The fall of Communism, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and subsequent economic “shock therapies” have resulted in drastic changes all over Eastern Europe, with some countries being hit harder than others. For example, the male life expectancy in Russia has dropped to less than 59 years. Another example is the meteoric rise of the number of people who are either HIV positive or have full-blown AIDS in the Ukraine.
The Ukriane’s first HIV case was reported in 1987. In 2005, a whooping 1.7 percent of the population between the ages of 15 and 49 years was HIV positive or had AIDS (that’s 416,000 people - just for comparison, with a population of just over 300 million in the US this percentage would amount to 5.1 million people). In Odessa, a harbour town, from where the virus is believed to have spread into the Soviet Union, 16 percent of the inhabitants are estimated to be HIV positive.
This story is nothing but a humanitarian disaster - one that just like in many other countries is tightly coupled with drug use, poverty (of both individuals and the government), and prostitution (and one could probably pointlessly argue which causes which).
Andrea Diefenbach’s AIDS in Odessa shows the human impact of what I just summarized in those few words. Following the lives (and deaths) of several Ukrainians, AIDS in Odessa shockingly and soberly portrays what these aforementioned statistics mean for the people behind the numbers.
Diefenbach avoids several pitfalls with her work - it’s not overly sentimental, and it’s not overly harsh. It uses some of the visual language of photojournalism, while avoiding many of its clichés.
There has been a lot of talk about where photojournalism might be going and what it can do. AIDS in Odessa serves as a useful reminder that while sticking your camera into the faces of the filthily rich can make for entertaining photographs (with some undefined message), using your camera with empathy and pointing it at people who literally live in filth (in part as a direct consequence of those other people having exploited economic “reforms” so brutally) at the end of the day produces the work that can and will endure.