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
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
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.