We are all equally valuable and able to create change in the fight against HIV stigma, regardless of our own HIV status. If there's one message Project Runway star and HIV-positive advocate Jack Mackenroth wants to convey with his latest endeavor, HIV Equal, it's that one -- and he's got a celebrity photographer and a bevy of photogenic community members to help him get the ball rolling.
Launching on Oct. 26 in partnership with World Health Clinicians, the multimedia campaign fights stigma by focusing on each person's individuality and value -- not their HIV status.
Because this is a social media campaign, it is heavy on the visuals, and the initial crop of photos is stunning. Like the NOH8 campaign, meant to raise awareness around marriage equality, HIV Equal will feature photos of people with the words "HIV=" body-painted on them. Participants who sign up to take a photo will also take an HIV test with an on-hand health professional as part of a greater effort to help end the fear around HIV testing.
Jack designed the campaign's concept in collaboration with renowned photographer Thomas Evans, while the testing portion will be headed up by World Health Clinicians cofounder and chief medical officer, Gary Blick, M.D. Regarding his involvement with the campaign, Dr. Blick said: "Approximately 26 percent of all new HIV infections are among youth ages 13 to 24 years; and of that group, 60 percent do not know they are infected. As a result they do not seek treatment which drastically increases their chances of illness and transmission of HIV to others. HIV Equal ... will change the way they think about getting tested. Knowledge is power."
Jack hopes to utilize social media platforms to disseminate the photos and gain national recognition around the stigma that he and many others living with HIV have seen firsthand. Jack was kind enough to answer some of our questions regarding the campaign, its aspirations, and what goes into getting such a huge project off the ground.
How did you come up with the idea for HIV Equal?
When I was brought on board at World Health Clinicians, media director and photographer Thomas Evans already had the idea of doing an anti-stigma photo campaign that involved an HIV testing initiative and eventually a PSA series. I came up with HIV Equal after thinking about how we are so stigmatized and judged by the labels "HIV positive" and "HIV negative," and I wanted to create a term that fights the stigma and illustrates that we are all equally valuable regardless of personal HIV status.
I collaborated with Thomas on the look of the photos because we wanted a very signature look that was recognizable but had not been done before. First, we designed the magenta "HIV=" logo and we loved the color on a black backdrop. Thomas was experimenting with different lighting and, when we tried the magenta glow in the background, we were both like, "That's it." Our tag line on every photo is "Everybody has an HIV status. We are all HIV Equal." And then, as a play on the word "status," an individualized caption at the bottom which reads "Status: ______"; each model picks a descriptive word that exemplifies part of their personality, illustrating that who we are as people is much more important than an HIV status.
It seems you built a message around HIV-negative and HIV-positive people working together. Can you talk about that?
Yes! We want to photograph everyone and anyone who believes in equality and fighting HIV stigma regardless of their own HIV status. HIV Equal is not about labeling individuals as HIV positive or HIV negative. The important thing is that we all know our status so we can fight the spread of the disease and get treatment if necessary, but we should [not] be judged by it. Everyone who is photographed also takes a confidential mouth swab HIV test. So, when other people see the photos, they will know that that individual cares about themselves and their community, and hopefully that will inspire others to follow suit. Many of the people photographed for HIV Equal are HIV negative; and I'm sure some are HIV positive, as well.
You call HIV Equal a "social art" campaign. What does that mean?
Well, it means a couple of things. We want our message of equality to spread though all types of social media as people share their photos on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and many other places. So that's one social element of the initiative. We also know that as HIV Equal grows, we can change the way society thinks about HIV and HIV testing and reignite the national dialogue. As we chip away at the stigma and more and more individuals bravely step forward to support equality and knowing their status, we can actually change the course of the epidemic.
By the way, you can follow us on Twitter @HIVequal and Facebook, or visit HIVequal.org for all the latest HIV Equal photos and behind-the-scenes photos and videos.
HIV Equal will start with celebrities. Is the idea that everyone will eventually be able to participate?
Of course. We reached out to some recognizable people at first just to get some traction for HIV Equal, and so others might recognize them and want to participate. We live in a culture of celebrity and flashy imagery, so we want to capitalize on that -- especially since the highest rates of infection are in young men from 13 to 24. We really want to appeal to that demographic.
How did you start working with World Health Clinicians?
I actually spoke at the ribbon-cutting ceremony of their new facility in Norwalk, Conn., this summer. Their chief medical officer, Dr. Gary Blick, pulled me aside afterward and expressed interest in working with me long term. So, I am now officially the director of public relations and special events.
After Project Runway, I spent four years as a spokesperson for an HIV education campaign. When it ended, I really had to decide which way I wanted to take my career. In the end, I decided that HIV education and outreach is more important than fashion design, so I wanted to continue in that field. World Health Clinicians is a nonprofit organization that really gives back to the community and is creating great programs domestically and in Africa. I was elated to be a part of such a great team.
How did you get a hold of the first few celebrities for the campaign?
Honestly, I went through my contacts and reached out to friends and people I've worked with in the past. After competing on Project Runway, I became an instant D-list celebrity, so I still have a few connections. [Laughs] Some of the other people we photographed are night-life personalities and friends of Thomas Evans; and others are people I know from my work in HIV, like activist Peter Staley.
What role do you think stigma plays in the lives of HIV-positive people?
I think stigma is the real problem in the fight against HIV today. The current medications allow an individual to live a "normal" life if they are diagnosed early and treated early. However, the stigma fills people with shame and can make them feel dirty or unlovable. Positive people often blame themselves, as if they did something wrong. I reject all that thinking. Unfortunately, many people internalize it and then they are not honest with their partners or potential partners, their families or even their physicians. Holding onto a secret that you believe is shameful is very stressful. That's why we need initiatives like HIV Equal.
How do you think we can best fight stigma?
I think honesty and visibility are key. When we go back in the closet about any issue, the stigma only grows. It's just like the civil rights movement or the LGBT and marriage equality movements. It would be great if everyone who was HIV positive would come out and stand as a role model for others. But that's a tall order to ask when the stigma is so strong. We need to keep reinforcing the truth: that there is no shame in being HIV positive, and that you are actually showing self love by getting tested and getting treated if you are positive.
The CDC estimates that over 20 percent of the gay male population in urban settings is HIV positive, but very few people will talk about it. That is crazy! Until we can all feel confident enough to be open and honest, we need campaigns like HIV Equal where everyone can fight the stigma regardless of personal HIV status.
What is your ultimate goal for the campaign?
We formally launch the campaign on Oct. 26 from noon to 5 p.m. at World Health Clinicians (618 West Avenue, Norwalk , Conn. 06850). It's an LGBT wellness event with an exhibit of all 30 of the original photos -- including Tony Award-winner Billy Porter from Kinky Boots; Congressman Jim Himes (D-Conn.); activist Peter Staley, cofounder of Treatment Action Group; drag superstar Bianca Del Rio; and many other fabulous people. Thomas Evans will also be shooting for HIV Equal at the event, so people can come and get tested and be part of fighting stigma. Check out our Facebook event page!
Mathew Rodriguez is the editorial project manager for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.