CHRIS BOOT, former director of Magnum Photos in London and New York, and recently the editorial director of Phaidon Press, is producer and editor of photographer Gideon Mendel's “A Broken Landscape: AIDS and HIV in Africa,” to be published this fall:

It was in 1986 that the British government mounted the first print and television campaign on the subject of AIDS, aimed at the whole population, with its volcanoes and falling tombstones in shades of black and slate, and the message that we were all at risk. It created a deluge of media interest in the gay plague, full of prejudice and Gothic half truths. After years of dealing with the disease in isolation, feeling ignored and unsupported by the rest of society, gay men were now angry. In retrospect, the government campaign probably coincided with a new confidence in the gay community regarding what we had to do, surfacing after years of fear and insecurity. Certainly this was a pivotal moment. A national stage had been created for AIDS, on which a battle was waged between the forces of light and darkness over how AIDS was to be perceived and understood.

By 1987 there was a strong sense among many photographers and photographic artists in London that they should act personally. In my job at The Photo Co-op, and with the support of artist and phototherapist Jo Spence and the art-historian-turned-AIDS-activist Simon Watney, we started an AIDS-and-photography networking group. We aimed to support and empower people with AIDS and ARC (AIDS-related complex, as it was then known) through photography. We wanted to use our photographic abilities in the wider ideological debate. The group only lasted a year or so, but it spawned two exhibition projects which toured the U.K.

In 1989, I produced “Bodies of Experience: Stories About Living with HIV” for Camerawork, the gallery and magazine. The intention was to find new ways to describe HIV photographically and to do so from the perspective of the people living with the disease, as an alternative to the victim photography which the newspapers were full of at the time. Work ranged from the photojournalism of John Cole to the fantasy portraits of Rotimi Fani Kayode. The exhibition was dominated by the testimonies of people with HIV, perhaps an acknowledgement that photographs could never be enough. The AIDS and Photography group also led to an exhibition, which opened at London’s Institute of Contemporary Art in 1990, curated by Sunil Gupta and Tessa Boffin, called “Ecstatic Antibodies: Resisting the AIDS Mythology,” and including the work of Isaac Julien and Lynn Hewett. Unlike “Bodies of Experience,” there was no attempt to correct the documenting of AIDS. More overtly political, it specifically championed “queer desire” and mounted a frontal attack on the representation of AIDS, and on related racism and homophobia.

Both exhibitions confronted the media's representation of AIDS and branded it inadequate. As Britain's earliest initiatives of this kind, they marked out the possibilities for photographers-as-AIDS-activists to come. For those involved, they were necessary interventions. We had to respond and we did.