Dimensions of HIV-related stigma: exploring stigma through artistic practice

Dimensions of HIV-related stigma: exploring stigma through artistic practice

HIV Australia | Vol. 12 No. 3 | December 2014

By Peter Fenoglio

In July this year, I had the good fortune to attend the 20th International AIDS Conference and to stage an exhibition at the Brunswick Street Gallery, entitled A Decade of HIV-Related Stigma.

The exhibition, which was an official Conference Affiliated Cultural Event, investigated the impact of HIV-related stigma on social, family and community groups and individuals.

Stigma and discrimination continues to play a significant role in the lives of people living with HIV, affecting confidence, self-esteem, and quality of life.

Exploring the impact of HIV-related stigma on people living with HIV and instigating conversations about these issues forms the basis of much of my work.

My full body of work, which includes digital photographic giclée prints, installations, performances, objects and video artwork, is informed from both field research activities and arts-practice research.

I am an activist committed to making artwork that challenges people to foster an understanding of the experience of living with HIV.

My artworks establish meaning through image and association, which acknowledge challenges faced by people living with HIV and provide a dynamic cultural medium for investigating ongoing conversations of empathy and understanding.

Exploring stigma though arts-based approaches

The majority of people living with HIV experience stigma. The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon has identified stigma as a key driver of HIV epidemics worldwide:

‘Stigma remains the single most important barrier to public action.

‘It is a main reason why too many people are afraid to see a doctor to determine whether they have the disease, or to seek treatment if so. It helps make AIDS the silent killer, because people fear the social disgrace of speaking about it, or taking easily available precautions.

‘Stigma is a chief reason why the AIDS epidemic continues to devastate societies around the world.’ 1

While there is an emerging body of literature addressing and measuring HIV-related stigma, little work has been undertaken to capture the tacit knowledge of an experience only those living with HIV can express or articulate.

The conceptually mediated artworks I make, seek to capture the essence of this felt experience. Significant manifestations of HIV-related stigma are evident in the research literature and also in the stories of lived experience which I explore through my work.

These include manifestations such as isolation, protection, contamination, disclosure, avoidance, ostracism, exclusion, rejection, blaming, assumptions, difference and indifference.

These dimensions of HIV-related stigma are a main impediment to initiating and succeeding in HIV prevention.

Behind the face of HIV

One of my first major social-commentary artworks, a photographic installation comprising 85 giclée prints, exhibited at the Brisbane Powerhouse in 2003, resulted from photographing both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal HIV-positive men and women throughout Queensland.

This artwork, titled Behind the Face of HIV, Queensland 2003, explores the issues of HIV-related stigma and the discrimination in having to ‘hide’ one’s face.

I engaged with contributors to obtain information before I took photographs, which gave me a significant introduction to the HIV community in Queensland, and subsequently throughout Australia.

This artwork presents the visual data of the subjects’ ages and the first year of a HIV-positive blood test, as a symbol of stigma, the monkey that people living with HIV carry on their back.

The demographic interpretation of history and death, and the subject’s anonymity, compels the viewer to consider the significance of HIV-related stigma.

Behind the Face of HIV, Queensland 2003, portrays concepts of demographics, history and death, drawing inspiration from Christian Boltanski’s photographic installations which explore equivalent themes.

Since the subjects are anonymous, the viewer is directed to consider the caption on the back of each subject and to ‘make a date in history’.2

Behind Stigma: what is it to be HIV-positive

The artworks in the series, Behind Stigma: what is it to be HIV-positive, consist of four photographic-based, enhanced images which present the viewer with a textural plane arranged to produce a ‘slit’ through which only parts of images are revealed.

The image sections are black and white, with the other predominant colour either low-value red or a high-value red integrated into the remaining space.

This use of colour, combined with the device of the slits, establishes an area of attention or gaze for the viewer. This series specifically deals with the aspects of blame and assumptions made about the activity that results in HIV infection.

These assumptions victimise HIV-positive people and assign blame for the spread of HIV.

The works depict images of drug injections, vaginal and anal intercourse, and oral sex practices – acts which imply the possibility of HIV transmission.

The paradox signified in this work is the simultaneous desire to gaze on the acts represented by the images, and to disapprove of them.

In this way, the images explore the offensiveness of experiencing HIV-related stigma. HIV transmission and disease spread to the so-called ‘wider community’ is commonly attributed to the gay community or intravenous drug use, rather than to risk-taking behaviour and human nature in general.

These assumptions explain how religion and homophobia have fed an impetus to blame gays and intravenous drug users for bringing HIV infection upon themselves.

This thinking is reflected in a statement made by one of the contributors: ‘At first it was a real shock, but not unexpected because of my history and the activities [and practices] of gay men. All gay men, not just black gay men’.

The hidden but assumed provocation established by the viewer’s gaze and comments from HIV-positive contributors are visible and present in the artwork.

Banners 2011

Another photographic-based series, Banners 2011, investigates the assumed causal experiences of contracting HIV. Devoid of text, the five images displayed on banners attempt to ‘sell’ a conversation about unspoken acts that go beyond campaigns of HIV prevention.

Each image is representative of various bodily fluids and body contacts, including semen, blood, vaginal fluid and precum.

The images are stamped with a three-dimensional HIV cell logo, which gives the banners their historical and biochemical context, and establishes a commercial context.

Although this series can be displayed in either a gallery space or within a traditional commercial space for advertising, the banners are not attempting to sell any particular product (the usual function of such banners).

Placed in either space, the work commercialises the issue of HIV-related stigma and encourages further conversation. The viewer’s negotiation of the works as banner images leads to an interpretation that they are ‘advertising’, and therefore ‘acceptable’.

However, in this context, the content also establishes repulsion. At some stage, the viewer will realise what the banners are depicting, and this will hopefully create a moral conflict. The emotional response by the viewer is designed to mimic the feelings of stigmatisation.

As Mitchell argues, images demand the viewers’ concentration in order for them to become aware of the implications of the content.3

An HIV-positive contributor I interviewed as part of my research for this project said:

‘I have just disclosed to someone about my HIV status as a heterosexual man, and I can “see” the person mentally dealing with the assumptions they are making. “Does he have sex with other men, does he do drugs or does he have sex with sex workers?”

‘Their thoughts even go down to imagining the physical transfer of the virus. At this point I start to become internally stigmatised.’

This comment references why these images attempt to confront the viewer with the paradoxical sexual feelings and experiences that fester because of assumptions and blaming.


As part of the defined social commentary, my work takes a critical stance that the viewer could consider offensive. My choice to draw the viewer to the images and then to confront them is intentional.

This confrontation can instigate thought-provoking experiences about the nature of stigma. By producing feelings of conflict or repulsion within the viewer, manifestations of HIV-related stigma as expressed, experienced and felt by people living with HIV, establishing a genuine and significant presence.

My recent work within the research context of fine art and social science has focused on the impact of HIV-related stigma on social, family and community groups and individuals, and the possible resultant changes in cultural practice.

I intend in the future to further investigate this as well as examine how stronger leadership within the HIV-positive community can foster stronger resilience – resilience to confront the manifestations that sustain stigma, and allow a social cure that will enact the functional cure.

The mediation of my present social-commentary artwork resulted from involvement with both non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal people living with HIV for approximately the last twelve years.

This has enabled me to articulate the impact of HIV-related stigma, discrimination, and injustice.


1 Moon, B (2008). The stigma factor. Paper Presented At The 17th International AIDS Conference, Mexico. Retrieved from: www.washingtontimes.com

2 Boltanski, C., Obrist, H. (2009). Christian Boltanski, Hans Ulrich Obrist. KKist Ulrich ObrVerlag Der Buchhandlung Walther KWalt.

3 Mitchell, W. (2005). What do pictures want?: The lives and loves of images. University of Chicago Press, Chicago

Peter Fenoglio is a visual artist and arts educator. Peter was President of Queensland Positive People from 2009–2014 and is a speaker at the Queensland Positive Speakers’ Bureau (QPSB).