About 20 international photojournalists will launch an exhibition in Tokyo later this month to portray the spirit of people in Asia living with HIV/AIDS and their caregivers.

Organizers hope the event will help Japanese infected with HIV — most of whom hide their illness out of fear of being stigmatized — to find role models and improve public understanding of the plight of HIV-positive Asians.

The show, which has toured the Asia-Pacific region, is also aimed at promoting awareness that the number of people with HIV has surged in Asia, with one U.N. agency saying, “The window of opportunity for bringing the HIV/AIDS epidemic under control is narrowing rapidly in Asia.”

The Geneva-based Joint U.N. Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) has stated that the number of people living with HIV in Asia and the Pacific stood at 7.2 million in 2002, the second-largest figure by region after sub-Saharan Africa’s 29.4 million.

The exhibition, titled “Positive Lives,” will run between Sept. 19 and Oct. 18 at a gallery in the United Nations University. It will be the largest photo show in Japan to focus exclusively on HIV/AIDS, the organizers said.

The event will showcase some 120 photographs, including 12 by Osamu Kikuchi, a Tokyo photographer who covered the life of Hiroshi Hasegawa, one of only a few people in Japan who have publicly acknowledged having been infected with HIV through sex.

One photo from China shows two men inflating condoms at a Red Cross AIDS seminar to teach the public about how HIV is transmitted and how to prevent its spread.

An image from Thailand captures an HIV-positive monk throwing his arms open in front of a large Buddha statue, crying in a caption, “Lord Buddha, save me!”

UNAIDS said there were a million HIV-positive people in China in 2002. Unless effective measures are implemented rapidly, 10 million Chinese will have HIV by the end of the decade — a number equivalent to the population of Belgium, it said.

“Asia is potentially the next hotbed for HIV/AIDS,” said Kevin Ryan, project director for Positive Lives, set up in 1993 by London-based Network Photographers Ltd. and the Terrence Higgins Trust, a British HIV/AIDS service charity.

Positive Lives has toured Asia-Pacific countries since 1998, including Australia, China, India and South Korea.

“Ignorance and prejudice surrounding the epidemic are fueling its rapid spread,” Ryan said.

One of Kikuchi’s works shows Hasegawa, a 51-year-old Tokyo activist for HIV/AIDS issues who is openly gay, greeting a friend with a smile at an outdoor cafe in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district.

“I want to tell the public about the power of positive living for the future — things that I saw in Mr. Hasegawa’s life for the last 2 1/2 years,” Kikuchi recently told Kyodo News.

Kikuchi, 35, was contacted by Network Photographers in 2001 and asked whether he was interested in taking part in Positive Lives. He said the photo agency appreciated his award-winning photo book, “Light in the Shadows,” which contains war images from areas such as the former Yugoslavia, Chechnya and East Timor.

Kikuchi photographed Hasegawa’s friends, AIDS activists, an HIV expert and a sex worker who all support his fight against the virus. Kikuchi calls the group an “HIV community.”

One “community” member is Ryuhei Kawada, a hemophiliac who became a symbol of the struggle for justice involving HIV patients in Japan. He is one of 1,432 hemophiliacs in the country who were infected with HIV through unheated imported blood products in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Nearly 550 of these people have since died.

According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, a total 7,696 people in Japan had contracted HIV/AIDS through sex as of the end of 2002.

But unlike Hasegawa, very few people can speak out in conservative Japan and tell others they have HIV due to fears that they will be forced out of their jobs or lose their friends.

“Through this exhibition, I want the public to learn that HIV-positive people can live in the same way as other people,” Kikuchi said. “They can eat, sleep, work and have all sorts of fun, just like ordinary people.”

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