Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.

- Susan Sontag
Illness as Metaphor, 1977


Portraits in the Time of AIDS

Exhibited: Grey Art Gallery, New York University, 1988; Bruce Silverstein Gallery, 2013; Paris Photo, Grand Palais, Salon d'Honneur, 2015.

About this project

"In this series of pictures, my goal was to reveal a special character, a relationship, an environment, aspects of the human struggle to survive.

When I began AIDS portraits in May 1987, I conceived this new subject as a continuation of the hospital portraits I made in 1976 in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The project also connected with some of my more recent work: the nursing home portraits of Peru and Mexico; the homeless portraits of San Diego and New York.

The constant in these photographs in the drama of AIDS, a reality which changes the lives of people with AIDS, and people whose lives touch theirs. We live in a culture where youth should be perpetual. Illness and death are taboo. Some of the isolation of people with AIDS comes from this general taboo.

These portraits were possible because of the support of many individuals, especially that of Father Bill McNichols, a Jesuit priest who devotes his life to an AIDS ministry. Father McNichols understood what I sought to do, and offered to help me. Through him I met Jeff Engelken, Michael Hirsch, and Len Martelli. Through him, too, I met Peter Avitable.

My camera stayed home when I went to a series of weekly dinners at Saint Peter's Church. Each evening begins with the hundred or more men, and two or three women with AIDS, joining hands with the volunteers who prepare a meal for them. They all form a huge circle. Prayers are offered. Then all of the people with AIDS line up for the buffet. For months I joined that circle and stood in that line each Tuesday, never knowing who I might met or whether anyone would agree to make an appointment to be photographed.

The brightly-lit room buzzed with chatter. Melodious piano tunes created a lively atmosphere. I sat wherever I found a place, listened and talked about my project. I recall conversations about art exhibits, rafting trips, and Fellini films. But always there was plenty of talk about doctors, medications, meditation and massage. There was little talk of death; the tone, the words were life.

My first portrait was of Tom Alaimo. I was lucky to sit next to him, for he became a friend the first time I attended a Saint Peter's dinner. I told him about the project, my plans for an exhibit, and my interest in photographing him in his own environment. We met the next night at an Indian restaurant in the East Village. The following day I went to Tom's place and made my pictures. In this way, I continued to meet and photograph other people.

As I went to photograph them in their homes, I needed to listen and talk. In the past, even when language was no barrier, I've photographed in silence. But this time was different. They talked and I talked.

The majority of the group at Saint Peter's were gay men; there was a smaller contingent of former drug addicts. I wanted this series of portraits to represent the diverse population of individuals who are touched by AIDS. So I actively tried to find them—especially women who were victims of transfusions, and infants of infected mothers.

Photographing children with AIDS proved almost impossible. At last Chaplain Carol Bamesberger arranged for me to photograph the birthday party of a two-year old girl with AIDS. I photographed three women with AIDS in New York. By traveling to Washington, Baltimore, and the West Coast, I found the others.

In group portraits of two or more individuals, not all those shown are people with AIDS.

Because all life leads inevitably to death, these pictures are about all of us.

This exhibition is dedicated to the memory of my friends, Gaetano (Tom) Alaimo, Keith Davis, and Leonard Martelli.

Thanks to: Tom Sokolowski, Father Bill McNichols, Chuck Kelton, Peter Avitable, Michael Hirsch, Jeff Engelken, Nick Pippin, Suki Ports, Kass Anderton, Chaplain Carol Bamesberger, The Damien Ministry, The Momentum Outreach Program at Saint Peter's Church, People with AIDS Theater Workshop, Northern Lights Alternatives, Gay Men's Health Crisis Center, Harold and Mya Shapiro, Elizabeth Wainstock, Suzanne Little, Betsey S. Babinecz, Peter Galassi, Peter Frank, Jean Foos, Lois Gould, Ingrid Sischy, Joel Solomon, Martha Burton, Michael O'Brian, Swanee (M.V. Swanson), Chris Schwer, Lisa Abitol, Kimberlee Bent, Peter Griffin, Eric Cohen, Peter Nappi, Dan Rosenberg, Irene Wang, Julie Johnson, German Rodriguez, Tim Dalal, Sergio Flores, Frank Poueymirou, Wendell Walker, Michele Wong, Beth Gersh-Nesic, Michael Richards, and to all the individuals who shared their time and their lives when they allowed me to photograph them for this project."

Excerpted from the Grey Gallery exhibition catalogue, 1988.


At Paris Photo 2015, Salon d'Honneur