PLEDGE, co-founder and director of the photo agency Contact
Press Images (New York, Paris), is a champion of photojournalism.
DAVID FRIEND: This year, you went to Holland and chaired the
jury of World Press Photo, considered the most prestigious international
award for photojournalism. Though few of us get to see AIDS
coverage in our daily news diet, Im sure you pored over
many images concerning AIDS in Africa, much of it unpublished.
ROBERT PLEDGE: That's true. There were almost 4,000 photographers
and 43,000 images this year at the World Press Photo competition.
Amongst the entries, three or four subjects of news value were
prominent. There was the situation in Chechnya, mainly by Russian
photographers. Very good work, actually. There was an abundance
of material on the Intifada, which began to flare up last year.
Quite a fair amount of work from Sierra Leone and the terrible
carnage over there: Adults, children, the elderly with hands
and legs and arms cut off. And there was AIDS. AIDS in Southern
Africa, Zambia, Malawi, South Africa. All of a sudden, AIDS
is on the same level as these various wars taking place in Africa,
in the Middle East, in the former Soviet Union.
FRIEND: Did it seem to you that the story was suddenly drawing
the attention of concerned photographers?
Actually, when you know who the photographers are working on
the subject today, many of them are veterans from the wars of
the '70s, '80s or '90s. Jim Nachtwey, and even more recently,
Don McCullin, all these photojournalists -- agency photojournalists,
news magazine photojournalists -- who produced this kind of
work. So that's interesting, because until recently, none of
this existed. I mean, for the longest time, nobody paid much
attention to AIDS in Southern Africa. A few years ago, Gideon
Mendel won the Canon Photo Essay Award and the W. Eugene Smith
Grant. But that work was produced in a totally different era.
The monies came from foundations or grants, and not from magazines.
This year it's quite different. So yes, I would be tempted to
say that AIDS in Africa has become not trendy and not fashionable,
but certainly somewhat. . .
FRIEND: . . .a la mode, as cynics might say?
PLEDGE: A la mode, yes. In some ways, yes. All of a sudden.
All of a sudden. Maybe because there were no dominant wars anywhere
else in the world during the whole year that went by, as opposed
to, in previous years, when Kosovo or Bosnia occupied the front
pages and the energies of photojournalists throughout the year.
Or even the whole Rwanda-Zaire crisis.
PLEDGE: So there's the difference. The year is more splintered.
There are several items that are sort of exotic, if you will,
that capture the attention, and AIDS in Africa has become that.
There's something positive about that. I am pleased that attention
is finally given to an issue that is a major issue. It's paramount.
FRIEND: But are magazines publishing this work? At one point
you said that there's this abundance of strong imagery but too
few places to...
PLEDGE: Well, certainly, there's very little published in relation
to the enormity of the situation and the depth. There has been
more published, I guess, in the last year than there had been
previously, so there is a bit of progress. It's true that it's
also been spoken about more, and there's been this whole controversy
in South Africa, the situation with President Thabo Mbeki not
recognizing HIV as the main cause of AIDS, and other controversies.
So it's been made more newsworthy. And because, to some extent,
in the Western World - - Europe and the United States - - there
has been a perception of a slowing-down of the spread of AIDS
in the last few years, I think the attention is now going to
those countries that are seeing the growth or the development
of the disease increase dramatically. In Africa...In China
FRIEND: Or Russia, certainly.
PLEDGE: Russia quite a bit, and India even more so, are seriously
affected. But Africa, it's just taken on incredible proportions.
"Taken on," not really, because actually we've known
about AIDS in Africa for ages. It may have even started there.
But it has been able to spread faster because of less medical
attention, because of different lifestyles, because of many
reasons, some of which are not very clear even to researchers.
FRIEND: So today, there may be more photographers who are embracing
this subject. But let me take you back 20 years. Back to 81
or 82. Your agency, Contact, had been formed in 1976,
but by 81 and 82, very few photographers thought
to cover this subject. Yet Contact did.
We were five years old when it first became known. Actually
I would say we started off in the business -- the first five
years, the formative ones, the most important ones -- with two
dominant themes, I guess. One was human rights and the issues
related to it, especially in '76, in the aftermath of Vietnam
and Chile and various other events. And the other was AIDS,
I think. It became a major, major, major item that we sort of
discovered in 1981. Recently, I was looking through the index
of subjects that we have worked on. That usually indicates when
the interest started developing. And I saw that the first thing
we ever did was in the U.S.A. -- AIDS in Veterans Hospital in
New York City in November 1981, by Alon Reininger. Through Alon,
Contact was at the forefront of AIDS coverage from the earliest
stages. We were amongst the very first, and maybe the first
people, or amongst the few in the journalistic community who
had interest in this strange phenomenon. "In the forefront"
would imply that we were sort of activists and militants, and
FRIEND: I understand what you mean, the distinction.
PLEDGE: Yes. But we were there, and totally bewildered, puzzled
by this thing. We were reading these short pieces in The
New York Times. The word AIDS wasn't even used. I mean,
it was this strange cancer that was devouring the gay community...
It was quite mysterious. And because it was mysterious, we were
intrigued. And Reininger is somebody who the more mysterious
it is, the more he's intrigued, the more he digs into it. And
it does happen that through his wife, Shura, he spent a lot
of time with Larry Kramer, the playwright who was extremely
aware of what was happening within the gay community in the
States - - in New York in particular, where there was this disease
that was having drastic, devastating consequences. From then
on, Alon did a lot. In 1982, we primarily did research and tried
to figure out what this was about. It was very difficult. The
access was almost nil; we couldn't get anywhere.
One day Alon was to meet a patient who had accepted to be photographed,
and thought it was even important that he be photographed because
he wanted to make the general public aware of how wicked this
disease was. So Alon went to his home that evening to meet him.
The door was open. He was told to wait a little bit, that he
was being prepared. And then he was told that he could go into
the room and meet the person. When he walked in, he realized
the man was dead. Died in front of him, the minute he walked
into the room. The disease was so far along. So Alon saw death
at first. And he had seen people die in Central America and
Southern Africa or the Middle East, but right there in the bedroom
and in such a devastating way.
FRIEND: Alon had quite a bit of influence on Contacts
other photographers, didnt he?
PLEDGE: Well, he had a lot of impact because this was a very
small group and we were really in that tradition of the early
days of Magnum, and we'd get together all the time and speak
and exchange - - e-mail didn't exist. And he sort of, yes, contaminated
FRIEND: I love that. He contaminated...
FRIEND: Encouraged them.
PLEDGE: And got everybody, absolutely. I remember one day, I
guess it was maybe in '82 or '83, walking down the street and
bumping into a senior editor of Time magazine who knew
that we were often ahead of the pack in terms of working on
stories that would be in the news in the relatively near future.
And he said to me, "So what's our next big story?"
I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "Well, what's
our next big story? What should we expect at Time out
of you guys?" And I said, "AIDS." And he said,
"What?" I said, "Yes, AIDS." He said, "What
is that?" I said, "It's this disease, a mysterious
disease," and then I tried to explain it to him, and he
had no idea what I was speaking about. "Isn't that strange?
I think I would have heard something." I said, "No-no,
this is... Within the year, this will be a cover story."
So he called me up a couple of days later, and said, "You
know, I checked it out here. Nobody knows what you're speaking
about." I said... I was stunned. He said he even asked
the science editor, who didn't know anything about it. So a
few months later, it really started hitting. That must have
been in '82, very early on. But I don't think Time did
a major story until '83.
impact was quite tremendous. [Another Contact photographer]
Frank Fournier worked on various aspects here in New York City,
did a big story for New York magazine, then a major story
- - 8-10 pages - - for Stern magazine. Dilip Mehta got
involved and photographed Ryan White early on, for Picture
Week, which was [in its trial stages at] Time, Inc. Jane
Evelyn Atwood, in Paris, whom I had known for a number of years,
and who liked and respected Alon a lot, was sort of totally
intrigued. She got involved in the story, focusing on Jean-Louis,
a French television producer. He probably has a last name, but
we called him "Jean-Louis," by his first name. And
she really lived with this man for four and a half months, from
the time she met him to the time he died. And that was published
in Paris Match and in Stern magaznine, Sette
magazine, and in other major publications. And basically,
it is primarily in Europe, nothing in the USA.
that we got the attention. We published with greater
difficulty in the United States. Although newspapers started
picking up on it. I remember I was at a workshop at Lake Tahoe.
I'm not even sure who was organizing it. Wherever I would go,
a workshop, when I was on a panel, or whatever, I'd always have
a slide tray and a presentation and something to say about AIDS
- - I had become a bit of an activist - - and spoke a lot about
it all those early years, especially to younger photographers.
I remember that each time it did have an impact. Shortly after
that, people would get involved in projects related to it. I
remember one photographer in particular, whose name I cannot
remember, who was working for the San Jose Mercury News.
She asked to take a year off to work on the issue of AIDS in
America, as a result of this workshop that I attended and where
I showed Alons work. So directly or indirectly, whether
he was speaking about it or not, certainly Alon made an impact
on many people.
FRIEND: So the ripples were felt, particularly in the photo
PLEDGE: Yeah. And I think we were all very concerned, because
we realized the depth of the prejudice, the ignorance, the lack
of information and understanding about the disease. And we knew
very early on that it was not a gay disease; it was a disease
that was a devastating disease that did hit the gay community
more specifically in the United States.
FRIEND: Am I wrong, or did you at one point represent Maggie
Steiber, the photographer who was in Haiti a lot?
PLEDGE: No, she was a good friend, and she met Alon Reininger
in South Africa, and there was a connection. Yes. But speaking
of Haiti, people like J.B. Diederich worked extensively in Haiti
FRIEND: And he was one of your photographers at the time?
Yes. He gave up photography for television later on. But that
was one of the main things he did, worked on Haiti, and because
.Well, definitely because of Alon. There's no question
about that. Because he sort of admired Alon tremendously. And
other photographers, [Carlos Humberto] T.D.C. and so on and
so forth... We started getting less involved in covering on
a regular basis the issues and the aspects of the disease and
its spread because by then, by the late '80s, people finally
got into looking more seriously at all these issues and aspects,
so we didn't feel that there was as much of a need for us...
FRIEND: I thought Frank Fournier was breaking ground in Romania,
PLEDGE: Frank and even Alon pursued it whenever they were in
a situation where it made sense, in particular Romania, where
Frank did quite a bit of work on the children who were affected
because of medical and political reasons. Then Alon was really
interested in Africa. He knew and always said that Africa was
the place to go to, and he spent quite a bit of time in '92-'93
working in Zambia and southern Africa and Malawi, producing
interesting imagery, although people were not always forthcoming
and the authorities were not doing anything to make it easy
to work. But he came back with some very strong color photographs.
He worked in color, thinking that maybe now it could be more
mainstream and reach more magazines - - and we got absolutely
nowhere. He tried grants, and we got nowhere. Maybe a couple
of years later, Gideon Mendel, who is with Network, finally
broke through. But I mean, in the grant world, and not in the
newspaper and magazine world - - although The Independent
(in London), with Colin Jacobson, did initially give him some
support. And Colin had done so because he had been also sort
of brainwashed by Alon early-on, and was one of our allies in
this field. Then other people with whom were associated,
like Nick Danziger, who is a writer-photographer-filmmaker,
has been, in the last couple of years, working in Russia and
in southern Africa for British publications. And more recently,
Don McCullin has been working in South Africa and Zambia; Don
has often spoken about the issue with Alon, whom he likes and
respects. And also a younger photographer, Kristen Ashburn,
has been working in Zimbabwe.
FRIEND: You have David Binder, who...
who has been working on this very specific case of a former
Playboy bunny with AIDS. He also did early work on the subject.
And so did Lori Grinker. Annie Leibovitz has been involved in
different ways. I remember a number of years ago James Danziger
organized this project, this book inviting photographers to
participate by donating their work for the purpose of a donation
for research, and Annie was the first one to accept. And it's
because she did that, that James Danziger has been able to push
his project forward. Annie has been very interested and involved
in a very discreet way in this issue by contributing, and taking
for Vanity Fair and other publications, some photographs
related to events or people involved in the AIDS crusade or
issue. Everybody here has done, at some stage, something. Ken
Jarecke, Gary Matoso, Jean-Claude Coutausse. Tomas Muscionico.
David Burnett photographed Mathilde Krim, Magic Johnson. He
shot a Time magazine cover on Robert Gallo and AIDS research,
FRIEND: So after human rights, AIDS became a second front for
PLEDGE: A second front, or, in a way just a continuation. Because
what I think also intrigued us about AIDS was maybe less even
the medical aspect than the bigotry, the forms of racism it
took. I mean, the human rights...
FRIEND: So how it related to human rights.
FRIEND: Absolutely. That's clear.
PLEDGE: The intolerance. So for us, in a way, it was sort of
a continuation of kinds of issues that we have always been interested
the UNAIDS website: