Wednesday, September 5, 2012

September 5th: Remembering Freddie Mercury, Reason to Talk About HIV/AIDS

September 5th: Remembering Freddie Mercury (Happy Birthday Freddie!), Reason to Talk About HIV/AIDS and Journeys Through Darkness


There are not too many days in a year when AIDS takes the front stage. While AIDS has faded away from many people's memories, some of us still remember December 1st, World AIDS Day (first WAD was on December 1st, 1988). Few also remember June 5th, because the epidemic reached American shores on June 5th, 1981. Others keep track of dates--of birth and death--of memorable individuals... like Freddie Mercury, Queen front-man. Freddie Mercury was born today, September 5th, 1946. He died of AIDS-related causes on November 24th, 1991. 

While thinking of Freddie today and listening to his music every single day (it is inspiring and I am a fan), I also remember AIDS each and every day. It is impossible for me not to have HIV/AIDS on my mind each and everyday, because I've been covering the topic for about a decade or so. Today I'd like to invite others to talk about the AIDS pandemic.

Therefore, today the honor to introduce Chip Alfred, A&U: America's AIDS Magazine Editor-At-Large, and Kurt Weston, award-winning, legally blind photographer. A few months ago, Alfred was nice enough to read my book, Journeys Through Darkness and write an inspiring review, which was originally published in Art & Understanding--America's AIDS Magazine. In this post, Alfred shares the long version of his review. Also, Kurt Weston, a visual artist, long-term AIDS survivor, mentor and wonderful friend, and the subject of Journeys, shares a few of his images inspired by the early years of the pandemic.


Hope you enjoy the read and images!
As always, thanks for stopping by,
Alina Oswald
Author of Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography of AIDS



INTO THE LIGHT

Journeys Through Darkness. book cover. Cover photograph by Kurt Weston. Cover design by Alina Oswald
Journeys Through Darkness
Journeys Through Darkness Chronicles the Odyssey of a Visually Impaired Artist and His Quest to Recover the Light

To put it simply, Kurt Weston’s story is a writer’s dream. Having endured more than his share of nightmares, Weston, a long-term AIDS survivor and legally blind photographer, is an inspiration to anyone confronted with seemingly insurmountable obstacles to overcome. In a new biography, Alina Oswald deftly takes the reader along on Weston’s path to healing and self-discovery – occasionally winding up in some dark and desperate places. The author paints a meticulously-defined picture of a man courageously facing his demons head-on, surviving and thriving against all odds. Journeys is a befitting tribute to Weston and a testament to the strength of the human spirit.



Dark Angel. Photo copyright by Kurt Weston. All Rights Reserved.
"Dark Angel" Photo by Kurt Weston
The book is illustrated with Weston’s photographs, which sometimes reveal more in one snapshot than any words can describe. The titular cover image, Journey Through Darkness, says it all. As a result of AIDS-related CMV retinitis, the photographer is totally blind in one eye and retains only peripheral vision in the other. Comparing his sight to looking at an impressionist painting, he photographed a series of self-portraits through glass sprayed with a foaming glass cleaner. “I would like to be able to wipe away all that cotton that keeps floating in front of my eyes and get a clear view of what I want to see out in the world,” he says. What Oswald wants us to see in this biography is not Weston’s life story from the beginning. Instead, the book follows his adult life starting with his career in photography through two decades of cheating death to his transformation into an award-winning visual artist. In the late-eighties, he landed a plum gig as a fashion photographer in Chicago, and then began losing friends to a mysterious virus. In 1991, he took his first HIV test and was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS, had only three T cells, and was suffering from PCP - his first of three bouts. He was admitted to the hospital, where the doctor told Kurt’s mother her son might not live to see another day. His mom, who had overcome TB and hepatitis, grasped his hand and said, “You are my son and you’re strong. You got this strength from my genes and you’re not going to die, because you too are a survivor.” Kurt wasn’t so sure she was right, but he proved that doctor wrong – as he did more doctors to come.




"Anger is an Energy" Photo Copyright by Kurt Weston. All Rights Reserved.
"Anger is an Energy" Photo by Kurt Weston
With compassion and a deep level of understanding, Oswald recounts the photographer’s vivid memories of the early days of the “gay cancer”– the fear, the panic, the stigma, and the sadness. Weston, searching for new connections and a sense of purpose, started volunteering with AIDS organizations and founded a support group, Surviving With AIDS Network (SWAN). When activist organizations like ACT UP took to the streets in protest of the government’s inaction, Weston took his camera and created “Anger is an Energy,” a photograph he says helped give him hope and the strength to survive. Oswald writes, “There were times when Kurt’s own AIDS, and later on his vision loss, had threatened to push him further into the labyrinth of confusion, at times almost to a point of no return…His secret for surviving had always been to never allow failures from his past to govern his life, to alter his future and keep him from making the best of his situation.” Weston became a fierce advocate for his own wellbeing – sometimes resorting to begging medical practitioners for what he wanted. He educated himself on every medication, experimental treatment, alternative therapy and nutrition plan out there. With a support system of AIDS survivors, he became a warrior against the virus and its effects, acknowledging the key role spirituality can play in the healing process. “Weston became very conscious of the multi-dimensional reality - from physical to metaphysical - surrounding him,” Oswald explains. He believed he could do more than just live. He could live a full, productive and meaningful life. “Every time you go back down to just surviving, you can’t really move forward because you only focus on getting to the next day,” Weston shares with the author. “It’s not good for anybody to remain static.”


"Arrival of the Angel" Photo Copyright by Kurt Weston. All Rights Reserved.
"Arrival of the Angel" Photo Copyright by Kurt Weston

In the mid-nineties, after losing most of the people close to him, Weston moved to Orange County, California to live with his younger brother. The following year, his physician declared him legally blind. With all he had been through - dealing with PCP, a severe battle with KS, a series of opportunistic infections and sickening side effects from medications - this was still one of the toughest pills to swallow. “I was devastated because I had spent my life working as a photographer and as a visual artist, and now I was no longer capable of doing this, or so I thought,” he recalls. Just as he triumphed over other stumbling blocks, he managed to overcome this too. He turned this new challenge into a newfound passion – expressing his struggles coping with illness through art. He studied Braille, adopted a seeing-eye dog, learned how to live his life and practice his craft with the limited vision he had. Eventually he found satisfaction in helping others, starting a vitamin co-op to provide therapeutic nutrients to people living with HIV, and speaking to groups of young people through programs like Positively Speaking. Also, something wonderful and unexpected happened to Weston. He found the love of his life, Terry Roberts, a fellow AIDS survivor and activist. The two men remain soulmates to this day. According to Oswald, the Huntington Beach couple complement each other perfectly and frequently finish each other’s sentences. Roberts is Weston’s guiding light, while at times Weston is Roberts’ voice - advocating when necessary for his quiet partner’s heath. Last year, expressing his devotion to Roberts, Weston entered and was selected a winner of the “Fight HIV Your Way” contest after submitting a photo of his other half holding a heart-shaped pillow and an essay that ended with, “He will forever hold my heart.”


Kurt Weston: Self-Portrait. Copyright by Kurt Weston. All Rights Reserved.
Kurt Weston: A Self-Portrait.
Weston is the heart and soul of this book, but Oswald describes it as “A Biography of AIDS,” documenting in explicit detail what it’s like living with AIDS and fighting it day to day. Flipping the last page of the book is like completing a graduate course in HIV/AIDS or perusing a copy of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About AIDS but Didn’t Realize You Were Supposed to Ask. A must-read for anyone affected by HIV, Journeys is bound to move you – either to the edge of your seat, waiting for the next shoe to drop; or to your feet, rooting for its hero every step of the way. This story of a man who never gives up is hopeful, uplifting and empowering.   

Journeys Through Darkness is available for purchase at amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.

For more information about Alina Oswald, visit alinaoswald.blogspot.com

Visit kurtweston.com to see Kurt Weston’s body of work.


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