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Life Interrupted: Don McCullin shows AIDS victims abandoned, but still fighting

This article is over 17 years, 1 months old
Don McCullin’s photographs go beyond the usual images of AIDS, says Hannah Dee
Issue 1930

Don McCullin has taken some of the defining pictures of the 21st century.

His latest exhibition, Life Interrupted, builds on a previous trip to South Africa and Zambia with Christian Aid four years ago to address the growing AIDS epidemic in Africa.

Many of the people pictured in his first exhibition, Cold Heaven, are now dead. In the Nkwazi compound in Zambia people live next to the expanding Kawana cemetery.

A grieving relative stands over his sister in law’s grave. He says, “The gravediggers have the most secure job in Zambia. It is big business here.”

More than 8,000 people die of AIDS every day, the majority in Africa.

In many of the photographs in this exhibition we see the children who are left behind – and know many of them will face the same fate.

In some other cases McCullin finds that the people he met in South Africa on his first trip had recovered.

One is Charlie, who says, “I thought I would die,” but is now a carer for HIV positive people. Charlie was able to get access to anti-retroviral drugs.

It was AIDS activists and campaigners in South Africa who successfully fought against multinational drugs companies and global patenting laws to make the import of cheaper drugs possible.

However, in a country where 5.6 million people with HIV live only 80,000 have access to these drugs. It’s like applying a plaster to a body in triage.

In Zambia the cost of the drugs puts them totally out of the reach of the poor.

Back at the Kawana cemetery people are burying Nzali. Her brother in law had almost saved the £10 required to start her on treatment, but she died waiting.

It is outrageous that the pharmaceutical industry, backed by the US and British governments, has continued to tighten trade laws to prevent countries importing cheap AIDS drugs.

In the Nkwazi compound the community suffers further because their water has been privatised and the IMF has imposed caps on public spending.

The desperate poverty stands out in every single picture – the 13 year old boy with only a cup of water to nurse himself, the young women forced into prostitution, and the parents worrying how their children will survive.

These pictures go deeper than many of the charity and media images we see of suffering in Africa. Don McCullin conveys the stories of those living with AIDS and tell us something about the wider situation that determines the course of their lives.

The exhibition is linked to the Christian Aid campaign to get Third World debt cancelled and to pressure governments to raise the current paltry levels of global spending on AIDS.

Touring the country in the run-up to the G8 when Blair will be attempting to convince us of his progressive policies on debt and aid, the exhibition is a disturbing exposé of the true situation.

As Don McCullin says, “People in power go to meetings and come away patting themselves on the back. They are living a lie. They should come here and take a look for themselves.”

Life Interrupted
County Hall, London, until 9 January, and Oriel Washington Gallery, Cardiff, 11 January to 2 February. For further dates go to

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