Koren is unveiling 42 photographs he shot while on assignment in KwalaZulu Natal as a representative of the Red Cross at an exhibition that will be staged by the Urban Gallery in Jaffa. The exhibition, titled Positive +, offers glimpses into the daily lives of rural South Africans who must not only cope with the medical and physical consequences of the disease, but also with the abject poverty that has made survival even more of a challenge.
“If there’s one narrative that would describe my work, it’s that I’m attracted to things that are most unpopular,” Koren says. “In other words, I’m attracted to stories that are of interest from a socio-economic and health standpoint, stories that deal with conflict, difficulty and disaster. I think these are areas where I have the strength to tell these people’s story and to bring these stories to a certain level of awareness.”
According to the United Nations, 39 percent of the inhabitants of KwaZulu Natal, a province with a total population of almost 11 million, are infected with HIV. The area, which is four times the size of Israel, is estimated to be home to three million sufferers of AIDS, making it the world’s largest concentration of carriers of the disease.
A year ago, Koren, whose career earned him the honor of being named one of 12 Canon ambassadors worldwide, came up with the idea of marking the 30th anniversary of the discovery of the AIDS epidemic by staging roving exhibitions and publishing books that document the work performed by the Red Cross, some of whose humanitarian activities are sponsored by Canon.
To that end, the Red Cross agreed to do a pilot project, inviting Koren to tag along with a team of workers from the British Red Cross on a trip to South Africa.
“First of all, the Africa I saw was a different Africa than what we are used to seeing,” Koren says. “This area represented a very unattractive Africa, a primitive Africa, very poor and very sad. I didn’t see any exotic areas since I was there only 10 days. There aren’t hawkers on the side of the road peddling hand-crafted dolls. It’s a different Africa from the one that is portrayed and accepted.
“It’s an unattractive place that doesn’t offer images of native tribesmen and exotic wildlife. There’s no nature there, no lodges for tourists. There’s just village after village inhabited by people who are struggling to get by every day. I don’t want to say they are starving, but they really are struggling with daily existence.”
As a member of the British Red Cross delegation, Koren got a firsthand glimpse of the Herculean task that the agency has undertaken. In the four years since it first arrived in South Africa, the Red Cross has established a vast network of 1,400 local volunteers whose mission is to provide the sick population with basic nutritional and medical needs while educating the public on AIDS awareness and prevention.
Koren, whose psyche has been hardened by a career filled with raw images of human degradation, was astounded at the sheer volume of AIDS cases and the speed with which the disease proliferated among the locals.
“Whenever you’d come to a village, you discover that in every third or fourth hut there was someone who is sick,” he says. “You also see families of orphans where the oldest child is 22, 23 years old and she is raising her eight brothers and sisters and cousins because all of the parents died of AIDS. One of the most remarkable phenomena that I came across in this area is that there is no parenting age, because there are no parents. The ones who raise children are the older siblings who look after their younger ones, or grandmothers who raise their grandchildren because their kids are gone.”
Koren’s exhibition features images of two families who have been ravaged by AIDS. One of the dozens of families he visited included a mother who is HIV positive and seven months pregnant and left to care for her two children, aged three and five, who are also HIV positive.
Her male companion died of AIDS, as did her parents.
“I met another woman who gave birth to seven children – three of them have already died of AIDS,” he says. “She’s HIV positive. The seven children came from six different partners.”
Despite attempts by the Red Cross and the government to educate the public about the health consequences of promiscuous sexual activity, Koren says that reckless behavior is to blame.
“There is a sort of animal-like urge and instinct at work here without any thought as to what will happen the next day,” he says.
“They don’t use condoms, even though they learn about it in schools and through sex education.
But when it comes time for the moment of truth, it doesn’t happen.”
“The problem is that they do not take responsibility,” Koren says. “In South Africa, someone said to me, ‘Sex is the one thing that is available for free and in great abundance that gives them joy.’ So in that sense, they are irresponsible.”
With public awareness in the West waning as a result of the medical advances that have been made in slowing down the progression of AIDS, Koren relays feeling a renewed sense of urgency in regenerating interest in the topic.
“Medically speaking, AIDS is now perceived, particularly in the Western world, as a chronic disease rather than a terminal disease,” he says. “But this isn’t the case in the third world.
In KwaZulu Natal alone, there are over 100,000 people who are dying of AIDS every year, which translates to over 300 a day. These are astronomical numbers, so I thought it was proper to do a story about it.”
Koren has been an active member of the Israel AIDS Task Force, the largest and most prominent non-profit organization that has promoted AIDS awareness in Israel since its inception in 1985. All of the proceeds from the exhibition will be donated to campaigns designed to educate the public about the disease.
“From a public consciousness standpoint, AIDS has been taken off the agenda because there are fewer people who are dying from the disease in the Western world, so there is less awareness of the illness and fewer people who are thinking about it,” he says. “I think that the timing [for the exhibition] was right given that it’s the 30th anniversary of the illness’s discovery. So we are ‘celebrating’ 30 years of this epidemic. This is why I became interested in working with the Red Cross and doing work on AIDS. I’m drawn to these kinds of stories because I think this is where my strengths emerge and find expression, more so than in anything else.”
Given the unpleasant nature of the topic and its gross lack of commercial appeal, Koren acknowledges that it is much easier for a photographer of his stature and cachet to wield enough clout to convince art galleries to host exhibits of this nature.
“I have no interest in doing fashion, advertising, or anything that isn’t documentary work about issues that entail difficulty,” he says. “These are issues that no editor wants to publish, usually, and nobody would really be eager to go to an exhibition like this. I manage to impose this difficulty [on people] by force and I put the full force of my weight behind it.
“This isn’t a trivial thing, for a gallery to put an exhibition about children stricken with AIDS on display,” Koren says. “But I’m throwing all of my weight behind it, because I think it’s important.
“For me, photography is not just a profession,” he says. “It’s a social obligation. The camera is a tool that helps me get messages across to the public, put certain topics on the agenda, open up issues for public discussion, and push subjects that are completely on the margins into the heart of the mainstream.
That is the narrative of my work.”