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Photography Exhibit Displays The Strength Of African Grandmothers

Opening this month at the Daniel Spectrum Building in Toronto, the Unsung S/Heroes photography exhibit tells the untold story of African grandmothers on the front lines of the battle against the AIDS pandemic.

After losing their adult children to the AIDS pandemic, many African grandmothers are forced to foster grandchildren, entering the caregiver role once again.

Mainstream representations of the pain these woman experience isn't inaccurate—yet they only tell a fraction of the story.

The Stephen Lewis Foundation is telling the rest of that story with an exhibit in Toronto, Ontario called The Unsung S/Heroes as part of the Scotia Bank CONTACT Photography Festival, which runs through May.

While the hardship experienced by African grandmothers isn't excluded, the photographs in the exhibit also represent the strength of these women as a mobilizing force against the AIDS pandemic.

Alexis MacDonald, the photographer for the exhibit who's been involved with the organization for 13 years, says that telling the story accurately was about having her subjects control the narrative.

"We wanted to tell the diverse stories of these woman through their own voices and through their own lens of how they want to be seen."

Key to that process was the five years spent building trust with the grandmothers. With the help of partnering community-based organisations, the photos and quotes were collected in close consultation with the woman involved.

Adding yet another layer of meaning to the exhibit was designer Deborah Moss, co-founder of Moss & Lam design studio. Typically specializing in five star hotels and luxury retail, Moss who worked pro-bono on the project, says she relished the opportunity to tell a story with her design. "That's my world," she says of high-end design, "but to do something that has such meaning and relationship to real people meant something to me."

That passion seems to shine through in the design of the exhibit. The varying scale of photos hanging from the ceiling and at times consuming entire walls seems to pull you through the space.

And the quotes add yet another element to the already powerful photos. Displayed next to a photo of a woman carrying a child on her back, one quote reads: "All my children died. Now when I go out to the field to work, I go with a baby on the back, a baby in one arm and a hoe in the arm."

One photo (above) that consumes an entire wall is of Treatment Action Campaign activist, Mama Darlina Tyawana as she addresses a grandmothers rally in South Africa.

Like many featured in the exhibit, she's felt the effects of the AIDS pandemic first hand, raising her late sister's orphaned granddaughter.

When asked what it means to be featured in the exhibit she seems much more unassuming than the wall sized photo of her rallying a crowd of demonstrators. "It was a shock. I questioned why me? Who am I to be in a very big exhibition among these heroes," she says.

But after undeservingly excluding herself from her counterparts, she seemed to confirm that the story told in the exhibit is in fact the story she and others like her want to tell. "For the people that come, I hope they will see that there are s/heroes that are not known. There are those who are unsung. Who are not being talked about," she says. "They will see the work the sheroes are doing."