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Swaziland

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Coming of age for Swazi girls is tough. A tiny African nation of one million, Swaziland is ruled by one of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchies. Its age-old tradition of polygamy and its relaxed attitude toward sexuality have met in a devastating combination for women: Swaziland reports the highest percentage of HIV positive people in the world, with young women being affected most. Half of young Swazi women are HIV positive, and life expectancy has dropped from 61 years to almost 31 years over the past ten years.

Every year, young maidens from across the country gather for the Umhlanga dance, an eight-day ceremony in honor of the Queen Mother to celebrate their virginity. I first went to Swaziland in 2006 to document this annual dance and other coming of age rites of young women living amid a spreading disease and its victims—women who, even in the face of such staggering odds and deep uncertainty, still possess all the energy and enthusiasm of youth. My goal was to capture the nuances that comprise a human, rather than simply tragic, experience.

Over the past five years, the progression of this work has moved from traditional rites of passage to modern youth culture to an intimate look inside the homes of HIV-positive women. My insights have matured along with these young women. It has allowed me to witness fast-tracked intimacy and friends lost and gained. It has made me see that girls here are constantly on the verge––of giving birth to burying best friends, of finding love to fighting for life alone, stigmatized and heartbroken.

These moments in my interactions with young Swazi women remind me of the complicated, frustrating, and deeply human nature of their predicaments, choices and desires. I’ve seen childhood friends reconnect across beds in a hospice, one of which was fighting the inevitable with her lone T-cell—her “one soldier.” I’ve watched innumerable women leave their rural homes to look for nonexistent work near the city, knowing that they will make easy prey for older men who will support them for sex. I’ve photographed a young HIV-positive woman who refuses to take medication out of fear it would indicate to others her impending death. Instead, she tells me about her dreams of joining the army to earn “money like dust” to support herself and her newborn child, joking in the same breath about how she probably won’t make it to twenty and see me on my next trip back. It is difficult to comprehend how she so easily accepts the contradictions in her life. That her own mother is too scared to tell her daughter or any of her friends that she herself has started anti-retroviral treatment—out of fear of gossip and isolation—seems to underscore the frustrating reality that for every step forward, there is a step back.

And that’s the thing: there isn’t a single story, just frustrating inconsistencies. Yet on each trip, I still find a sense of hope for what the future might hold, even as they navigate this narrow bridge between life and death.

Krisanne Johnson has been working on long-term personal projects about young women and HIV/AIDS in Swaziland and post-apartheid South African youth culture since 2006. Her work has appeared in various publications, including TIME, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, among others. I Love You Real Fast is on display through Nov. 26 at The Half King in New York City. 

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Opening night of photographer Krissanne Johnson’s exhibit “I Love You Real Fast,” will include a slide show and conversation moderated by photographer and President of the Magnum Foundation, Susan Meiselas. Ms. Johnson writes about her project on young women in Swaziland:

“Coming of age for Swazi girls is tough. A tiny African nation of one million, Swaziland is ruled by one of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchies. Its age-old tradition of polygamy and relaxed attitude toward sexuality is a devastating combination for young women: Swaziland reports the highest percentage of HIV positive people in the world, with the hardest hit being women aged 15-29. For every two young Swazi women, one is HIV positive. It should come as no surprise that life expectancy has dropped from 61 to 31 over the past ten years.
After living and studying in South Africa in 1998 for a year, I returned over the years. After graduate school I knew I wanted to begin a long term personal project in the region. I made my first self-funded trip in 2006 to begin documenting the lives of young Swazi women.”

Catch the opening and discussion at The Half King at 505 West 23rd Street in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood on October 4th, 2011. Curated by the husband-wife team writer Anna Van Lenten and Newsweek photo editor, James Price, the Half King Photography Series emphasizes photojournalism with bi-monthly exhibits and salon-style discussions. All images courtesy Ms. Johnson.


A young girl wears a miniskirt in rural Swaziland. Western dress such as miniskirts has been deemed “unSwazi” and used to justify acts of physical abuse against young girls and women. A new report found that one in three girls has experienced sexual violence by age 18 in Swaziland. The Report was commissioned by UNICEF and the CDC.


Young Swazi girls run and dance as they join 40,000 virgin girls during the Umhlanga Dance, a right of passage into womanhood. Each year King Mswati III continues the practice of polygamy and chooses one of the girls to be his wife.


Young Swazi girls sing and jest to passing cars as they join 40,000 virgin girls as part of the annual Umhlanga Dance.


A new bride cries before entering her new husband’s homestead after symbolically saying goodbye to her family.


A teenager practices a flip off a wall in an urban neighborhood. He has joined his friends to create a hip hop dance crew in attempt to keep them off the streets and away from crime and drugs. Unemployment is forty percent in the country and leaves many teenagers leaving high school struggling to find a job.


Swazi high school students compete at a cheerleading competition between various local schools.


High school girls joke and dance to music during a hip hop dance competition held at a private high school in Swaziland. While some Swazis can afford private education, two thirds of Swazis live below the poverty line.


An 20-year old HIV positive woman dances in her room while visiting with friends. Since her young son died in September due to AIDS she has been depressed and drinking. She refuses to take the ARVs.


Health counselor demonstrating how to use a female condom to a group of women.


Young Swazi women and men party at a local nightclub in Manzini, Swaziland. Life expectancy in Swaziland has dropped to under 32 years of age.


A young HIV positive woman, 19, swims at the natural hot springs swimming pool in Swaziland. She is scared to start taking ARV’s due to stigma surrounding the drugs. She now dreams of joining the army because the salary would help support her young newborn child.

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