Amazed and concerned

A Dazed & Confused special focuses on the astonishing resilience of young South Africans in the face of poverty and Aids. There's a lesson for us all, says Ian Burrell

The sight of a beautiful young woman on the cover of a magazine dedicated to fashion and culture is hardly surprising - except that this one, like the friends shown around her, is HIV-positive. Pictured by Rankin - a photographer better known for his iconic portraiture of power brokers (Tony Blair) and supermodels (Helena Christensen, Kate Moss) - Thoko Masilela is a 27-year-old unemployed South African who was diagnosed HIV-positive last year.

The sight of a beautiful young woman on the cover of a magazine dedicated to fashion and culture is hardly surprising - except that this one, like the friends shown around her, is HIV-positive. Pictured by Rankin - a photographer better known for his iconic portraiture of power brokers (Tony Blair) and supermodels (Helena Christensen, Kate Moss) - Thoko Masilela is a 27-year-old unemployed South African who was diagnosed HIV-positive last year.

She has been chosen as a cover star because Dazed & Confused, the magazine that Rankin runs along with his co-publisher Jefferson Hack, has elected to dedicate its entire forthcoming issue to the youth of South Africa. That meant focusing not only on the emerging trends in a 10-year-old democracy - such as the home-grown kwaito music scene - but on the attempts of young South Africans to live with Aids and poverty.

For Rankin, the experience was "like being slammed down to earth very quickly". He admits: "My job is kind of shallow really: I photograph supermodels and celebrities all the time. This was a chance to photograph some real people who had real problems and issues, but who were really positive about their lives and how they wanted to be represented."

The two-day cover shoot was done in downtown Johannesburg, once a financial quarter but now more often associated with poverty and crime. Rankin says that he was not entirely convinced that what he was doing was going to make a difference, but he was won round by the enthusiasm of his subjects. "You have this kind of moral dilemma when you go to places like South Africa. You want to be able to do something but there is very little you can do.

"I felt like I wasn't giving enough time and energy, but doing something positive is the most important thing. All the people who were there were just really excited [by the project], because in South Africa, HIV is a very negative thing and people with Aids aren't allowed to work."

As the young people waited for their turn to be photographed, they talked about their favourite kwaito musicians, the football stars of the Champions League in Europe, the natural landscape of South Africa - and how long they had to live. Rankin claims that, despite 30,000 Aids deaths a day in Africa, the continent has been reduced to "charity and other-worldliness" in the minds of the British public.

The photographer realises that he contributes to Britain's celebrity-dominated news diet, and he hopes that dedicating an issue of his magazine to South Africa will help redress the balance a little. "My world is so much about money and surface. It's almost the epitome of what's disgusting about the Western world; that we care more about what clothes we wear and what car we've got and whether we are fat or thin... when there are people dying."

The result is a magazine that high- lights both the plight of young South Africans and the country's vibrant culture. Masilela was chosen as the cover star purely because of her looks, Rankin says. "We wanted somebody to be really beautiful and attractive to people who might buy the magazine."

Because of this, Rankin is not certain that readers will immediately grasp the message on HIV. That will come across when they turn to a piece written by a leading South African journalist, Justice Masala, who at the age of 33 was editing the daily broadsheet paper This Day. Masala's article tells the stories of Masilela and the other 18- to 30-year-olds on the cover, and relates their struggle to live with their condition.

"I don't have time to see my friends as much as I used to, as my free time is spent with my support group," Masilela says. "When I found out I was HIV-positive, I just cried, as I've been with my boyfriend for six years and he hasn't got HIV."

The Dazed project has created such a buzz that Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Bono and Sir Bob Geldof have each contributed interviews. Jefferson Hack says that getting such figures to participate gains the project an "incredible amount of authority". Tutu presided over the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, "one of the most important stories to come out of South Africa in the last 10 years," and Bono, the front man of the group U2, helps to convey that even pop stars can be conscious of the need to help others.

"Bono is a very compassionate human being," Hack says. "He brings a spiritual element to the issue. Entertainment ultimately presents itself as a 'me' culture and Bono, as a rock star, puts across the idea that, 'It's not about me, it's about people.'"

Hack admires Geldof for his ability to gauge local needs. "He is portrayed as a motormouth, but in a way he's the opposite of that. He listens to what people have to say about aid in Africa and is incredibly smart about not imposing our ideals or political and social systems on to their framework."

He says the idea for the South Africa special came after members of the magazine's editorial team returned from assignments excited by the developments in youth culture there. He says that giving a voice to the young people of South Africa will give context to the way the country is reported in the mainstream British media. "I think the wider media are very quick to put everything into easily-labelled boxes. They end up reducing everything to a basic emotional level of, 'It's all terrible' or 'It's good vs evil.' They want to offer quick solutions to situations, [but] the problems in South Africa are going to take a lot of money and time, and it has to come from within as well as outside."

The magazine is donating 10 per cent of the issue's advertising revenue to the Elton John Aids Foundation for the African Solutions to African Problems (Asap) project. It is also organising a postcard lobby of politicians aimed at increasing funding for the International Aids Vaccine Initiative.

This is not the first time Dazed has dedicated an issue to one cause. Six years ago, it covered disability, with a cover featuring disabled models, and it has run a story using models who have had surgery following breast cancer.

Hack says the special edition - which will be made available in South African cities at a reduced price - will help British readers to appreciate more what they have. "We are using this issue to look at ourselves and rethink our own apathy and privileges, and lack of political interest and debate. Britain has a great lack of enthusiasm for anything home-grown. We have an incredibly vibrant culture of creative thinking, but we put ourselves down," he says.

"You look at a situation like South Africa, where so many people have got nothing and Aids is wiping out a massive part of the population, and yet they can be so positive about their own culture. We can look at that and then look at ourselves."

The 'Dazed & Confused' South Africa special edition is out on Wednesday. For information on the postcard lobby, see www.fabrica.it/futurepositive

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