Tuesday, November 30, 2010

My AIDS Journey: Discovering The Last Light

The photograph featured an old man sitting in a chair, with his back at a tall glass door. The weak daylight poured inside the room to mingle with the pale artificial light of a night lamp. Wide and white, glowing within the shadows, the man’s eyes became yet another source of light in the photograph. With his face drawn and his eyes haunted, he seemed unaware of the mist of shadow and light surrounding him. Rather he gazed beyond the visual sphere of the photograph, as if he found himself at the crossroads between two realms, about to follow a path unfolding in front of him, into some mysterious unknown.
The man in the photograph—his eyes, in particular—haunted me for weeks and months to follow. His story was a mystery to me. At the time there was no way for me to know that I was to embark on a journey of discovery, a journey that would help me unveil his mystery.    
    I browsed through the Unfinished Works website where the award winning photograph was posted. A few clicks brought me to the story of "The Last Light," an image that, as I found out, was the artwork of a visual artist called Kurt Weston.
It so happened that, at the time, I was looking for an artist to interview for an AIDS-related publication. I had found the Unfinished Works website several months earlier and bookmarked it specifically for its Last Light, which now seemed to light the path to the possible subject of my article. Therefore, I emailed Kurt Weston and, luckily for me, he agreed to give me the interview.
    Months later I had the opportunity to travel to the West Coast to take part in a celebration of life and triumph over AIDS, as a guest at Joel Rothschild’s party. Diagnosed with AIDS on April 22nd, 1986, Rothschild—an AIDS activist, long-term survivor and bestselling author—believes in the power of living in the moment.  He talks about that in his books, Signals—A Story of Life After Life and Hope—A Story of Triumph.
While on the West Coast, I also had the chance to meet Kurt Weston and his partner, Terry Roberts.  What followed was an immersion into the visual artist’s world, as I followed Kurt Weston’s journey into darkness and his struggle to rediscover the light.    

PS: You can read more about Kurt Weston, "The Last Light" and many other images and their stories in my book, Journeys Through Darkness.

As always, thanks for visiting!
Alina Oswald

Chernobyl Disaster (Apr 26, 1986), World Pinhole Photography Day, and much more

April 26th: My Chernobyl Story

My Chernobyl Story: The Beginning of My Journey Through AIDS Journey

What do Chernobyl disaster, AIDS and World Pinhole Photography Day have in common? Find out in this excerpt from Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography of AIDS, an excerpt which talks about my Chernobyl story and the permanent imprint it left in my life.

I'll always remember Chernobyl, April 26th, 1986, the day of the disaster, for more and different reasons than the obvious. Here's my Chernobyl story... the beginning of my journey through AIDS... and, lately, the.

Pinhole Branches. Pinhole photography. Copyright 2007 by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
Through the Branches. Pinhole Photography.
I attended my first AIDS conference in Eastern Europe as my mother’s guest—she is a physician specializing in infectious diseases. It was April 1986 and I was on my spring break. At the time I felt pressured to decide what I wanted to do in life, but I wasn’t planning to follow in my parents’ footsteps and study medicine. By then all I knew about AIDS was the Rock Hudson story and his “before” and “after” AIDS diagnosis pictures splashed all over glossy magazines.
I remember sitting on the couch in my room, in my parents’ apartment, flipping through the glossy pages of Paris Match (a French publication), opening it right in the middle. On the left page, a young and handsome Rock Hudson displayed the star-like smile everybody knew. The right page displayed the portrait of a gnawed-faced, almost unrecognizable actor—with his eyes ghostly, his appearance somber, like a much older version of the handsome actor on the opposite page.
What kind of disease could do this to a person, seemingly in no time at all?
That particular April afternoon I entered the building of the university of medicine—an old building with prestige, in an architectural style of its time, with a personality of its own—and sat next to my mother in a tall, dim-lit spacious room with no idea of what I was getting myself into.
“What do you think?” Mom asked several hours later, when the conference was over.
I looked at her and all I could say was, “Interesting.”
I didn’t know, then, that at the time I was attending the AIDS conference, a Los Angeles man was being diagnosed with AIDS and given only months to live. His name is Joel Rothschild and I was to meet him almost two decades later.  
Several days after attending the AIDS conference, Chernobyl happened and plagued most of Europe, disturbing many people’s lives in the worst possible ways. We found out about the explosion while listening to a radio station from Western Europe—I believe it was one of the Scandinavian countries that was first to announce the disaster. It all happened in the week before Orthodox Easter, when most people clean, cook, bake and work from dawn to sometimes dusk to get ready for the holiday.
In the middle of it all, water was turned off for several days. Fresh market products became unusable; therefore freshly bought milk, vegetables and fruits found their way into the trash containers. Picnic plans were canceled, although some individuals still went through with their already scheduled outdoor activities and enjoyed stretching on the irradiated grass.
TV and radio did not offer much information about the explosion, about what had really happened to those working at the nuclear plant or how many of them were dead or how we could stay safe. While at school, teaches would tell students to “lie flat on the street, by a sidewalk, and the wave of radiation [would] pass right above [your] body”! With the media forced to present the effects of the catastrophe as “nothing to worry about,” many people had to learn more practical information through word of mouth and people who had some knowledge about the reality and implications of the disaster.
Shortly after the Chernobyl accident, oncology centers, especially those at the border with the (then) Soviet Union, filled with patients. Cancer survivors were getting sick again, especially children and the elderly.
Meanwhile scientists kept busy measuring the levels of radiation in the grass, in food, and people. Apparently in no time at all, every layperson became an “expert” in reading and interpreting the radiation tests. In addition, every individuals had their own version of the truth, insisting that theirs was the right one, the true story of whatever had happened at the Chernobyl plant.
Stories started to spread like a plague, while the few and selected individuals who knew the grim reality and its implications, and the toll we were to pay during the decades to come were forced to keep quiet, silenced by an administration of terror and oppression, by a government that would accept nothing else but pure perfection, utopia, even if it was all fake.
In the midst of these events, the AIDS conference became kind of a blur. Little did I know then that the impact of that conference was going to follow me across an ocean and two continents, and guide me along both my professional—and personal—life. 

"Bed of Tulips" Pinhole Photography by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.

"Manhattan Sunrise" Pinhole Photography by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
PS: Many, many years after the Chernobyl nuclear explosion--April 26, 1986--I found out that Chernobyl Day falls close to World Pinhole Photography Day. This year's (2012) World Pinhole Photography Day is April 29th. Here's my very first pinhole photography, which I called "Bed of Tulips," and the second one, I called "Manhattan Sunrise," seen through a pinhole.

As always, thanks for reading.
Alina Oswald