BEN THORNBERRY is a British photojournalist who has specialized in covering demonstrations, particularly those involving AIDS activism:

I became fascinated with the first amendment and the American idea of people gathering on the streets and petitioning their government to change its policies. This American right to activism, at times, has been a central theme of my work.

I started photographing Act Up, the AIDS activist movement, in 1988. I was working in the photo library of Magnum, the cooperative agency started in the 1940s by photographers Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson and David Seymour. I was cataloguing all the anti-war movement and black civil rights material. I noticed similarities between the causes and images of ‘68 - - U.S. marches, the Paris riots, Josef Koudelka’s images of the Soviet crackdown on Czechoslovakia - - and the demonstrations undertaken by AIDS activists in ‘88.

Very few people were covering Act Up. I realized that Act Up's work was historically important and that even if the work would not be recognized while I was doing it, I knew that 10 or 20 years in the future it would have more significance and greater interest. So I took my camera to Act Up demonstrations, not to cover the news as much as to undertake historic documentation.

I also wanted put a different perspective on AIDS. Some photographers were producing images of people with AIDS at that time that I felt were counterproductive to the fight for greater public understanding of the new disease. I became tired and, quite frankly, annoyed with the reoccurring image of a lonely, isolated person with AIDS peering, wistfully out through a window. That image was just driving me up the wall.

Nicholas Nixon had an exhibition that consisted of large-format black-and-white photographs, the majority of which were passive portraits of people with AIDS, some of which showed sequences of the subjects deteriorating over time. The public's perception of people infected with HIV was being influenced, in part, by these photos; a perception that I believed did little to enlighten or inform or address the fight to speed up drug trials. At the first Act Up meeting I attended, the group was actually planning to do a demonstration against the pictures in the museum. One of the plans expressed at that meeting was to go at them with grease pencils and write onto the glass atop the photos: “Stop looking at us and start listening to what we have to say.”

At the time, it was a new disease. Images were very powerful in creating perceptions of HIV. I thought it was important to record a much more aggressive image of people with AIDS. They were fighting for new treatments and in their words were fighting “drug company greed and government neglect.” Act Up was trying to radically change government policy in the Reagan-Bush era, resisting an administration that didn't seem to care about AIDS because the infected populations were perceived to be gay people, needle users and members of the Haitian community.

I have about 15,000 pictures from Act Up-related activities. The work covers more than 50 street demonstrations, clandestine actions and what Act Up called “zaps.” The first zap I photographed was the occupation of the office of New York City's health commissioner. Others included actions where Act Up members disguised themselves as Republicans and infiltrated press conferences and Republican rallies at the GOP conventions in New Orleans (1988) and Houston (1992).

It was hard to crystallize this more vigorous image in people’s minds because publications resisted showing images of AIDS. Plus, Act Up's campaign was basically a movement that was anti-government, anti-big business (and hence anti-potential advertisers). Every now and again I’d get some pictures in The New York Times, The New York Post, The Village Voice, Newsday, or on the AP wire. But to get them consistently shown was almost impossible. A photo editor at Life magazine told me that he liked my work but said something like: “You realize, it’s an idea that hits every hot button issue. It goes against editors’ tastes. It’s a gay issue. We wouldn’t run work so critical of our potential advertisers, like drug companies.”

After about a year, my photographs were published weekly in Outweek, a gay-and-lesbian magazine that had a small circulation but became a newsmagazine for AIDS activists. These pictures presented an image of people with AIDS that was proactive rather than passive. Subsequently, the best recognition for the work came from exhibitions in London, Provincetown and New York, such as one that was a fund-raiser for Treatment Action Group. I intend to produce a book of the photos as an historical reference.

I was also involved in The Electric Blanket Project on World AIDS Day in 1990. The group projected images onto screens above the front entrance of New York’s Cooper Union. The photographs were snapshots people had sent in of friends and relatives who had died. They ran with the words: In Memoriam. Intercut, were images by professional photographers who covered AIDS, juxtaposed with the words: In Action.

Act Up, along the way, created a bogeyman for the Republican party to vilify. And it blew up in the party’s face. The sound-bytes and the five-second shots of AIDS activists being dragged away by police on horseback did present an image problem for Bush Senior at the 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston. This was not helped by Pat Buchanan's “Cultural War” speech that kicked off that convention as cameras cut live to the police violence at the huge Act Up demonstration outside. This helped tip the scales for the Democrats that year.

Yet the organization sort of died when Clinton came into office in ‘93. Just prior to that, Act Up New York was virtually falling apart, or was torn apart, with help from what may have been F.B.I. infiltration and harassment. It did come back to life in Philadelphia about two years ago. That group followed the Gore campaign around for two weeks, pushing for AIDS drugs for Africa. In part, Act Up Philadelphia, working with the South African organization Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), helped put the whole idea of cheaper AIDS drugs for Africa on the map. That started the ball rolling.

Editorially, this subject has always been pretty hard stuff to sell. It’s pretty bleak. There are very few arenas to show extensive photojournalistic essays on AIDS in Africa. It still is a turnoff to editors. And a success story, like anti-AIDS efforts in Uganda, doesn’t interest photo editors either. But photography has played a role. Act Up’s F.D.A. action at Bethesda in October of 1988, pictured here, deliberately targeted the media. The idea was to make the demonstration as visual as possible to try to create as much imagery for the media to take and use. The reasoning was that highly visual actions would have a massive impact on public perception and on government itself. So the ripple effects of this philosophy are still felt. The new AIDS cocktail drugs that came out recently were a direct result of Act Up’s actions that had been aimed at the F.D.A., the government public, the media and those in power. The whole reason Act Up was founded was to get drugs into bodies as quickly as possible, to speed up the drug-protocol system whereby it used to take years to get one of these drugs through the F.D.A. And now, they’ve created a fast track for HIV drugs. That was developed by the Treatment and Data committee of Act Up working with the F.D.A. and the NIH. The Treatment and Data team was the carrot, or the “good cop,” and the rowdy rabble (the civilly disobedient demonstrators) were the stick who would embarrass them publicly with images of people with AIDS using their bodies to shut down the F.D.A. and the NIH.

So, in a way, Act Up and the photographs it engendered had long-term implications. Photographers covering Act Up helped put an image in the public mind: These were people who knew the issues, who were intelligent and media-savvy, who were willing to fight and get arrested and do nonviolent things to get their message across. They weren’t just sitting back, waiting to die.

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