Positively Aware Rick Guasco
Rick Guasco

They appear poised, radiating self-confidence. But the individuals photographed for this issue’s cover didn’t start that way. After learning they were living with HIV, each found their strength by locating resources, educating themselves, and discovering they weren’t the only ones.

“I have been living with HIV for at least 19 years,” said 51-year-old Steven Johnson. “I say ‘at least’ because I don’t know how long I had it before my diagnosis. And then I hid my diagnosis for 13 years; I only disclosed my status if somebody told me their story. That’s when I finally knew I was not alone.”

Philadelphia photographer Holly Clark contacted the Wistar Institute to find people living with HIV for the cover of POSITIVELY AWARE’s HIV Basics issue. As part of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for AIDS Research, Wistar is one of 19 labs throughout the U.S. conducting cure research and clinical studies under the Martin Delaney Cure Collaboratory. When Wistar’s community advisory board learned of the photo shoot, several members—all of them long-term survivors—jumped at the chance to share their experiences, especially with those who might be starting out on their own journey.

“I want people to see that you can still live your life with HIV,” said China White, 50, who discovered in 1990 that she had HIV. “When I was first diagnosed, I felt sure that God had abandoned me, and I wondered why. As years went by, I realized that there is a divine purpose to everything. When I learned to accept I was living with HIV, I stopped feeling trapped by it. The clouds lifted, and now most of my days are sunny ones.”

“When I was first diagnosed, I felt alone and scared,” said Bill Freshwater. “I quickly realized that a wonderful community support system exists—all you have to do is be brave enough to access it. Support can be found in many different ways and places: don’t be afraid to try different avenues. Choose what works for you.”

“We still have much work ahead of us,” said 47-year-old J Nathan Bazzell, who was diagnosed in 1998. “That’s why it’s important that we continue searching for a cure, and better treatments. We have come a long way in fighting much of the stigma related to HIV thanks to the Undetectable=Untransmittable campaign. As people living with HIV, we have so much hope today, and more great prospects are coming.”

“You have to learn about HIV for yourself,” said Christine Johnson, 48, diagnosed in 2002. “That's why I am a peer educator, so that I can teach others the facts, and overcome the myths and the stigma. This virus does not see color, or how rich or poor you are, or what religion you practice. I am here to help the next person, to let them know they are still worthy of being loved. You are not alone.”

—Rick Guasco

From left: J Nathan Bazzell, Steven Johnson, China White, Bill Freshwater, and Christine Johnson, Photographed by Holly Clark at the University of Pennsylvania’s Claudia Cohen Hall. For more information about the Wistar Institute, go to wistar.org.