don’t look away

photographer Robert Semeniuk takes on an ambitious project to document the health crisis across the globe – here, he focuses on the Sub-Sahara desert in Africa where an estimated 24.5 million people live with HIV/AIDS

photo by robert semeniuk

These photographs come from the first leg of a long-term photo documentary project called “Personalizing the World Health Crisis.” It’s estimated that every hour 1500 people worldwide die of infectious diseases (including HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and diarrhea); over half of them are children under the age of five. In addition to these main killers are the numerous “little known” diseases such as sleeping sickness, river blindness, rotavirus and trachoma, which shatter families, jolt economies into negative growth, and destabilize security and food supplies.

I chose to begin this project in Botswana because it has one of the highest HIV/AIDS rates in the world and the San, or Bushmen, are among the poorest of the poor. For 70,000 years they have lived, untainted, in the desert. Now many live diseased, disenfranchised, and in squalor on the outskirts of dusty frontier towns such as Ghanzi and D’kar on the edge of the Kalahari. For two months last year, I lived in these places. I spent most of the time with Nanke, a single mother with AIDS, and her family, who suffer from TB, malaria and alcoholism.

…Documentary photography as storytelling is a powerful tool of social change and dialogue. Good documentary photographs make the ordinary become extraordinary, and honour the subjects. They move us, not through misrepresentation, but because they represent moments of looking more deeply at the subject than we had previously experienced…

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Robert Semeniuk was born and spent his childhood in Big Valley, a farming village of 350 people in central Alberta, Canada. He has been a full-time freelance author, photojournalist, environmentalist and human rights activist for nearly 30 years. For his first job he lived with the Inuit for two years, on assignment for National Geographic Magazine.


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