SCOTT THODE is a photojournalist and assistant picture editor at FORTUNE:

My AIDS work began in 1985. I watched about 40 individuals pass away, over the course of two years, down at Bailey House in New York’s Greenwich Village, the first program to offer emergency and permanent housing for people with AIDS. Then in 1987, I was going up to the Whitney Biennial and found this woman on the street outside. Her name was Venus. She was homeless, a former dancer, an IV-drug user. And she was positive. As time passed, we became best friends, almost like brother and sister. Our families got to know each other.

One night in 1993, we were hanging out. It was hot. She ran into the spray of a fire hydrant. She was only in there for 30 seconds. I had maybe five, six frames.

What happened, though, was that an entire body of work evolved out of that one moment. I soon realized that my photographs of Venus and other people with HIV were moving from a documentary style to a more spiritual style. These people had lives, they had souls. From a photographic standpoint, shocking wasn’t my point. Humanizing was. I wanted capture that energy, that life force she had. Venus was a long-term survivor. (She passed away in 1997, a decade after I met her.) I was trying to get at more internalized pictures, moving to controlled situations. I began to photograph dozens of people with AIDS and, as I did, I got rid of external influences. Many of the subjects are partially nude or have a white or a black background so that a viewer would not be influenced by the environment or the subjects’ clothing. I wanted to strip the surroundings away to get raw emotion and a spiritual feeling.

Venus used to write poetry. She’d sit down and whip off a poem. I started playing the poems off the imagery. So I decided to have the people I photographed write poetry, which I’d then match up with their photographs. It built into a whole body of work over a two-to-three year period, called ‘The Spirit Within.’ It was strictly about the person’s spirit, about the strength it takes to fight a disease like this. Life was the first to publish the work. (Life, February 1994.) You can see it at I now do readings of the poetry as I show the pictures, at schools, museums, workshops. I get invited to speak.

My photography of Venus was a bit of a reaction to the horror of earlier images that were coming out. In retrospect, the unrelenting horror was necessary in the early 80s in order to shock people that AIDS was serious. In Alon Reininger’s and others’ work, you’d see the carposis, you’d see the devastation of the disease. That was extremely important at the time.
I’ve watched this thing go full circle over the last 18, 20 years. Now we’ve almost had to go back to photography as shock treatment. People are numb. Medical advances let people live a lot longer. They’re not passing away left and right. It’s been easy to put it all on the back burner because of this sense of false security. But AIDS continues to spread. It’s time to tell people the true extent of the epidemic, worldwide. There is no cure. People have to be roused out of their complacency again. I’m thinking of Jim Nachtwey’s Time cover on AIDS in Africa (Time, February 12, 2001) and Gideon Mendel’s 14-page essay on the same subject (Fortune, November 13, 2000). It’s time for another wake-up call.