DON McCULLIN, the celebrated war photographer, will present an exhibition on AIDS in Africa, with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan presiding, at New York's United Nations headquarters on June 25:

I’ve been coming to Africa for 40 years. I used to cover a lot of wars and revolutions. You could say I always came to Africa for the wrong reasons. This time (traveling with Christian Aid and supported by the Kaiser Foundation), I’ve come with the right purpose. I think we have to stop ignoring what’s happening with AIDS in Africa. I would say to people at home, we cannot play the ostrich scenario any more. We must respond to people’s needs - - otherwise it is a form of genocide.

Last year, I sat in England and thought, What is the purpose of my life? What really interests me now? I’d been reading a lot of reports about AIDS in Africa. I thought, I don’t want to sit in England looking at the beautiful landscape; I should be doing something. I don’t need to be any better known as a photographer. I’ve published a lot of books. I’m not really looking for any profit here, and I know I am not going to shift the earth, but I’m damn well going to try to make people take notice.

When I got to Africa, I found that it’s not just a story about AIDS. It’s a story about poverty. I thought, This is a totally new ballgame. In a way, poverty is war. It’s a disgrace; it’s abominable. I found people sleeping in darkened rooms, lying on the floor, not even in comfortable beds the way we would expect to be if we were ill in a hospital bed. I found people who had no medication whatsoever, no food, nothing, living in intolerable conditions. It’s just unacceptable in terms of humanity.

The most appalling thing about this journey was going into these homes and never seeing any evidence of food. It disturbed me greatly. I thought, What must it be like to wake up in the morning with several children and say to yourself, where do I begin to find food for my family today?

One day, in Zambia, I went to a house where the door was shut. A knock on the door, the door is opened, a man appears, he’s wearing no shoes, he’s wearing socks with a toe protruding, there are two anxious children, obviously his daughters. You can see they are moved by their father’s condition. In fact, I’d go as far to say they are really afraid of their father’s condition. Obviously they have seen their mother die and they are watching - - and clinging to their last hope that their father doesn’t die, although probably deep down they realize he is going to die. There you have this trio of people clinging to each other.

But at the same time, alongside the sadness, you see this enormous quality of love. We joined home-based care volunteers, who visit people living with AIDS in their neighborhoods. They led us through some lanes, singing, ‘We are going forward, we are not going backwards.’ And I thought to myself, Where do you get this inspiration to think you are going forward when you have nothing to offer the people you are going to visit other than the spiritual love you are taking with you? And you yourselves are only one step removed from this same situation. They were very jolly, ready to laugh, they took life on. I was deeply moved by these people. I thought to myself, If I were lying in one of these darkened rooms, if I heard their singing coming towards me, at least I would say, ‘I hadn’t been forgotten.’

In terms of photojournalism, the AIDS issue has an enormous problem. It has to appear in print. Yet it’s so visually unkind to the eye. It infringes upon the comforts of magazines themselves because it’s difficult for the business side to run advertising up against certain serious stories, and AIDS is one of the most unattractive, powerful and important visual stories on earth. AIDS is the biggest human story on the globe at the moment. To give it prominence, we have to give it public hearing. But magazines are showing intolerance now because they’re saying, ‘Well, we’ve done that. We did that last year.’ The problem is, AIDS will go away from our imaginations if editors and photographers and creative people don’t constantly make it appear.

It’s a kind of turn-off. The moment you mention AIDS to editors, some of them, they get embarrassed. They are governed by their masters who are in the magazine and newspaper business to make money. When the word AIDS is mentioned, people look around to see if there’s a cup of coffee to be had or something to distract their attention from you while you’re talking.

By current estimates, by the year 2009, 15 million more Africans will die. In a way, it’s a form of genocide by the Western world and the drug companies by not showing responsibility to people who can’t afford to buy AIDS drugs. In terms of our Western money, it would cost two dollars a day to keep a person with AIDS alive. Two bucks a day. How can you deny someone a life for two dollars a day?

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