In photos: What stigma looks like to me

Can you picture what it might be like to be a young person and gay or transgender, selling sex or living with HIV, in a country where you’re highly stigmatised?

Young people, aged 10-24, in Myanmar and Bangladesh have been documenting their lives and vocalising what’s important to them through two photography projects:

I have to hide my sexual orientation because of my society and family.

Arif, Bangladesh

[My friend] is a male sex worker... He became HIV positive 5 years ago but has not yet started treatment. .. He is worried that if he goes to access services his clients may find out. He relies on sex work for money for his future. He is careful to always carry condoms so as not to spread the disease, but if his status became public he worries that he might lose his livelihood.

Arkar, Myanmar

I am a transgender woman, my family and society always discriminate against me, but I don’t allow it to stop me continuing with my life and socialising with friends.

Char Coal, Myanmar

Photovoice

During a PhotoVoice workshop participants not only learn essential photography skills but also gain confidence and experience in how to create a body of work on an issue they want to advocate on. Both workshops brought young people with a broad range of experiences together but all with three things in common.

  • Firstly, they have all experienced stigma and discrimination simply because of who they are.
  • Secondly, because of discrimination they and their peers face an increased risk of being affected HIV. Factors which increase risk include being thrown out of home, having limited employment options, and fear of accessing health services. 
  • Thirdly, they’re not about to settle for this. They want to access their rights and see a change in their community by challenging the stigma and discrimination.

Through the images created the young photographers hope to reach a broad range of people with their messages and help to increase acceptance. As Arif from Bangladesh put it in his captions: “A flower is a great creation of nature, and homosexuality is simply another one.”

From Myanmar to Melbourne

As the young people hoped the messages are indeed getting far and wide. The first project was in Myanmar back in 2014 with a group of young people called the Myanmar YouthStars, which culminated in an exhibition for the public in Yangon. Choosing the bustling People’s Park as the location meant that issues that are normally taboo were made very accessible to the public.

“The main thing I want to get from the exhibition is that when the general public see my photos it might change their minds. I’m looking forward to reducing stigma and discrimination towards young stigmatised people,” Arkar, Myanmar.

Since then their photos have been exhibited at the 2014 International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, to an audience largely made up of policy makers and health and development organisations, and this month (June 2015) they’ll be showing at an exhibition for UK Members of Parliament and civil servants at the Department for International Development.

This time the YouthStars’ photos will be joined by young people’s from Bangladesh. Both projects took place as part of the Link Up project designed to improve the sexual and reproductive health and rights of more than one million young people living with and affected by HIV in Bangladesh, Burundi, Ethiopia, Myanmar and Uganda. A selection of images from both projects will also be shown at TransPride in Brighton in July 2015.

From Myanmar to Bangladesh

The original training with PhotoVoice in Myanmar trained new facilitators as well as young photographers. This meant that Alliance Myanmar colleagues could support the design of the Bangladesh workshop, fulfilling the original project intentions that future projects could be run at a lower cost, and share learning across the region.

In terms of learning, young people from both countries observed numerous similarities. Many we were already aware of, and were in part the reason for running the workshops, such fear of disclosing sexuality or positive HIV status, and a risk of violence for sex workers and LGBTI. Issues such as fear of police harassment were highlighted through ingenious ways that sex workers would hide condoms to reduce the likelihood of being identified as selling sex. It also highlights how harassment makes it harder for people to protect themselves.

Others were more anecdotal insights, which once revealed, quite simple practical solutions could be explored, for example:

“Sex workers are not allowed to hang their clothes and underwear outside the massage parlour to dry. This is because the owner is worried about people seeing that many girls are staying there. The clothes are not washed and dried properly and can irritate the girls’ skin,” MND, Myanmar.

Jamal in Bangladesh drew a parallel for hijras, a term for transgender people: “They cannot even dry their clothes outside because [of the] harsh eyes of the society.”

View the photos on Flickr here.

Link Up runs from January 2013 to July 2016. It is funded by the Government of the Netherlands’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs (BUZA) through its Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights Fund. The project draws on the strengths of a consortium of organisations.
The photovoice workshops were also made possible with funding from UKaid from the Department for International Development.