Photomosaic Illustrates AIDS Reality in Malawi


Photography project shows the complex and compelling stories of AIDS victims in Malawi.

By Ruth Jacobs

Ken Wong ’83, left, and James Goldring ’09. Goldring worked with Wong in Malawi on a project that became the photomosaic of AIDS victims in background.
Ken Wong ’83, left, and James Goldring ’09. Goldring worked with Wong in Malawi on a project that became the photomosaic of AIDS victims in background.
Photo by Beth Cole

Children show off their white teeth and cherubic cheeks. Mothers kiss and cradle their infants. Men pose in suit jackets with an air of confidence. A boy stares into the camera with a pronounced frown. These are the faces of AIDS in Malawi, but, thanks to Ken Wong ’83, they are more than that.

An East Asian studies major who delved into photography after Colby, Wong believes that these photos do not speak for themselves. As a documentary photographer, Wong had been covering the effects of AIDS in Boston when Harvard Medical School asked him to do something similar in southern Africa. He knew he needed more than a camera. “In the Nineties there were a lot of people taking photographs of people with HIV/AIDS, and it was all, you know, the really horribly skinny. And it was just a picture,” he said. “If there was a story about them, it was about how horrible their life is with HIV. I wanted to do more than that.”

Wong finished the project for Harvard but didn’t stop there. He founded the Face-to-Face AIDS project, a nonprofit that aims to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS in Malawi and Cambodia through two towering walls of portraits showing people affected by the disease. Each panel is flanked by a poster with a couple of sentences about each subject—the result of hours of interviews. The Face-to-Face AIDS Photomosaics came to Colby in March not because Wong is an alum but because of James Goldring ’09.

A mutual friend brought Wong and Goldring together, and during the summer of 2006 Goldring served part-time as Wong’s assistant in Malawi. Goldring returned to Colby with a clarity of purpose: to raise money for an orphan care organization and to raise awareness on his campus. “It is big,” he said. “But we’re doing it.”

In Malawi, Wong, often with Goldring, spent hours with each person, listening. Listening as Joyce Chingwalu, 52, said that she tries to eat plenty of soybeans and milk to remain healthy. When Chrissy Jamu, 23, explained her strict policy with the two teenage orphans she cares for (they must do well on their exams). When Patrick Mwakilama, 17, said that he took up carpentry because he couldn’t afford to attend school and support his mother and seven brothers.

Through that experience Goldring discovered what he could do to help. Back at Colby he set out to follow the community-based approach—supporting community organizations already helping people in Malawi. “I think it’s innovative,” he said. “I think only now, really, are the big organizations realizing that there’s this network of community-based organizations [CBOs] that have sprouted up all over sub-Saharan Africa and then elsewhere in the world.”

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  • On April 21, 2009, Susanna Schneider wrote:
    Almost thirty years and 300,000 miles after an impromptu Colby Jan Plan in Zomba, I can honestly say Malawi set the benchmark.