Undoing Stigma

On photography, AIDS/HIV and social stigmatization
Essay published in the catalogue of the Moscow project by Dutch photographers Martine Stig and Viviane Sassen commissioned by ArtAids (Rotterdam: Veenman Publishers, 2008)

At the heart of the HIV/Aids problem lies the question of social stigmatization –that is, the creation of what Erving Goffman described as ‘spoiled identities’ –identities labelled as deviant and therefore deemed unfit for full social acceptance.1 Central to this process of exclusion is the task of tagging and identifying, which involves the creation of distinctive regimes of visibility. In Ancient Greece, ‘stigma’ was the mark placed on specific individuals to draw attention to their disgrace or infamy, thereby preventing them from participating normally in community life. Today, new ways of making visible, or revealing states said to be ill-fated, have become current. As a modern visual technology, photography has become instrumental in creating contemporary iconographies of the varied identities classified as anomalous and irregular. With their Moscow project that has given way to this book, Dutch photographers Martine Stig and Viviane Sassen have attempted to undo the stigma surrounding the history of photography as a tool of symbolic oppression and thereby create a new imagery around the global issue of HIV/Aids.

When photography was invented in the early nineteenth century, it seemed to have come to fulfil a long-lasting Western wish or prophecy –the advent of a perfect reproduction of reality. Yet, it was the truthful appearance of photographs rather than their objective nature that guaranteed their authenticity and ultimately secured their ideological impact. The seamless transparency of the photographic medium –the idea that it was the brush of nature itself that drew directly on the celluloid allowed for the rise of a fundamental, yet pervasive, misunderstanding: the assimilation of photographs to indexical signs.This misconception was compounded by a second illusory belief: photography was said to allow for hidden things to be revealed. Photographs did not solely depict, they made visible what remained ungraspable for the eye. The extreme realism of photography justified the belief in its worth as evidential truth; it provided a ready technology to create the regimes of visibility needed to legitimate the alleged deviance of stigmatized identities –identities that were said to jeopardize the codes and conventions of social normalcy.3 As Georges Didi-Huberman argues in his seminal book, Invention of Hysteria, photography was instrumental in fashioning a contemporary iconography of madness for the incipient psychiatric discipline;4 the same holds for corruption and barbarism in the frame of colonial5 and legal institutions.6 Just as a stigma, photography not so much represented as it performed; it served to inscribe a mark on the social body. It stigmatized.

Bearing in mind these considerations on the ideology and history of photography, it should come as no surprise that writer and art collector Han Nefkens chose to approach Dutch photographers Martine Stig and Viviane Sassen with what was a somewhat unusual commission: to preserve a small collection of evening clothes, made of fabric and condoms, which he had given on long-term loan to the Centraal Museum of Utrecht but which he now found out weren’t fit to be conserved since the latex was showing signs of disintegration.

Both in their personal and commercial work, together and alone, Stig and Sassen had developed a photographic practice aimed at investigating the widespread belief that to see is to know, also known as ‘immediate cognition,’ which amounted to challenging prevailing discourses about the photographic truth. With series such as After (1998) and D.P.R.K. (2002), Stig had addressed the knowledge-economy of photography in critical terms7 while Sassen created disquieting depictions of ethnic otherness in Africa, and imbued her fashion photography with uncanny distortions.Their shared preoccupation with questioning the identity politics of photography – and, by extension, the primacy of visibility in contemporary culture – matched the goals and means envisioned by Nefkens when he founded ArtAids, a non-profit organization dedicated to support Aids-relief by promoting art projects.

Stig and Sassen soon understood that Nefkens had purchased the seven condom outfits designed by Brazilian artist Adriana Bertini because they addressed the issue of HIV/Aids in a manner that was highly attractive and playful –and hence, quite unusual. Their own project wouldn’t therefore be merely conceived as the production of photographic records but rather as a way to revive the spirit that had inspired both Bertini and Nefkens in their respective endeavour: to generate public debate and to shape alternative images of the illness. This was intended to challenge received ideas about the HIV/Aids epidemics and to question the very apparatus that had been instrumental in bringing forth these stereotypes –that is photography.

Just as with the scientific and mainstream literature Susan Sontag had analyzed in her famous essay AIDS and Its Metaphors by the end of the 1980s, images of war pervaded media campaigns –most of which used photography as their support. Snapshots of dying men, grotesque depictions of homosexual love and portraits of HIV/ Aids pictured as a Third World, primarily African, problem, constituted the alleged evidences of the disease illustrated as a foreign enemy threatening the moral and physical integrity of the West.9 Against the paranoiac overtone of these apocalyptic visions, lightness and glamour characterized Bertini’s designs, which on the other hand still participated in a discourse built around images of women stereotyped as femmes fatales –that is, as exotic, dangerous, and corrupting. Alternatively, yet also focusing on women, Sassen and Stig tried to use the dresses not so much as metaphors for the need to talk overtly about a stigmatized illness, but rather as tools for generating what remains the object of most fears and fantasies today: direct confrontation and physical encounter with a disease that knows no border.

Bound to this anarchic imaginary, Sassen and Stig chose a city as background for their enterprise, as both city life and epidemics are said to create a similar context in which flux and anonymity prevail over monitored identities and vertical hierarchies.10 Just as HIV/Aids, the city is imagined to erase markers of difference and to flatten otherwise pyramidal social relationships. Throughout this metonymic space for anarchy and epidemics, Sassen and Stig went searching for the girls who would be able to fit the dresses they had brought along.

Exclusively featuring women sought to draw attention to the fact that HIV/Aids is not specific to the gay community but affects society as a whole. Also, the choice of Moscow as an urban site for their experiment stemmed from the idea that not only developing (African) countries are affected by the illness but also nations known for their developed economic systems. Carefully choosing the different social environments where they would attempt to meet the right girls (a ballet school, a bar etc.), Stig and Sassen’s project came to amount to categorizing the different youth subcultures to be found across the Global Village. Yet, far from encapsulating them, the self-imposed work guidelines Sassen and Stig followed didn’t result in the creation of stereotyped images. On the contrary, they function as a kaleidoscope, blurring borders and allowing shifting combinations of people and places.

What had started as a commission to archive dresses had ended up becoming a happening where photographers went strolling the streets of Moscow, reaching out to girls asking them whether they would like to participate to the project. After the initial stupefaction and curiosity dissipated, the women slowly forgot about the specificities of the dresses and started to act and to behave just as they normally would. Wherever they happened to be, they would model the dresses and strike poses to their liking. Their improvised demands commanded the motions of the camera, which no longer served to create a pre-fashioned stereotype of their subject. The women wilfully incorporated both camera and dresses to their daily environment, spontaneously turning the illness into something familiar, devoid of the mystifications and punitive metaphors of which HIV/Aids is generally endowed. On the other hand, the camera had become an invitation to share a moment of intimacy. And also the dresses had become much more than a mere reversal of stigmatic stereotypes; they had allowed Sassen and Stig to create an album of photographs that speaks about HIV/Aids as something unremarkable. To undo the stigma surrounding HIV/Aids amounts to that seemingly trivial, yet highly complex, process: to turn what is defined as extraordinary into something common and everyday. Cover results from such a minimal endeavour. It constitutes an intriguing fresco of ordinary girls, in ordinary places, doing ordinary things.

© Catherine Somzé 2008

1 – Erving Goffman, Stigma: notes on the management of spoiled identities (1963), (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1968).
2 – André Bazin, ‘Ontologie de l’image photographique,’ Qu’est-ce que le cinéma, 14th Ed., (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 2002), pp. 9-17.
3 – John Tagg, The Burden of Representation: essays on photographies and histories, (Minneapolis: Minnesota Press, 1993).
4 – Georges Didi-Huberman, Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the photographic iconography of the Salpêtrière (1982), transl. (from the French) by Alisa Hartz, (Cambridge, Mass., etc.: The MIT Press, 2003).
5 – James R. Ryan, Picturing Empire: photography and the visualization of the British Empire, (London: Reaktion Books, 1997).
6 – John Tagg, The Burden of Representation, p. 76.
7 – Juriaan Benschop, ‘Voorbij is het moment: foto’s van Martine Stig’ in STIG, (Belgium: Terra, 2004).
8 – Catherine Somzé, ‘To Be Young in Africa’, FOAM Magazine, summer 2007/#11, pp. 132-134.
9 – Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor (1977) and Aids and Its Metaphors (1988), (USA: Picador, 2001).
10 – Alain Cambier, Qu’est-ce qu’une ville?, (Paris: VRIN, 2005).