exhibition review: We Are still here

by Alice Williamson

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Photo by Mareike Günsche

As part of the Bristol Photo Festival, a photography exhibition titled ‘We Are Still here’ opened at The Vestibules, City Hall, on October 5.

The project, available to view both in-person and online, ran through until October 30 and featured photography by Mareike Günsche alongside audio files from individuals within the HIV/AIDS community. 

Through the 21 stories featured at the exhibition, each one intrinsically different from the last, the audience learns not only about what it means to live with HIV, but also about concepts including belonging, relationships, and home. 

Speaking to Günsche, she reveals that her personal inspiration for the project was witnessing first-hand the pain and struggle of her “dear friend” after being diagnosed with HIV. It was not the virus itself, she explains, that caused him to suffer, but rather the “reactions and stigmatisations” linked to it. [I wanted] to do something about that”.

What struck me as most beautiful about the project is its rawness. The atmosphere, when listening to each audio file, is candid and inviting. The photographs manage to capture wholly the unique personality of each participant. Günsche explains that through the medium of “participatory photography”, she is able to “use the camera as a tool to engage in social change” as well as to “build an emotional bridge between people”. The photographs leave you filled with joy and hope, creating a light, positive space around what has historically been a difficult and heavy subject. 

The project’s overarching aim is to show the world how the HIV/AIDS community curates their own living spaces to benefit their mental and physical health. It also attempts to correct the misconceptions we may carry with us about HIV (whether that’s regarding contraction, gender, or transmission), shifting the narrative to a more positive one. A number of the participants speak of the benefits HIV has brought into their life. 64-year-old Alan spoke of how, ironically, HIV saved his life: as well as healthier lifestyle changes including stopping smoking, he also revealed “it’s given me opportunities”, particularly relating to his career as a HIV case worker.

While some stories convey emotional vulnerability and delve into some difficult subjects, others are funny and light-hearted. 49-year-old Anita reveals how she is planning her “silver anniversary” of living with the virus: “I’m going to have a vanilla sponge.” 

The project challenges us to consider the construction of our identities, often bound to inanimate objects or places. While some participants own this proudly – Alan says: “My home is bricks-and-mortar and what makes it my home is all the things I’ve accrued over the years” – others think of home as a “multi-facetical concept” (Josh, 26), perhaps tied to people and mindset as well as places. 

The feedback so far has been “amazing”, reveals Günsche : “It is good to be placed at the Vestibules and we hope to reach a lot of young people.” The team behind the project is also hoping to expand their exhibition across other towns and cities. I think this exhibition provides an important first step in the reimagining of sexual health education.