Art Attack vs. HIV

Text and photo by Evan Tan

In 2008, Wanggo Gallaga, a known writer in the Philippines, came out as HIV-positive.

His coming out was aptly timed. His friend, photographer Niccolo Cosme, had been doing a series of headshots for quite some time, in a photography project Niccolo dubbed as Headshot Clinic ( In December that year, Niccolo photographed Wanggo for the special Headshot Clinic which he launched in time for World AIDS Day.

That month, there were 126 new HIV cases.

Three years after, the number ballooned to 268 new cases in the same month of December. 2,349 out of the 8,364 reported cases (reported since 1984) were from 2011.

Niccolo grew to realise that Wanggo wasn’t going to be his last friend to be affected by HIV. As time passed, more of his friends came out to him as HIV-positive. A lot of young people in his circles were dying. The numbers were climbing quickly and steadily.

“I knew I had to do more than just take photos,” Niccolo confides. “I had to involve myself in the HIV advocacy than just be a bystander who is watching my friends being taken away by the disease.”

Inspiration struck when he saw a friend from the UNAIDS (Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS) office with a whistle attached to their ID. Asking further, Niccolo learned that it was standard protocol for them to have a whistle ready, in case disaster strikes.

“In my head, the rising HIV cases in the Philippines were the biggest disaster to hit young people,” he says. “A whistle is the symbol that the advocacy exactly needed — it called people’s attention to an issue that we all needed to understand.”

It was how The Red Whistle was born in May 2011.

Together with ad agency TBWA \SMP, The Red Whistle launched its “I am Living with HIV” awareness campaign, which tapped Niccolo’s contacts from the local arts, culture, showbiz, and political scene, such as actors Gretchen Barretto and Paulo Avelino, activist Carlos Celdran, musician Rico Blanco, politician Risa Hontiveros, and senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago.

“The campaign highlighted the fact that we are all living with HIV, in the sense that while we may not be a person living with HIV, we live in a country where HIV is a reality which we can no longer ignore,” explains Niccolo.

Uniting celebrities for the cause was a strategic move for Niccolo. “Our society is very afraid to talk about sex, especially HIV. We were raised to believe that these were taboo topics you simply didn’t talk about. But keeping quiet about it doesn’t help stop the disease. Involving popular people was a way to make people realise that, hey, if people I look up to are brave enough to confront the issue, why shouldn’t I? Why shouldn’t I be concerned about my sexual health and well-being?”

The organisation has since launched a music festival, produced a short film directed by Cannes award-winning film director Brillante Mendoza, and also recently kicked off its #SaveSexy campaign which emphasises the importance of being conscious of one’s health and HIV status, confident with one’s body enough to protect it, and comfortable talking about sex and HIV.

“Our recent campaign is really about getting people to understand what sexy is,” shares Niccolo. “We’re losing the idea of sexy as we shrink in fear and ignorance. We should reclaim what sexy really is by celebrating who we are and knowing how we can do the best thing for ourselves.”

The campaign has since rallied the support of local models and prominent figures. In April 2015, the organisation held a competition for volunteers in Boracay, a beach destination where young people flock during Labour Day weekend. The event was promoted by its newest celebrity ambassadors Solenn Heussaff, Dominic Roque, and Tom Rodriguez, and has been heavily shared on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.

In the event dubbed as the #SaveSexy Lifeguards Laboracay Race, the volunteers educated people on HIV and AIDS from April 29 to May 1. Using their smartphones, they approached beachgoers on the basics of HIV and urged them to get tested. In addition, the volunteers also encouraged people to post about the campaign on their Instagram accounts to amplify the reach of the campaign further. The event culminated in a march where about 300 people participated to raise awareness.

To date, the campaign has reached millions of people online, as reported by social analytics platform

“We still have a lot to do. There are already 18 new cases every day. We have to work doubly hard to reach to the youth and educate them,” Niccolo emphasizes. “Young people are the ones who are most vulnerable to HIV, with their risk-taking behaviours and lack of sex education. We have to step in and give them the proper tools to make the right decisions.”

“We are the army this war needs.”


Note: Catalyst Asia is a content platform that is produced and owned by the Institute for Societal Leadership (ISL). At Catalyst Asia, we believe that real life can only be captured at a particular moment in time. Everything you read here is accurate at the point in which it was recorded. We do not expect details to stay the same and we hope that they don’t. No part of this publication may be reproduced without written permission from the Institute for Societal Leadership at the Singapore Management University Administration Building located at 81 Victoria Street Singapore 188065. To get in touch, please drop us a line at