Depictions of AIDS

by Ed Osowski

Living Proof by Carolyn Jones, Abbeville Press, 1994, 88 pages, and Positive Lives: Responses to AIDS A Photodocumentary edited by Stephen Mayer and Lyndall Stein, Cassell Publishing Co., 1993, 144 pages.

Look through the collection of works by twelve photographers who worked for the Magnum News Agency collected in The Fifties: Photographs of America and one will notice an interesting gap. In the collection, scenes of domestic bliss and middle-class harmony are slowly pushed to the sidelines by the increased attention to issues that exploded in the sixties – civil unrest, the struggle for racial equality, the alienation of a younger generation. Illness is curiously missing. Wayne Miller’s two photographs of soldiers lying in hospital beds is as close as one gets.1 Wasn’t it during the fifties, one asks, when polio was such a threat, when photographs of children in “iron lungs” served as warnings of what would happen if one did not follow certain preventative measures? And wasn’t there a collective sigh of relief when the Salk vaccine was introduced and students formed lines in their school auditoriums and cafeterias to receive the life-preserving but somewhat frightening shot?2
Two recent collections of photographs – one British, the other American – face the challenge of how to depict lives affected by a positive HIV status. What both books demonstrate in the broadest sense is how the opening of closets, windows, and doors has also brought about a profound change in the very nature of what is the appropriate subject for art itself.
Living Proof, with approximately sixty portraits by Carolyn Jones and text by Michael Liberatore, is the simpler book. In an “Afterword” Jones writers that her aim was to present individuals “living positively with HIV/AIDS.”3 Her portraits are sleek, crisp, almost glamorous, and optimistic for the most part, appealing examples of good commercial art. Without Liberatore’s text there would be no way to know what links these individuals. But it is the very randomness of Jones’ selection – or call it the way in which AIDS democratizes those it visits – that shows, to quote Liberatore, that “people with AIDS are as normal and regular as anyone else.”4
Other qualities link Jones’ subjects as well. They all possess a certain self-assurance, an ease before the camera as performers and as participants. If there is something antic-like of playful in their poses – Robert Vagell, Jr. smiling as he sits in an enormous flower pot, a dahlia in his hand or Robert Vasquez holding an inflated condom – is to reinforce what another subject, Dennis Cornelius, asks, “Do I look like a victim?”
Jones’ subjects include several well-known individuals – the writers David Feinberg and Scott McPherson – and more whose names are known within the ranks of New York’s AIDS activists. For the most part, however, she photographs the ordinary and the unfamiliar – lovers appear with their partners; parents pose with their children; three sisters, blonde and glowing, smile and touch; seven members of a swim team, wearing goggles and swim suits, camp it up for the camera. Jones’ subjects, all posed against the same grey and neutral studio backdrop, may exist in a world that does not speak the word victim, but they also exist without context, in isolation. Even those individuals she photographs with props – a mixing bowl, pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, a cat, a scarecrow – seem peculiarly empty of meaning, almost stripped of content.
That is why a small group of portraits, not more than a handful, are truly startling. In them metaphor is allowed to hint at meaning. A father and a son, one free of the virus and the other HIV positive, are joined at their necks by their pet python. The image is troubling and disturbing. Depicting the writer David Feinberg with a hand covering his mouth holds one’s attention in a way few of Jones’ images do. Are Feinberg and Jones suggesting that what he has to speak – the tragedy of AIDS, the lost lives, the lost talents, the emotional and political turmoil it has created, is beyond speaking? In a third moody and somber portrait, a mother and son share the frame but not the same emotional space. Each looks away, each separated in shadows, their emotional distance a jarring note among a collection that strives, so frequently, to be “up.”
Positive Lives assembles the work of thirteen British photographers. It presents a grittier, more challenging, and more confusing look at how HIV and AIDS affect both the individual and the body social.5 The most striking works in the collection are essays by four photographers – John Sturrock’s bleak images of residents in a housing project in Edinburgh; Barry Lewis’ color images of young drag queens; Judith Pasnow’s scenes from the marriage of Katherine and a man identified only as “F;” and Gideon Mendel’s photographs of patients, their lovers and families in hospital wards. All are documentary images at their best.
Where Positive Lives loses its focus is when it strays from what makes the documentary photograph such a compelling piece of evidence. Mike Goldwater’s attempt to depict the response of the church to the AIDS crisis is strained and overdrawn: his staged scenes lack the emotional pull of images that are closer to the tradition of the documentary. They fail, as well, at raising any questions about image making in a post-modern environment. And Jenny Matthews’ pieces – in which she reworks and manipulates her negatives – come across as vague, creamlike, and evasive. In his introduction toPositive Lives Edmund White writes that “AIDS is happening to us all.” What links these two books are not visual echoes – they are too eclectic in their styles to accomplish that – but, rather, an over-reaching, democratic impulse to give a visual dimension to that “all” to which White refers.

Ed Osowki is president of Houston Center for Photography and a member of the National Book Critics Circle.


  1. Looking through other pictorial histories of the fifties reveals a similar absence of images of individuals affected by polio.
  2. While recognizing what Susan Sontag says about the role of metaphor in distancing one from illness in her essay “Illness as Metaphor,” it seems possible to read polio as “expressing” larger cultural/social issues like control and regimentation. What better image can only find for the safety that comes from acting like everyone else than the photographs of the long, orderly lines of students waiting for their “polio shots.” How American, one thinks, to find salvation by staying in line, by keeping to one’s place. One also realizes that being depicted as sick may simply have gone against the American grain, the Rotarian simple-mindedness, that refused to see a world with illness. It is not surprising that only two photographs of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt showing him in a wheel-chair survive. Decades before the country realized that physical disabilities only made one different, not inferior, FDR has to wage a camouflage campaign to keep his paralysis from public view.
  3. Living Proof
  4. Living Proof

The visual confusion in Mayer and Stein’s collection works effectively as a metaphoric equivalent for the cluster if illnesses it tries to depict. AIDS challenges the belief that science can heal all ills. That its appearance in the waning days of the twentieth century forces AIDS to carry apocalyptic overtones. Jones depicts a world pleasantly stranding still. For the photographers in Positive Lives we all are hurtling forward, at a pace that defies comprehension, towards a frightening future.