four people rising up out of a large book and meeting each other, map of a globe behind them showing the connections between people of different countries.

Through the White Door: An Interview with Smiley Pool

Soon after I married my husband, he got sent to Romania on an assignment that would change both our lives. That week-long story turned into a 25-year photography project to follow the lives of a group of children living with HIV. I got to follow along and write for him.

I took some time recently to interview him about the experience of that 25-year journey, which can you read below. In celebration of World AIDS Day 2020, we’d like to share that story by giving away 2 copies of our book, Through the White Door, to H-I-V.net readers.

An interview with photojournalist Smiley Pool

Jessica Johns Pool: Tell us about yourself and how you got involved with the HIV/AIDS community.

Smiley Pool: Hi, I’m Smiley Pool and I’m a photojournalist. In the late 1980s and early 90s, I had done a few stories about HIV and, because of stigma, the subjects were always photographed from the back or in silhouette. They were faceless. The only time I photographed the face of a person who was HIV-positive was a newborn.

Then in the mid-1990s, my paper sent me to Romania with a team of medical professionals. The doctor I ended up following most closely was Dr. Mark Kline, a pediatric immunologist from Texas Children’s Hospital. Dr. Kline was leading one of the first clinical trials in the US to test antiretroviral formulas on children, and he was looking for ways to help children in Romania who were HIV-positive.

During that trip, I was overwhelmed by the faces of street kids and orphans. Even the children with parents were in way worse shape than anything I’d ever seen before.

Changed lives with HIV therapy
Dr. Kline talked about the vast numbers of children who were HIV-positive and how the new highly active antiretrovirals were changing their lives. At least in the US. That led to my multi-year photography project following his efforts to give children around the world the same access to care no matter where they lived.

The first story the paper published compared one child on a clinical trial in Houston with children in Romania. That’s how I met Janie Queen and her family. Janie’s family was brave enough to show their faces and talk openly about what it was like for Janie to grow up with HIV.

I didn’t realize that these faces, these people I would meet and become friends with, would change the course of my life.

JJP: In your travels around the world, did you find any commonalities in communities impacted by HIV/AIDS?
SP: The people I’ve met have much more in common than differences. Dr. Heidi Schwarzwald, who worked with Dr. Kline, said it best: “Any mother anywhere in the world is going to do anything she can do for her child.”

Here’s just one example: I met Ingrid Kealotswe and her son Liam in Botswana in the early 2000s. Ingrid’s outlook on the world, her activism, her caring, her love, her humanity, so resonated with the Queen family in the US. It was impossible not to see how even across great distances, people faced the same challenges in vastly different ways because of where they lived. But what was in their heads and their hearts was the same.

JJP: What does World AIDS Day mean to you? Why do you think it’s important to recognize?
SP: Because the fight’s not over. A social worker told me one time that children with HIV often feel like an island of one. Through our involvement with a summer camp program through AIDS Foundation Houston, my wife and I witness this yearly coming-together of a group of young people. For that week, they realize that they’re no longer an island of one.

For me, World AIDS Day is one moment per year where we celebrate people living with the virus and the people who love and care for those living with the virus. For people who don’t really pay attention to HIV, my hope is that this is a moment where we all can stop and recognize that people aren't an island of one, that this is a life-long battle for everyone involved, and that the fight isn’t over.

JJP: What do you hope for the future of the HIV community?
SP: I don’t have a lot of hopes or dreams that are my own where the HIV community is concerned. My hopes and dreams are a reflection of the people I’ve gotten to know. Ingrid Kealotswe told me one time that she hoped her son would grow up in a world that would not reject him, a world that would let him be whatever he wanted to be. As for a cure, she hoped there would be one, but that for now they were living healthy lives, and are productive like everyone else. My hopes and dreams reflect hers.

JJP: Tell us about your book.
SP: After years of documenting Dr. Kline’s program as it grew into a dozen or so countries around the world, I published the book, Through the White Door. In a way, it’s my love letter to all the people who welcomed me into their lives and let me tell their story.

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