By Darla Shelden
City Sentinel Reporter
The board of AIDS Walk of Oklahoma City and local artist Ashley Griffin, owner of A.K.A. Gallery of the Paseo district, have joined forces to raise awareness about Oklahomans living with HIV and AIDS in a project titled, “Red State: A portrait of HIV/AIDS in Oklahoma.”
John Greer, AIDS Walk OKC Executive Director said, “AIDS Walk OKC is partnering with Ashley to put together a ‘living art’ exhibit that uses portrait photography and ‘real life’ stories to place a face and voice to HIV/AIDS in Oklahoma, a “Red State.”
The sight and sound photography project began about a year ago and to date, Griffith has photographed approximately 60 people living with HIV or AIDS in the Oklahoma City area.
AIDS Walk Board members Scott Hines and James Siderias will chair this event along with Griffith.
When asked how the project came into being Griffith said, “AIDS Walk was looking for a project to help raise awareness about HIV/AIDS in Oklahoma. I had been doing jewel case photography for years and I wanted to take it to the next level and do a project that involved sound.”
“Scott Hines, who is a friend of mine said ‘what do you think about doing portraits of people with HIV?’ I had a great project in mind and it all just sort of clicked,” Griffith said.
Griffith says the project is two fold, “The whole point of the project is to show how many Oklahomans are positive and that HIV/AIDS is still very much a reality in today’s society. And secondly, how many people can be out about their status and tell you by facing forward, and the people who need to be anonymous face backwards.”
The individual photographic portraits, which are placed in jewel cases, are then arranged to create a rectangular grid.
“Behind the grid we will have speakers,” Griffith said. “As you approach the piece you’ll hear bits and pieces of the different interviews.”
“The hardest thing is you have to build trust,” Griffith said. “I feel I’m just now building enough trust with people in the community that they want to step forward and say, ‘Okay, I want to be part of this.’ I knew all along this would not be an easy road. It’s also a project that will be ongoing and I’ll possibly look at other states to visit.”
Funding for the “Red State” project was secured through support of the AIDS Walk of Oklahoma City Board. Griffith hopes to install the first exhibition of the finished work in a nontraditional public space. Expected completion date of the project is December of 2013 in time for World AIDS Day.
“We hope Oklahomans will join us in getting behind this cause and groundbreaking project,” said Greer.
Griffith does sessions primarily at her studio, but last spring she took the project to Oklahoma City’s Other Options Friends Food Pantry, which provides food, resources, services, and education to at-risk individuals and families, focusing on those with HIV/AIDS. “Other Options has been such a big help,” Griffith said.
Mary Arbuckle, Other Options Executive Director said, “What a unique contribution Ashley Griffith has brought to the State of Oklahoma to draw attention to the ongoing fight against HIV/AIDS. In May 2012, during the kickstart of her project, there was such silence as we heard the first interviews – the only sound I could hear were my tears hitting the floor.”
Griffith has posted several of the project interviews on her blog and on YouTube. They are poignant and sometimes difficult to hear. The brave people of Oklahoma that have come forward for the Red State Project should be honored for their act of reaching out to the public about this real and critical disease.
Red State Interview #1 said, “I’ve heard someone say that fear is your enemy and your best friend, because when you learn to overcome it, you become much stronger in the end.”
Tim, another project participant said, “I’m 48 years old and I’m a straight, white, Caucasian man. This is not just a gay disease, this is a community disease, and it’s affecting everybody.”
Griffith plans on taking the project to Tulsa and beginning January 2015, the Red State exhibition will show in Lawton at the Leslie Powell Gallery. Griffith hopes to exhibit Red State at the State Capitol and as many locations as possible.
Griffith said, “The issue of HIV/AIDS can still be shrouded in so much stigma and shame, especially in states like Oklahoma. I think that a lot of Oklahomans still see HIV/AIDS as a gay man’s disease. The truth is for a while now, the growing rates of infection are in young women and straight men.”
To participate in project Red State, call Ashley at 405-606-2522 or for more details visit facebook.com/redstateproject.