Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu is long gone - ousted and executed in 1989 - but his legacy haunts thousands of children who contracted the AIDS virus from tainted blood they were given as babies in lieu of food or vitamins.

You'll find some of them looking out at you, and inviting you to look into their lives, in "The Most Important Picture: Photographs by HIV Positive Children," which opened Saturday at CEPA Gallery in the Market Arcade.

It's a display of about 50 photos eight Romanian teenagers shot last fall as part of a documentary project by Buffalo photographer Brendan Bannon.

Bannon worked with the youngsters, each of whom shot about five rolls of film. They were told simply: Photograph your community, your dreams, your family, yourself.

The show's name comes from a self-portrait by Carla, 15, made in the train station at Giurgiu. Below the straightforward image of her smiling, utterly innocent face are these words:

"This picture is the most important because it is my picture. And when I am going to die they are going to look at it and remember me."

Carla adds, "I am at an age when you have to think about this disease although I admit it is hard. There are many children who die. And if you know that you have this disease there is a time when you die too."

Bannon, who will return to Romania in February on other business, hopes the CEPA show will help raise money to keep the project going this year.

Bannon first became aware of Romanian children's suffering through reports broadcast after Ceaucescu was toppled. He was in the impoverished Eastern European nation two years ago, on a different assignment, when a Peace Corps volunteer and friend from Buffalo, Peter Brown, helped put him in touch with mothers of HIV-positive children.

Meeting these boys and girls, ages 15 and 16, inspired "The Most Important Picture." Bannon wanted to show what had become of them after those initial stories in the early 1990s: "How were they surviving?"

It isn't a pretty picture. Life is a continual struggle against discrimination and poverty. Because of ignorance about HIV, the youngsters are denied social services and shunned both at school and in their neighborhoods. Government corruption makes it exceedingly difficult to obtain HIV drugs legitimately.

Bannon conceived a workshop in which cameras and film would be put in the children's hands, "to give them a voice of their own, and in the process of speaking for themselves, share their humanity."

The result is at once uplifting and heart-rending.

As Carla explains in the words beneath her photograph: "And this is why I would like to tell many children that they shouldn't make too many illusions for the future because none of them know how many hours they still have to live. But my wish for all the children who have this disease is to live many happy years."

Most expenses were covered by a Kirby Simon Trust grant written by Kara McDonald, a U.S. foreign service officer.