A photo study of Aids patients in Odessa could easily have descended into either shock-value exploition or a mawkish plea for donations. But Andrea Diefenbach's new book avoids both traps: it's obvious that she immersed herself deeply into the lives of her subjects, and these images of poverty, sadness and death evoke genuine sympathy.
Each subject gets a short introduction about how they contracted HIV, and often the stories blur into each other. Drug addiction, shared needles, prostitution, sexual and physical abuse from partners and destitution are the usual case histories, but in the end the text doesn't matter nearly as much as the complete portraits that Diefenbach produces of both her subjects and their surroundings. The cracked pavement, chintzy bedspreads and broken down vending machines play as big a part as the people themselves. Diefenbach captures intimate moments of solitude, despair and hope in the lives of people like Sergej, Mascha and Olge - you may not remember their names, but that doesn't really matter.
In the introduction by Ukrainian photographer Boris Mikhailov, he says that it would have been impossible for him, as a Ukrainian, to do the photo study, and he applauds Andrea for her ability not only to persuade people to participate but also to convey everything that needs to be conveyed. After only a glance at the book, it becomes obvious that the subject needs someone with a bit of distance to tackle it properly. So it's not surprising that it took an outsider to nail these shots that could so easily have become one-dimensional images in a charity campaign.
Aids in Odessa by Andrea Diefenbach will be available from Hatje Cantz from 1st August.