A review of I'm Still Surviving, an interactive digital exhibition featuring oral histories of women living with HIV/AIDS, directed by Jennifer Brier and Matt Wizinsky
I’m Still Surviving
Dan Royles, Florida International University
Jennifer Brier and Matt Wizinsky
I'm Still Surviving (ISS) is a living woman's history of HIV/AIDS. An interactive digital exhibition built on the Webflow platform, ISS features the oral histories of 39 women from Brooklyn, Chicago, and the Raleigh-Durham area, reflecting on subjects such as healthcare, family, and the importance of centering women in the history of HIV/AIDS. Taken together, their stories raise a set of surprising issues and experiences about what health means and how we can live in a world that centers wellness in direct response to systemic violence and racism.
ISS is a project of History Moves, a public history project based at the University of Illinois in Chicago (UIC). As with all History Moves initiatives, this exhibition was developed through a community-based participatory process. Our team worked with women narrators in each city, training them in oral history methods so they could step into the role of historian and interview each other to produce the narratives that make up the core of this project. In addition, the women participated in workshops to help determine the interpretation, framing, and design of these public-facing narratives.
The result is a dynamic digital exhibition showcasing both text and audio excerpts from each woman, which are curated into narrative themes and also compiled into a complete archive where they are searchable by keyword and location. Like the lives of the women themselves, the exhibit balances themes of hardship and systemic injustice, such as incarceration, surveillance, and drug addiction, with themes of strength and healing, such as parenting, faith, and community care. Each theme is framed by relevant archival photos, which the women helped us select, and that contextualize the women's stories in the specific geography of their region.
Our team is led by Jennifer Brier who has years of experience researching women's history of HIV/AIDS as well as designing community-based public history programs. Her collaborator in History Moves, Matthew Wizinsky, is a designer, researcher, and associate professor at the Ullman School of Design at the University of Cincinnati (UC). With the help of his students at UC, Wizinski designed the exhibit’s website. This project was also enabled by a key relationship with the Women’s Interagency HIV Study, which connected us with our narrators and facilitated our collaboration.
As a community-based project, our core audience consists of the communities directly around our narrators: the researchers, providers, and fellow patients at their clinics as well as their friends, family, and neighbors (if they are open with their HIV status). In order to reach this audience we have collaborated with our local partners to spread the word, targeted local media for press coverage, and hope to soon put up posters with QR codes for street engagement. Our secondary audience consists of the broader community of HIV/AIDS survivors, providers, and advocates.
Since publishing the digital exhibit, we’ve received press coverage in both local and national media outlets and HIV-focused publications. We have also published scholarly articles about our work in journals such as the Oral History Review and had the opportunity to feature some of our narrators in academic lectures and panels.
I'm Still Surviving represents a distinctive form of public history because it engages new communities not just as audience-members but also as historians in their own right. In this way, the project folds into our narrators’ ongoing survival, providing another tool for their work of building healthy worlds and communities.
Over the last fifteen years or so, historians have turned their attention to the story of HIV/AIDS in the United States. Even as we have far more resources than ever for understanding this history, very few of these view HIV through the lens of women’s experiences. I’m Still Surviving (ISS), a digital exhibit based on interviews with 39 women living with HIV — many of them women of color — aims to change this.
ISS is a project of History Moves, a collaboration between faculty at the University of Illinois-Chicago and the University of Cincinnati that “works to transform historical subjects into history makers.” In this case, the subjects-turned-makers are HIV-positive women in Chicago, Brooklyn, and Raleigh-Durham who are enrolled in the Women’s Interagency HIV Study, an observational cohort study of cisgender women living with HIV in the U.S., funded by National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease in 1993. Through History Moves, the women were trained to interview one another, and then collaboratively curated excerpts of their interviews into exhibits for the public. ISS is one such exhibit allowing online visitors to interact with their stories via the sections titled “See,” “Hear,” and “Read.”
In the “See” section of the site, visitors encounter the five main “historical frames” posed as questions around which interview excerpts are organized. For example, “How can we center women in the history of HIV/AIDS?” and “How have women built healthy worlds?” Each of these frames then breaks down into specific themes, with accompanying explanatory text, and under which visitors can scroll through selected excerpts of interview transcripts.
The “Hear” section of the site allows visitors to browse the same material through a different pathway. Visitors can listen to and read interview excerpts that touch on a specific theme; they can also use a sidebar to navigate excerpts dealing with other related themes. In this way, the site organizes excerpts through a web of connections, as opposed to the more linear presentation in the “See” section. The “Hear” section is also less didactic, as it eschews the text that gives context to each of the themes in the “See” section.
Finally, the “Read” section of the site allows visitors to view the interview excerpts as a series of three books, one each for Chicago, Brooklyn, and Raleigh-Durham. These are largely static; visitors can flip through sample pages, download PDF versions of each book, or order them from a print-on-demand service. Although this section is less interactive than the others, the books are much more richly illustrated than the “See” and “Hear” sections of the site.
In the future, Brier and her team might expand ISS by pulling in additional content, including the visual materials included in three books. At present, the project has a "Visual Archives" section that allows users to browse digital assets from the project by type, although it consists almost entirely of quotes from oral histories, with only one historical image. Why not make the rich content that is available in the book PDFs searchable and browsable in a different way, such as through the site's "Visual Archives" section?
ISS succeeds in elevating the stories of the women involved. The website and accompanying books are attractively designed, with a rich aesthetic that gives added weight to the material. But the real beauty of the project is in the way it involves women living with HIV, whose voices have been marginalized in histories of the epidemic, to say nothing of broader narratives, in representing their own stories to the digital public.