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Photographs: A selection of photographs in
Look Beyond The Faces & Stories of People with HIV/AIDS
By Michelle Valberg

The Faces & Stories of People with HIV/AIDS
- by Michelle Valberg

Written by Michael McLauhan

November 28, 1996

    Sometimes, something unbelievably tragic has to happen before we can even notice what's going on around us. It has been said about war that heroes are born when ordinary people do what they believe in extraordinary circumstances. They don't think about it. They just do it. In times of ace, it is perhaps more difficult. For one thing, circumstances rarely seem as compelling as in war. Extraordinary effort frequently goes unnoticed.

I have discovered an extraordinary person making a heroic effort in our midst, virtually unnoticed by her peers. In 1993 an event occurred which would reshape her life and ultimately consume the next two and a half years.

Book: Look Beyond The Faces and Stories of People with HIV/AIDS
By Michelle Valberg

The genesis of Look Beyond: The Faces & Stories of People with HIV/AIDS took place when a close personal friend of hers, Louis Turpin, died at the age of 34. The book is not a monument commemorating the death of the victims of this horrible disease. It is a testament to the lives of the thousands of men, women, and children who go on living, positively, without giving up, with HIV/AIDS.

This book is a collection of black and white portraits by Michelle Valberg LPPO of Ottawa, Ontario. The subject contributed the word accompanying these portraits. These people range in age from 70 plus to only 3 years old.

Professional photographers are, frequently, an obsessive lot. We come to this great profession obsessed with light and shadow. We are fortunate for in our work we can explore endlessly the intricacies of this gentle shadowplay as it unfolds in front of our lens and never even scratch the surface of the great depths of our visual universe. We are natural voyeurs. We are privy to many of the most intimate moments in our subjects' lives: birth, marriage, coming of age, new generations—it's endless. To be good at what we have to leave a bit of ourselves behind each portrait encounter. For myself, I have to find something that I can love in each of my subject. Then I can portray them with dignity, unmask them, show their vulnerability, their strength, and of course their beauty. I think that is probably true for all of us.

There is an immediacy to Michelle's work in this book. These people reveal themselves to her. They are vulnerable. They are naked. You can see that Michelle has laughed with them as well as shared their tears. Realistically, these are people living with a death sentence. In facing their own mortality these people have no choice but to learn what it is to live. They can teach us all what it is to truly be alive. Each day, month and passing year is a new gift to be opened and savored for what it is. Live life now, to it's fullest. In viewing the faces of these very real people one cannot help but feel empathy for them, their families, their loved ones. Tomorrow, but for the images in this book they may only be shadows, a light that was. To embark on this project took a lot of courage and even more resolve. There is a stigma attached to this disease. It resonates with a homophobic paranoia that cripples the natural compassion which should be our immediate response to this plague. Make no bones about it, PLAGUE it is. The people in these images cut across all social strata, all sexual preferences, all age groups. These people are our friends, our relatives, our mothers, fathers, our children, ourselves. Knowing this makes these images even more powerful. They are not strangers. They have revealed themselves to Michelle's camera and in so doing they have revealed themselves to us. These are intimate portraits. What makes it all the more personal is that on the page facing each image are words chosen or written by the subjects.

“Life is no brief candle to me. It's a sort of splendid torch which I've got to hold up for the moment and I want it to burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to the next generation.”—Chosen by Paul Gallant, Phg.105, written by George Bernard Shaw. These are not portraits which would do well in our salon. They are too real for that. This is the stuff from which the fabric of life is woven. It took courage for Michelle Valberg to complete this project. Her blood and tears are mingled with that of her subject's. This book stands as a testament to the compassion of this woman who refused to let a friend walk quietly into the night. Because of this book she has determined that he will not walk alone. For two and a half years Valberg traversed Canada. “From Vancouver to Newfoundland, I traveled and photographed people living positively with HIV/AIDS. My intention was to capture the people I photographed in very natural—settings.” She invested tens of thousands of dollars of her own funds in her quest. After overseeing the entire production through to the final published book, she donated all of the rights to the Snowy Owl Aids Foundation. This is a charity “dedicated to establish, build and maintain a financial resource available to organizations dedicated to AIDS education, prevention and direct support services.”

The book launch was held in the West Block of the Parliament buildings in Ottawa. Deputy Prime Minister Sheila Coops addressed the crowd of approximately one thousand souls in attendance. Two hundred and fifty of the initial run of five thousand copies were sold that first day. With national media coverage of the event, it wasn't long before Michelle found herself being interviewed on the Dini Petty Show. Things have snowballed from there. We would all do well to stop for a moment and see how this Ottawa wedding photographer has utilized her considerable organizational and photographic skills to help make this world a better place. Having it on myself reminds me of how much more we can all do.

As photographers we have the ability not only to change the way people view themselves, but as Michelle has shown us, we can change the way we all view others. The world is a better place because of Michelle Valberg's vision and determination. Perhaps this is the highest that we can all aspire to.


Michael McLauhan MPA, M.Photog., APPO, CPP is a photographer, writer and educator with a studio in Owen Sound, on the shores of Georgian Bay, in Ontario.


"Reproduced with permission - Valberg Imaging"

Valberg Imaging - Ottawa's premier photography studio & gallery

Look Beyond... The Faces & Stories of People with HIV/AIDS
- by Michelle Valberg
Written by Michael McLauhan

...positive attitudes are not simply 'moods'

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