Kristen Ashburn: Kristen Ashburn’s photos of AIDS
Kristen Ashburn is an award-winning documentary photographer whose work portrays a provocative yet truthful look at some of the world’s most prolific problems. Her work is a fascinating and saddening insight into the unimaginable hardship experienced throughout the world. Kristen visits places that most do not want to go, meeting and photographing people that have experienced tragedy, hardship and turmoil. Her projects have included photographing: the people of Iraq a year after the U.S. invasion, Jewish settlers in Gaza, suicide bombers, criminals in Russia, and victims of terrible diseases such as tuberculosis. She also travelled to Sri Lanka to photograph locals dealing with the aftermath of the tsunami, and also those rebuilding their lives after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans.
Much of Kristen’s work has been featured in international press, including Time magazine, National Geographic and Life magazine. She has won many awards for her work and projects, including winning two World Photo Prizes.
AIDS project in Zimbabwe
Looking at her work, it is easy to see why she has received such widespread acclamation. Often photographed in black and white, it seems Kristen’s lack of colour symbolises the bleak and desperate situations faced by so many people living in some of the world’s most deprived countries. Kristen’s work is emphasised by her own passion and motivation to expose hardship deemed too shocking for mainstream establishments to broadcast. Her poignant, unedited images aim to show hardship in its entirety, not the watered-down version people often see and hear about. A recent project that highlighted her achievements was her insight into the lives of people suffering from AIDS. Her AIDS project was inspired by a recent trip to Zimbabwe – a country where 35% of the population suffers from the disease, and a whole host more are at risk of infection.
Kristen’s subjects are a range of adults and children, old and young, and men and women. The diversity of the subjects shows the broadness of the disease itself. It tells us that AIDS is not a problem that affects just one group of people, but a disease that can affect everyone. Although Kristen’s work appears to push the boundaries in terms of being uncomfortable to view, it clearly portrays a depressing truth that the viewer is forced to confront. Kristen often uses a close-up lens to zoom into her subjects, magnifying the face to clearly show the extent of the pain and suffering they experience.
Evocative and emotive, Kristen’s photos are not designed to shock, but to educate. Shocking as the images are, they are in no way meant to be sensationalist as Kristen’s sole aim is to raise awareness of the truth and the extent of the problem Zimbabwe faces through AIDS.
She often takes photographs of individual people, concentrating on capturing their facial expression and emotion, and often shoots against plain backgrounds. This positions her subjects as the sole focus of the photo. Her subjects are nearly always frail, vulnerable people; young children, starving families, pregnant women and the elderly and aim to represent the extent of the hardship they are experiencing.
Kristen’s photographs take the viewer deep into the world of her subjects, allowing the viewer intimate contact with them. Each photo paints a very real picture of sadness and despair, presented in such an up close and personal way that it forces the viewer to think and – more importantly – to act, be it through volunteering or donating to charity. Kristen’s work is designed not to be ignored. Her blunt portrayal of her subjects is designed to be a stark reminder of the hardship experienced by so many people, and her images are purposed to be memorable and impactful in the mind of the viewer; a reminder of the contrast of life for these people compared to those others we see on a day-to-day basis living comfortable lives.
Kristen has recently turned her photographs of children with AIDS in Zimbabwe and Malawi into a book, entitled ‘I am because we are’. The title is born from the traditional Utbuntu philosophy, which represents how humanity is connected. The book’s publisher says of its content: “It should remind us that the fate of the AIDS orphans in Malawi is tied to our own fate, that we all rise or fall together.”
Jenny Shortbait is a freelance writer from England who primarily writes about gritty topics such as help for substance dependency disorder and has spent five years putting away money so she can spend more time focussing on her love of photography.