The Digital Journalist
A Hopeful Vision:
The Photographs of Steve Simon
November 2006

by Marianne Fulton

Steve Simon, a Canadian photographer of great talent, now lives in New York and has produced several photo books of his documentary essays. The most recent is Heroines & Heroes: Hope, HIV and Africa (Edizioni Charta, Milano: 2006). He works on the premise that as a photographer whose first love is to work on large projects he should take every opportunity that comes along. He doesn't immediately say to himself, "It's too small," because good work will find an outlet. When he believes in something, he follows through.

Steve Simon

After working 10 years as a newspaper photographer, Simon became freelance in 1995 so that he could spend time on documentary projects. He left the paper and joined PhotoSensitive, a group of photographers based in Toronto who, like him, works on projects to bring about social change. The story of HIV in Africa appealed in part because it was such a big subject, a "much bigger calling," he said recently. It was not solely about him--it was an important story with huge implications.

In 2002 the NGO "CARE" approached PhotoSensitive. The organization commissioned seven photographers to go to Zambia for one week and produce images concerning the AIDS epidemic. In an interview, the photographer said that Africa was not a place he had wanted to go but that going "to Zambia for that week in 2002 really left a powerful impression on me and I just wanted to add my voice to the journalists and artists that are focusing on the AIDS issue." After that Simon made more trips to Africa and worked in Ethiopia, Mozambique and Lesotho. When his publisher at Charta expressed an interest in publishing a book of the images, Simon took himself back to Africa for five weeks earlier this year.

Flory Kolobe, is surrounded by some of the 80 orphans in her program. Tsepong Counseling Center in Maseru, Lesotho, was established in 2001 to raise HIV/AIDS awareness in both rural and urban areas. It helps provide counseling services and HIV testing at the Senkatana Clinic Center while supporting identified orphan and vulnerable children.

Photo by Steve Simon
Steve Simon's work in Zambia had been in black and white but he needed to produce more color images for a Western audience. This wasn't in some way pandering to the publisher—it was a conscious decision to rally Western readers who actually have the means to help Africans. He hopes that the viewers are inspired by the pictures and are moved to help the doctors, teachers and others. If the public uses the book as a springboard to begin helping those in need, then the pictures become a positive step towards changing the world.

Here is my description of his powerful book in a book review for News Photographer in September:

Steve Simon's latest book, Heroines & Heroes: Hope, HIV and Africa, balances human tragedy with hope in sub-Saharan Africa (this is most of Africa, 47 nations in total). Unlike many books about HIV/AIDS, it does not focus on unmitigated suffering, unheralded with no end in sight. Instead, Simon embraces the whole situation real people find themselves in and features both those who help the sick and those who work to prevent the disease's continuance. The book captures an intimate portrait of small villages with small clinics making a big difference. Above all this is a story of people's humanity.

It couldn't contrast more with his previous, also excellent, volume The Republicans, about the 2004 Republican Convention in New York City, by the same publisher. Here, presented in black and white (a worldview, perhaps?) is the highly choreographed convention. People taking pictures, pictures within pictures, gigantic media screens dwarfing individuals. In the back, neutral captions label each image: "Arnold fist--August 31, 2004," for instance. Inside the hall, theater; outside, messy real life demonstrations.

Lesotho Funeral Services is expanding to keep up with the demand for its services as the AIDS pandemic deepens. Lesotho is one of the countries worst affected by the AIDS epidemic, with adult prevalence of 28.9 percent according to the UNAIDS 2004 Report on the global AIDS epidemic.

Photo by Steve Simon
In Heroines & Heroes, the book's 93 captioned photographic reproductions are printed on semi-gloss stock. Because there's little distracting shine to block the images, the pages, mostly color, carry deep and vibrant color. The expressive sequencing of this documentary work is indeed elegant. Beginning with beautiful vistas, it moves through impoverished villages, people singing in church and young couples meeting, dancing, wedding and includes dark figures of young prostitutes greeting potential customers. People receive care while others are at the end of their lives; death is a community affair and the business of death is always present. Grandmothers raise grandchildren and great grandchildren: generations disappear. Children are pensive, play and learn. The last two pictures are a wonderful coda to the images of many children: another sunny vista stretches out in front of a car driving along a modern highway (we are inside the car), and then, a simple red ribbon taped to a clean wall.

Texts are confined to one-page observations and back matter. Images are presented without captions, a sometimes irritating factor but here we are permitted to look and consider, allowing one photograph to comment on the next. Most are also presented without irony. There is one that stands in contrast to the others: a torn Christian crusade poster shows a smiling white minister promising not only to make the blind see but also to cure AIDS.

In the meticulous captions, every patient and all grandmothers have names. The captions also contain facts revealing the true devastation of HIV on the sub-Saharan population. We learn that young people, increasingly young women, are infected with HIV every 14 seconds. New infections account for nearly half of the new cases of HIV worldwide. Globally, there were 17.3 million women living with HIV in 2005 -- three quarters (or 13.2 million) were living in sub-Saharan Africa. And, around 72% (or 4.7 million) of all people in need of antiretroviral therapy live in sub-Saharan Africa.

The back matter also contains names of worldwide organizations, listed by type, fighting the epidemic. CARE, Save the Children, Youth Challenge International, Engineers Without borders (EWB) and the Power of Love Foundation appear, among others. Also included is a paragraph of description and contact numbers for each. In Heroines & Heroes, Simon reaches out to show us the humanity of people very much like ourselves and provides the resources through which we can help.

Steve Simon is an award-winning photographer. He received the Global Health Council Photography Award for his work on AIDS in Africa, the Canadian Newspaper Photographer of the Year and NPPA Picture of the Year prizes and an Alfred Eisenstaedt Magazine Photography Award, among many others. His solos exhibitions have appeared internationally and his work has been published in a variety of publications including (German) Geo, Life, Le Monde, Mother Jones and The New York Times. His Web site is

© Marianne Fulton
Senior Editor

Marianne Fulton has worked in the field of photography as curator, editor, archivist and writer for over 30 years. From 1975 - 2002 she was at George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film serving as chief curator, acting director and senior scholar, among other positions. Fulton has prepared more than 80 exhibitions, including those with books such as Mary Ellen Mark: 25 Years, and Eyes of Time: Photojournalism in America, for which she was named Person of the Year in the Leica Medal of Excellence competition. She has lectured worldwide on 20th-century photography and photojournalism. She served twice as judge for Pictures of the Year (the only curator to do so) and for Women in Photojournalism. Fulton is on the advisory board of the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Award and has written for The Digital Journalist from the beginning. She is currently working on writing and book projects.