30 Faces of HIV profiles Edmonton survivors, advocates

Deb Norris hopes her photograph will ease the stigma around HIV AIDS, and inspire others to fight for survival.

'It humanizes people. It makes people look at your story and realize you're really no different from them'

Deb Norris, diagnosed with HIV in 1991, is just one survivor being profiled in the new photography project. (Faces of HIV Edmonton )

When Deb Norris, a recently-divorced mother of two was diagnosed with HIV nearly 25 years ago, she thought it was her death sentence. 

"I was extremely shocked," said Norris, who got the devastating news in 1991, after getting a blood test for a new life-insurance policy. 

"I was told by my HIV specialist to get my affairs in order, to write my will and get guardians for my kids and be prepared, because I was going to die within six months to a year," she said.

"That's what I was told. That's what everyone was told at the time." 

Now Norris is hoping her photograph and story will inspire others to fight for survival and ease the stigma around HIV AIDS. 

She's just one person living with AIDS profiled in 30 Faces of HIV, a project launched to mark the HIV Network of Edmonton's 30th anniversary.

Each week for 30 weeks, the project — featuring the work of Edmonton photographer Shayne Woodsmith — will showcase the story of either a survivor, advocate or medical champion in the field.

"What I love about this project (is) it humanizes people. It makes people look at your story and realize you're really no different from them," Norris said during a Tuesday morning interview on CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

'We're just normal, everyday people'

"I think people need to get that. We're just normal, everyday people trying to live our lives with a disease that can at times be difficult to live with, especially because of that stigma that exists out there."

Norris says her first call after getting the devastating diagnosis was to the HIV Network.

"They were amazing in the amount of support they provided for me, and I got connected and became involved. I've been involved ever since."

In order to cope, Norris threw herself into advocacy work, made her HIV status public, and fought for improved HIV care and patient rights.

Over the years, she nearly died several times as her condition progressed to full blown AIDS. She survived, but many of her friends and fellow advocates were not so lucky.

But as medical treatment advanced, Norris' health improved and she's been able to watch her children graduate, go on to college, and pursue successful careers.

'I am very blessed'

"I never thought I'd see them grow up. I thought I would be dead before they would grow up at all. So the fact that I made it through when many didn't and I've been able to see that is a gift. I am very blessed.

"When I hear that I was diagnosed with a death sentence, I just kind of cringe, because that's just not the truth. Maybe at the time that was the truth, but now it's possible to live a long and healthy life with HIV."

Woodsmith was commissioned to do the project, which draws inspiration from his Faces of Edmonton campaign. Although the format is similar, he says talking to survivors was much more emotionally daunting than photographing and profiling strangers on the street.

"Some of the stories are really emotionally trying to hear. Because I'm an empathetic person, and that's the whole ethos behind the project is create more empathy. These are some really powerful stories that affected me deeply," he said.

"And from the comments I'm getting so far, these stories are really affecting other people as well, in a positive way."

With files from Ariel Fournier