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 Yorks
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.
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 wasnt 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. Shed 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 Id 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 persons 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 www.journale.com/aidsdecade.
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 Reiningers and others work, youd see the carposis,
youd see the devastation of the disease. That was extremely important
at the time.
Ive watched this thing go full circle over the last 18, 20 years.
Now weve almost had to go back to photography as shock treatment.
People are numb. Medical advances let people live a lot longer. Theyre
not passing away left and right. Its been easy to put it all on
the back burner because of this sense of false security. But AIDS continues
to spread. Its 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. Im thinking of Jim Nachtweys Time cover on
AIDS in Africa (Time, February 12, 2001) and Gideon Mendels
14-page essay on the same subject (Fortune, November 13, 2000).
Its time for another wake-up call.