Technofile: Life goes on

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The Independent Culture
The story so far: Ralph and Sensa have four children, no work, and HIV. Sensa becomes a prostitute to support her crack cocaine habit, and dies in pregnancy. Their eldest daughter, aged 14, leaves home and has a baby. Ralph forms a new relationship with Lucy, who moves in, together with her two children. Lucy wants to have Ralph's child, but ends up with a miscarriage and HIV. Two of Sensa's children have been removed to foster homes; her eldest is pregnant again and contemplating an abortion; Lucy is 30 and facing death "like a bomb waiting to explode", as she puts it. Ralph is 39 and his life isn't going to begin at 40.

It's there in black and white, in Steve Hart's documentary photographs. But the further you go into A Bronx Family Album/The Impact of Aids (Scalo, Win/Mac CD-ROM, distributed by Thames & Hudson, pounds 22.50), the less black and white things appear. Hart makes his living from photojournalism; he calls long-term documentary his "life's work". With Ralph's family, his commitment has grown beyond vocation. He met Ralph and Sensa six years ago, at an HIV therapy group he had been observing, and something clicked between them. Steve's relationships with the members of the family are close and intense; the relationship between his role as a photographer and as a significant other is a delicate one.

His photographs are supplemented by audio interviews with the family, a selection of professionals, and himself. Donna DeCesare, a fellow photographer, notes that he portrays "not the moment of violent actions, but the effect". In other words, when push comes to shove, his reflexes are not those of a journalist. "The moment after the decisive moment", says Hart, may reveal much more about those caught up in the action.

His prime instinct, however, is to protect and affirm. It appears that there are points at which he intervenes in the family's conflicts, but that is family business. In what he shows to the outside world, he upholds the family's pride. Above all he loves them, and he wants to demonstrate the love they have for each other.

Despite the power and dignity of the photographs, and the effectiveness of the CD-ROM as a vehicle for them, it becomes increasingly difficult to synthesise an overall picture. Up to a point, that's as it should be. It allows viewers to know the individuals a little better; to realise that they do not divide into heroes and villains; to see from several points of view. But love isn't all you need. You need to understand something of the South Bronx, something of the bureaucracies which organise the world of welfare, and something of the political context. Although there are references to welfare cuts, politics is an appendix to this album. It is assumed that viewers have the necessary background

Of all the questions that come to mind as the stories unfold, one seems to test the limits of understanding. Why does an HIV-negative woman with two children seek to bear the child of an HIV-positive man? The suggestion offered is that women seek to prove their love for men by having unprotected sex with them. That may be part of the story, but it seems an inadequate explanation. So does the one which is not voiced here; that behaviour like this is simply the result of stupidity. The social relations depicted in the Bronx Family Album are so desperate, and the prospects for a good future so tenuous, that Aids seems like just one more torment among many.