COLUMBIA — For Keith Martin, a stuffed dog from his sister provides hope for the future.
HIV-positive since 1987, he recently participated in a research project by taking photographs to create a visual narrative of his life with HIV, which stands for human immunodeficiency virus and causes Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS).
Martin, 53, along with seven other HIV-positive mid-Missouri men, met in groups of four during a three-week period to discuss what each picture meant to him and how it related to the disease. The number of years participants have lived with HIV range from newly diagnosed to more than 25 years.
Eight displays, containing three to five images each, were featured in the Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services on Tuesday afternoon. All of the displays were made by the project participants.
Martin shared three pictures, including "Hope," the image of the stuffed dog. Another photograph, titled "Out of Hiding," showed teddy bears of various colors. In the project, a quote from Martin accompanies the image: "Being gay is a part of who I am....It isn't always easy being gay....We have to hide who we are, if they find out, they go after you....It's getting better though....I don't care what anybody else thinks is important. I don't feel like I have to hide it anymore."
Martin's third picture, "Best Friends," showed two parrots and a cat. The importance of having friends and family helping you through the process of living with HIV is vitally important, Martin said. One of the closest people in his life, his partner, Gerald Garner, also participated in the project and attended the unveiling with Martin. Garner, 40, has lived with HIV since 1995.
Katrina Kline, 30, a friend of one of the eight photographers, visited the exhibit Tuesday and thought the pictures could keep the public educated and informed about staying healthy.
"It was nice how they're all different pictures but contain the same hopeful message," she said.
Michelle Teti, an associate professor in the MU Department of Health Sciences, helped organize the project, titled "Pictures that Speak: A Photographic Display on Living with HIV/AIDS in Mid-Missouri."
After conducting three related research projects — all with female participants — Teti collaborated with the Health Department in the six-month venture.
Dustin Hampton, an HIV-health educator with the Health Department, originally inquired if Teti was interested in performing another project with male participants, and she agreed. The department offered space for the group interviews and provided funding through a grant from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.
"Through my work with people living with HIV, they wanted a space to share their lives, and it was a very rewarding experience for them," Teti said.
Teti found the participants via Rain-Central Missouri, an organization dedicated to providing non-medical care for people living with HIV and prevention education for the community. Rain-Central Missouri forwarded information about the project to individuals it serves, who could then contact Teti, Executive Director Cale Mitchell said.
"It's a wonderful project that gives a still-marginalized population a voice they wouldn't otherwise have," Mitchell said. "They are still very much a part of our community and (HIV is) something everyone should be aware of."
In the past, Teti found the projects helped women gain more control in their lives through expression "in the hope that they could learn something about themselves as well as educating the community." Through her latest project, Teti hopes to learn whether the process affects men and helps them better express themselves and improve their well-being.
Teti said she must still interview participants individually to gauge what they learned during the project. Martin thought the displays turned out well and that they will help raise awareness in Columbia, although he said he doesn't plan on taking pictures as a hobby. He also made new friends.
"We're still here," he said. "We're not going anywhere. We're human just like anyone else."
The displays will be available for public viewing at The Center Project, 300 Saint James St., Suite 104, for one month starting Friday.