'30 Years/30 Lives' -- a Postscript

This South African man is an AIDS victim who is blind and struggling to take care of his daughter after his wife's recent death.

Kimberly Vrudny

Poverty, fear, suffering, mortality. All of these conditions and more permeate the exhibit 30 Years/30 Lives: Documenting a Pandemic -- along with a strong but understated current of hope for a world where inequities and injustices often reign supreme.

The photo exhibit by Minnesota professor and theologian Kimberly Vrudny kicked off with an artist's lecture late yesterday afternoon at Methodist University Hospital's Center of Excellence in Faith & Health. It looks at some of the faces of AIDS 30 years after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first announced that a new and deadly virus had entered the world. Since that 1981 announcement, about 25 million people have died of AIDS worldwide.

Part of the exhibit is at the Methodist center and part is on display at Church Health Center Wellness and St. John's United Methodist Church through the end of July.

Some of Vrudny's 30 photo subjects, whom she got to know during a year-long sabbatical that took her family to South Africa, Thailand, and Mexico, are HIV/AIDS victims or people connected to others with the disease. Vrudny's idea for what amounts to an extensive photo essay came a few years ago when she was in graduate school, studying the effects of the Bubonic plague in Europe during the Middle Ages.

She couldn't help but draw parallels between that pandemic and the AIDS outbreak in modern times -- particularly how religious institutions and society in general responded to those struck down by these mysterious diseases. Then, as now, getting sick was seen as a divine punishment for licientious behavior, complete with the shunning and labeling that so often goes with such assumptions.

That observation grew into Vrudny's desire to explore the AIDS pandemic in tandem with its 30th anniversary. But she wanted to raise awareness in an ethical, non-exploitive way by getting to know her subjects as people and giving them input into how their photos would be used. She also wanted to show that AIDS is not just a so-called gay man's disease or confined to the continent of Africa. It affects everyone, everywhere, in one way or another.

"In my theology, all human beings inherently have dignity," she said, continuing, "I'm trying to get us to recalibrate how we see (social justice issues like this)."

Before taking off for parts far-flung in 2009, Vrudny brushed up on her photography skills. Then she, her husband, and two young sons embarked on a journey in which they volunteered for various relief organizations that connected them with AIDS victims. South Africa was their first stop because 70 percent of HIV/AIDS victims live in that country.

The man in the photo above was one of the people Vrudny got to know there, although they have since lost touch. He is blind and suffering with AIDS in a town with little food and water. His wife recently died of the disease and he fears for his 13-year-old daughter's safety.

To learn more about Vrudny's photo subjects or her reasons for creating 30 Years/30 Lives, visit http://30years30lives.org or the Church Health Center's online magazine at http://chreader.org.

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