Birthday

Polish photographer Marcin Lobaczewski highlights the plight of Ukraine's 700,000 AIDS victims. Click Play Video for an online exhibition

In recognition of Polish Cultural Week (May 7-13), we delve into the archive for another look at this fascinating, disturbing exhibition which ran at the Linen Hall Library in 2008.

'Sometimes people died. Sometimes they had a birthday.'

Marcin Lobaczewski's Birthday is an uncompromising collection of photographs taken in Ukraine's one and only hospice for AIDS sufferers.

Ukraine is the European country most seriously affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Of the county's 46 million inhabitants, some 700,000 are infected with the disease.

Despite this fact, Ukraine has only one hospice dedicated to the treatment of HIV victims. This hospice has been left to fend for itself by a government indifferent to the needs of its patients. With dwindling finances, few resources and not enough medicines to go around, the hospice remains a bleak place with a bleak future.

'A few people die here each week.' Marcin LobaczewskiIt is for this reason that Lobaczewski choose to visit the facility.

'AIDS is spreading throughout Ukraine very fast. Mainly, there are two reasons for this: drug addiction and prostitution,' he explains.

'The city in which the hospice is located is a harbour city, one of the richest in Ukraine. Yet these people are not given enough medicine because they don’t have enough money. My information is that the money is there, but that it will never reach the people.'

Lobaczewski documents life in the hospice without sentiment.

All of the images in the exhibition have been developed in black and white, making the long corridors and shadowy corners of the hospice appear dark and desolate. Gaunt patients treat themselves by injecting medicine into their legs. Others suffer alone in their beds, their eyes betraying the desperation that grips them as certainly as the virus itself.

Birthday is not an exhibition for the faint hearted. Lobaczewski, a multi award-winning Polish press photographer who won first prize in the 2007 Polish Grand Press Photo Competition with the exhibition, admits that, although the project was the most rewarding of his career, it was also one of the most diffcult to photograph.

'I knew about the existence of this place,' Lobaczewski says. 'I had been interested in the project for two years. I found it and got all the necessary permission to visit the place. I got to know all of the people. They trusted me. That was the only reason that it was possible for me to take the pictures.

'In general the exhibition has been well received. But there have been 'There is merely one hospice for those infected with and dying of AIDS in Ukraine.' Marcin Lobaczewskisome people who have walked in and then walked straight out of the exhibition, because they could not continue to look at the pictures.

'It’s a very strong document. Even when I was working on it, it was very hard for me. Let’s say I got used to it. People who come to the exhibition aren’t used to such pictures.'

Although the exhibition will not be shown in Ukraine (a condition of the patients who consented to be photographed) it has been exhibited in other European countries and will continue to do so. 

Lobaczewski admits that, for those infected with the virus in Ukraine, solutions will not be forthcoming under the current government. With contraction figures increasing year on year, he hopes only to educate the public as to the realities of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Europe in the 21st century.

'This is a very simple rule of journalism: I want to inform. It’s up to the individual to choose whether or not they want to be affected by the images and try to do something about it.'

Lee Henry