CONTACT on the Front Lines
An Interview with Robert Pledge

ROBERT 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to see AIDS coverage in our daily news diet, I’m sure you pored over many images concerning AIDS in Africa, much of it unpublished.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?

PLEDGE: 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.

FRIEND: Absolutely.

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.

PLEDGE: 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 we were…

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 Contact’s other photographers, didn’t 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...

PLEDGE: Right.

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.

Alon's 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.

FRIEND: Europe.

PLEDGE: …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 Alon’s 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 community.

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 and...

FRIEND: And he was one of your photographers at the time?

PLEDGE: Yes. He gave up photography for television later on. But that was one of the main things he did, worked on Haiti, and because of….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, though.

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 we’re 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...

PLEDGE: …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, etc.

FRIEND: So after human rights, AIDS became a second front for you all.

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.

PLEDGE: Absolutely.

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 in.

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