I had never been to Africa, let alone Tanzania. I had no idea what to expect or how to handle the task of photographing a group of young people living with HIV -- and who had been, in most cases, since birth.
In the early days of the epidemic,
there was little or no treatment available to children with HIV/AIDS. For kids like Ryan White, Ariel Glaser and countless others, HIV was a sentence to terrible and early death.
Now with medical advances and years of hard work done by groups like the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS foundation, mothers infected with HIV/AIDS rarely transmit the disease to their children if enrolled in a preventive program of medication and care. And those children still born with HIV, including those in sub-Saharan Africa, are reaching teenage and adult years with long healthy lives ahead.
In Arusha, we were scheduled to visit hospitals and clinics. Our guides from the Pediatric AIDS Fund wanted us to see the impact of their work. One member of our group, a veteran of the fight against AIDS, remembered Arusha's roads lined with stands selling coffins. Today they have been replaced by carpenters offering furniture.
Arriving at each facility, we were greeted with open arms and gratitude by smiling, healthy-looking children. They sang songs for us and told us what they wanted to be when they grew up. "A doctor,” one girl said -- like those that had helped her.
In these young people I found a strength I don’t often see back home. These kids aren't worrying about the right brand of sneakers or getting upset when someone else has the television remote.
They play soccer, make art and plan for their future.
So I didn't want to bring home pictures of children with sullen faces backed by stoic grandparents.
Instead I wanted to show their strength. I wanted to share what these children knew about living that we too often forget.
The last hospital I visited was Mt. Meru Regional Hospital, where I was met by 15 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 24. Many had lost their parents to AIDS-related complications. Because of intense stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS, many didn’t learn or share their own status until years after being orphaned. All have fought to survive, in some cases despite being shunned by their community or their own family.
One by one I asked if they would stand long enough for me to take a picture so that people all over the world could see their faces, and the potential that shines from them. I told them...
...I wanted others to see how we are more alike than different.
Mike Kepka is an award winning independent filmmaker and visual storyteller base in Washington D.C. He previously spent 16 years working as a photojournalist at the San Francisco Chronicle. His wife recently joined the board of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation; the Tanzania trip was the board's first field meeting. This set of pictures was made possible thanks partly to a grant given by the Oak Foundation.
ALSO watch the 5 minute short produced at the same time called "Anna's Story."