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.
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 Koudelkas
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
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 peoples
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
Id 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,
its an idea that hits every hot button issue. It goes against
editors tastes. Its a gay issue. We wouldnt 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 Yorks 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 partys 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.
Its 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, doesnt
interest photo editors either. But photography has played a role. Act
Ups 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 Ups
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, theyve 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 werent just sitting back,
waiting to die.
the Treatment Action Campaign: