The Digital Journalist

Bill Pierce - Nuts & Bolts

The Courage Contest

A friend of a friend, was one of the first to contract AIDS when it came to this country. None of the people around him had any idea what was making him sick, only that he moved to a small house in the desert and didn't want anybody to visit him. We didn't know a lot about AIDS.

A few years later, when we all knew what AIDS was, a friend of mine tested HIV positive. Under a sentence of death, he behaved more courageously than anyone I know. When you consider that I have a number of friends who have been beaten, jailed, and shot at (sometimes shot) in the process of covering wars, that's pretty courageous.

A number of us who were covering violent situations all had a common prayer. If you are going to be killed, let it happen instantly. Think about the courage it takes to die slowly. That's why my friend is the winner in the courage contest. He never complained. He never mentioned his death sentence unless you brought it up. Then he was never embarrassed or afraid to talk about it to the extent of your inquiries. He continued to live his life pretty much as he always had; just added a lot of volunteer hours to an AIDS hotline.

After 15 years, the doctors decided he was one of those people who contract HIV, but never develop AIDS. So, we still don't know a lot about AIDS. What we do know is that it kills people, lots of people, and we don't know what to do about it. In a world of pseudo-news, happy news, and celebrity cleavage, here's the real thing. And like all complex stories, it is going to take both pictures and words.

Pictures are the part of a story that good word-folk are often suspicious of. Good pictures are often opinionated, subjective, and you can't even predict how all viewers will respond. Where's the objectivity? But outrage, horror, disgust are often appropriate reactions to news. Walter Cronkite once said that he would hate to have to report that Mrs. Jones had a good day, because that would mean that all of Mrs. Jones' other days were bad.

Words give us the facts and answer questions. How many people died today of AIDS? How many are infected and will die? What is the current state of medical treatment and the possibility of a cure?

Unfortunately, the pictures and words combo is often given token service. Agencies can supply pictures. In these days of cost cutting, a publication may choose to keep their writer in his/her office.

Alon Reininger was the first photographer I knew to involve himself in a long-term coverage of AIDS. As old softies go he is amazingly disciplined and tough when he attacks a story - and outrageously honest. I once overheard a phone conversation in which he said to a victim of AIDS, "Call me when you look worse, not when you feel worse." To those of us who stand outside of the story, this sounds fairly rough. To those who are the story, it sounds like the first time an outsider is being honest.

Some of Alon's pictures are on this website. Pretty good stuff. But the majority of the stories using his pictures were published abroad, not in the U.S. of A., where they were taken. And in one of the stories Alon's pictures accompanied a text that pretty much said that Americans were stupid and look what was happening to them now. That magazine must have saved a lot of money on a reporter.

The most recent coverage of AIDS that I know of is an exhibit by Don McCullin documenting AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. It is at the Whitechapel Arts Center in London. It will be there until June 10.

The pictures were done for the charitable organization Christian Aid. The exhibition will open, with United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan presiding, at the U.N. headquarters in New York, on June 25.

Don McCullin is my favorite contemporary photographer, not just for his war work, but his street photography, his landscapes, and yes, his flower photographs. Anybody who says, "Don McCullin photographing flowers?" hasn't seen the pictures. Why haven't I seen these AIDS pictures. I'm sure they've been published. But not by one of those big publication that thinks news should be inoffensive to both the readers and the advertisers.

So far, this month's whining vituperation has spared photographers; so, let me attack a few photographers and their approach to several important issues.

When an AIDS story was the hot ticket to self-promotion and contest awards, everybody did an AIDS story. I heard one photographer say, "I had become his friend, and I could not bring myself to photograph his death." The poor S.O.B. has lots of old friends and family. You are probably getting in the way of their saying good bye. He has friends. What he hasn't got is a photographer telling his story.

Can you imagine what would happen if a surgeon said, "I just couldn't bring myself to use my scalpel on someone who was already in pain."

News photographers can be very strange. There has been a name change in the following quote. "You know, I was talking to George the other day. Oh, that's George Bush, the President of the United States. You know he's not like the other presidents. He's.........." Mr. Photographer, do your job. The only reason the President even knows your name is because some aid flashed him an index card.

This is my favorite. A modestly well-known war photographer turns to me and says, "I've been here two days and nothing has happened." I myself thought the short outbreak of peace was rather pleasant. I hadn't realized that the point of the war was to provide him with pictures.

Bill Pierce

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