Monday, August 29, 2011

"It's A Beautiful Day" in the Aftermath of Hurricane Irene


Sand bags & Police guarding PATH
"It's a beautiful Day," Freddie Mercury's singing in a song. It is a beautiful day, indeed, here, in NYC metro area. To continue with Freddie's song, "the sun is shining." A newcomer to the area wouldn't believe that only yesterday hurricane Irene (then a tropical storm) skirted these parts of the world.
Hurricane Irene over Lower Manhattan

Newport Marina, through the window
Living on higher floors of highrises, we're used to much stronger winds, especially during the winter. The strange thing with this hurricane was that, I kept waiting for it to come, glued to CNN and also local news, and I kept waiting for the wind to pick up... and there was nothing. Count my blessings and can't complain. Still... I couldn't tell when it got here (Hurricane Irene, I mean) and when it left.

Hurricane Irene over Ground Zero
Verrazano_Bridge, Liberty State Park, Ellis Island, Statue of Liberty
Yes, we did have a lot of water, parts of some streets got flooded, but the wind only picked up after Irene had gone on up, on its way to New England.
Statue of Liberty Enveloped by Irene Fog

Irene Wind channel towards Jersey City 9/11 memorial
But we were prepared (boy we were prepared!) especially thanks to one of the BOD members we have here, who, together with the help of some of the management and other staff, did a fantastically fabulous job--from setting the sand bangs just right in front of the entrances to organizing everything, from storing on supplies to making sure everybody in the building had their questions answered and helped offered and given, whenever necessary.
Hurricane Irene Debris on the Hudson

Jersey Palm Trees in the After-Hurricane-Irene Wind
Some of the things we did in preparations for irene:
- packed up and stored away from windows all things that could break and/or electronics
- stuck up on food, water, batteries
- made sure flash lights were working, also cell phones (and camera) had fully charged batteries
- taped those windows (and we have lots of them) up, down, on the diagonal and any other direction possible; made sure everybody had enough tape to do the same
- prepared meals for staff members who stood overnight
- made sure that all residents freed their balconies of all items (that particular task took forever)
- made sure everything was stored away and safe, in the common use areas of the building
- interacted with residents/neighbors at all times
- had bags packed with necessary things for several days, just in case (thank the Skies, that was not necessary, but better safe than sorry)

Manhattan Sky after Hurricane Irene
Jersey Sky after Hurricane Irene
By the end of the day, the only reminder that Irene had passed by was a serious increase in wind. Jersey sky became a dramatic red, while Manhattan sky turned metallic-blue.Then the wind died out, too, following Irene, I guess.

Today is a beautiful day, indeed. The sun is shining...

Thanks for visiting! For more images, please check out my portfolio.
Alina Oswald
Author of Journeys Through Darkness

Thursday, August 25, 2011

RENT and Other Works Capturing Scenes from the Reality of AIDS

I'm reading THE AFTER-DEATH ROOM: JOURNEY INTO SPIRITUAL ACTIVISM, by Michael McColly. I know, it's an older book, but it's also of timeless importance, because of its fascinating documentation of the AIDS pandemic as a world-wide pandemic. At one point in his book, McColly mentions attending AIDS-related workshops and noticing attendees disappearing... as in,  they were in the room for sessions on, and then, they would just quit showing up.

This... image capturing this particular aspect of AIDS is not a new one. Rather, it is some sort of a re-occurrence, the ghost of a scene from the Broadway musical RENT (later made into a movie; I had the honor to interview the cast of (the movie) RENT for an article, Measuring Life, published in A&U Magazine). The "disappearing scene" (how I call it) is the ghost of a scene inspired by the reality of living with HIV/AIDS, a reality photographer Kurt Weston also talked about when I interviewed him when writing his biography,  JOURNEYS THROUGH DARKNESS. I'd like to share it with you, in the excerpt posted below. Hope you'll enjoy the read.

As always, thanks for stopping by.

Alina Oswald

During 1993 and 1994, while Kurt continued to monitor his SWAN workshops in Chicago, people would attend for a while, and then some of them would just quit coming. They were either too sick to leave their homes or already dead. It was typical for those attending AIDS support groups to see individuals participating and talking to others during the meetings and then disappearing, like they’ve never existed. And it was very frightening for the rest of those attending and trying to survive the disease… Years later, this real-life aspect of AIDS support groups was forever immortalized in the Broadway musical—and later on movie—RENT. 
While the conventional medicine didn’t have much to offer at the time and the only treatment available was making them extremely sick and weak, people living with the virus were desperate to try pretty much anything that could remotely improve their quality of life, and they would listen to anybody who could possibly offer them a chance to survive. AZT was a first positive step toward finding an AIDS treatment, but not all patients could manage staying on the drug.
A lot of them felt so sick while taking the medication that they quit caring about living. If the drug, which was supposed to keep them alive, made them feel so awful, what was the point of being alive in the first place. Some would rather be dead and end the suffering altogether.
Other patients believed in a conspiracy theory, that the Big Pharma (the large network of drug companies) was trying to make money off AIDS patients and that the chemicals in the AIDS drugs were poisonous and doing them more harm than good. So a lot of infected people refused to take the AZT or go through chemo-therapies. They attempted a more natural approach to fighting their AIDS. 
A lot of those attending SWAN workshops also became extremely interested in alternative treatments. Therefore, a lot of alternative medical practitioners showed up at SWAN meetings to inform the patients of other ways they could fight the virus.
“There’s a lot of fakery in the world of alternative treatments,” Weston explains. “And some practitioners were preying on people with life threatening, terminal illnesses. [But] if some [medical] doctor came to you and said that you were gonna die because you had this [disease] and there was nothing available to help you, and then somebody else came and said ‘I know something that they don’t know. I’ve got this thing that could help you.’ Wouldn’t you be tempted to try it?”

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Moluscum Contagiosum: A Skin Disease Caused by MCV, or Moluscum Contagiosum Virus

The further away we find ourselves from the "Dark Years" of AIDS, the more unaware we become of the strength of the disease, of the virus that causes it. This attitude leads to complacency which, itself, can be deadly. This year, thirty years after the appearance of the first cases of AIDS, some of us try to look back at the devastation--human, and not only--the disease, the pandemic has caused.

While working on my book, JOURNEYS THROUGH DARKNESS, I found it difficult to pronounce some of the medical terms. Moluscum contagiosum was one of these terms. Hearing the story and doing research of this skin disease made it even more intriguing, for me, to write about it. Here's an excerpt from my book, JOURNEYS THROUGH DARKNESS, a biography that tells the story of AIDS through the story of Kurt Weston, a photographer who, left legally-blind by the disease, became an AIDS warrior, and also an award-winning fine art photographer.

Hope you enjoy the read. As always, thanks for visiting,
Alina Oswald


Moluscum contagiosum is a skin disease caused by moluscum contagiosum virus, or MCV, which can be transmitted from person to person. MCV is also autoinoculable, meaning that the infected individual can transmit (or spread) it to himself. The MCV infection is generally characterized by small bumps that appear on the face, upper body, or extremities. MCV infects mostly children and adults with impaired immune systems, the latter experiencing the viral infection manifested as tiny, pearl-like papules on their face. When the T cell count falls below two hundred, as it happens in AIDS patients, the lesions start to spread.
Kurt Weston experienced MCV and the KS lesions at the same time on his face. Moluscum contagiosum virus felt like pebbles stuck under his skin that he spread on himself every day, when shaving. So his entire face became covered with warts. He had them around his eyes, on his nose, his cheeks and down his neck. And it looked unimaginably horrible. “I would walk out and people would look at me like ‘oh my God, what’s wrong with this man?’” the photographer recalls. “It was horrifying. I looked like a circus freak and it was very devastating to me.”
Kurt’s doctor sent him to a dermatologist who was nice, but who mostly treated teenagers with pimples on their faces. The specialist had never before treated the kind of disease Kurt had, but he did his best.
He explained to his patient that there were two ways to treat the warts. One involved freezing the warts with liquid nitrogen and the other, dabbing them with a blistering solution. The dermatologist was skeptical using liquid nitrogen on his patient’s face because it could cause scarring and discoloration, so he advised to go with the blistering agent. 
The substance used in the procedure was extracted from a blister beetle carrying the chemical in its body. The dermatologist was to dab Kurt’s warts with the solution, which, in turn, would cause the warts to pop. Then the blister would heal and the warts would go away. Kurt thought about it and decided to go with the blistering agent.
The dermatologist then told his patient that he was going to cover only twenty warts at a time because the procedure was going to be “really hard” on Kurt. So the doctor took what looked like a long toothpick, dipped it into the blistering solution and started dabbing some of the warts on his patient’s face, and then let him go home.  
Once out of the doctor’s office, Kurt met one of his friends and together they went shopping. While in the store, he started feeling something really itchy on his face and while he couldn’t see his own face, his friend could. “Oh my God, Kurt,” the friend said, “your face is turning into a huge blister!”
The two of them ran out of the store as fast as they could and headed to Kurt’s place. Once inside, the photographer rushed to the bathroom and stared at his reflection in the mirror. His face looked like one of a burn victim. Blisters had filled up over the warts and literally popped with fluid, and there was also a bit of blood gushing out of them and of his face. It also hurt like hell… so bad that at night he couldn’t turn his face on the pillow.
Kurt had to go through several of these sessions for almost one year. During this time, KS lesions and MCV warts covered his face. While Kurt didn’t want to leave his home looking like that, he had no other choice, because there was nobody else there to do the shopping and run the errands for him. The sad part was that the warts went away right after the treatment but once the skin healed, new warts grew right back. They seemed to never go away entirely and it took an endless battle to get rid of them. It was debilitating for Kurt and, sometime in 1994, he decided he couldn’t continue the treatment any longer.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Severe Weather: Thunder & Lighting over Jersey and New York


Friday evening, August 19th 2011, a dark yet not that loud thunderstorm flew over Jersey and New York City, on its way to the ocean. First, the Jersey horizon turned navy-blue then black. Lighting arrows slashed the clouds, then became diffused, as if illuminating the clouds from within, like a light-bulb in a lamp. Rain splashed everything in its way, blurring street and car lights into ghost-like reflections. Clouds sailed with the wind across the sky, taking no time to blacken the Island of Manhattan, obscuring it from view. Yet, a few ferry boat lights still beamed their light up and down a very choppy, very dark Hudson River. The rumbling eventually vanished away into the night.

In the morning all was still, as if nothing had ever happened. Manhattan came alive again, silhouetted by the rising sun.

As always, thanks for visiting,
Alina Oswald

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

9/11 Lights and the Katyn Memorial

The Katyn memorial (or the Katyn soldier, as I call it) stands 34 feet tall on a granite base that contains Katyn soil, at Jersey City's Exchange Place. It is a timeless reminder of the Katyn massacre of 1940, when tens of thousands of Polish nationals were massacred at Katyn, in the Russian forest, by Stalin's Soviet troops. The event led to the occupation of Poland--the eastern part fell under Stalin's Soviet Union occupation.

Created by Polish-American sculptor Andrzej Pitynski, the memorial was unveiled in June 1991, displaying a bronze statue of a soldier, gagged, his back impaled by a bayoneted rifle. The Katyn memorial is also a place of gathering, of commemoration and also celebration. It's where local festivals take place--the Jersey City Pride festival, the Irish festival, and others. Also, in the wake of the late Polish president, Lech Kaczynski, who died last year (2010) in a plane crash, together with his wife and the entire administration on their way to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Katyn, locals, especially those of Polish decent, stopped by the statue to lay flowers and light candles. I had the honor to photograph them. Some of the images I posted on my CNN iReport profile were actually vetted by CNN.

There's also a 9/11 plaque on the pedestal of the memorial. Every 9/11 I try to photograph the lights behind the Katyn soldier. Initially I wanted to call the image  "Backstabbing" or something of that sort, because as the Polish soldiers, intellectuals and officers who were back-stabbed and massacred during WWII, those who lost their lives in the 9/11 attacks had the same... fate. They never saw it coming...

September 11, 2005 offered a partially cloudy sky, which added to the overall symbolism of the day. In 2006, for some reason, I could not photograph the Katyn memorial with the 9/11 tribute lights in the background. If I remember correctly, there was some kind construction going on, something was definitely blocking the view. Otherwise I would have taken the shot.

On September 11, 2007, though, the Manhattan sky was clear, the Tribute Lights peering through the air, heavy with memories, tears and candle lights, to reach far into a Beyond yet to be unperceived by human eye.

A year later, in 2008, I slightly switched my angle and viewpoint on my image of Katyn Soldier and the Tribute Lights. That's how the black-and-white image emerged.

The Katyn statue silhouettes against an empty sky background, one without the Twin Towers. Lately, new constructions have started reshaping Lower Manhattan, and also changing Katyn Memorial background.

As always, thanks for visiting.
Alina Oswald
Author of Infinite Lights - A Decade of 9/11 Photography

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Infinite Lights: A Decade of 9/11 Tribute Lights 9/11/2001 - 9/11/2011

September 11, 2001. We all remember that day and where we were when the attacks happened. I was in a in Massachusetts, teaching mathematics at a classroom full of high school students. I remember a lady knocked and then entered the room. She whispered to me that two planes hit the Twin Towers. She advised to tell students only at the end of the class.
9/11 Lights, 9/11/2004. by Alina Oswald
9/11 Lights, 9/11/2004. by Alina Oswald

Afterwards, when we joined the others in the cafeteria, we were not prepared to see the images flickering on the TV screens. Everybody was in shock--mouth open, waiting breathless for the bits of information trickling in from reporters as shocked as we were. Nobody knew yet what had really happened, or why...

I remember the empty, quiet skies over the Boston area, the cars with their headlights on during the day, the music-less radio stations on the commute to/from work. I remember the longing for the time when we were all complaining about the noise in the sky, the noise that we would have done anything to hear at that moment (after all, Logan airport wasn't that far away). The noise would have meant that we were just finding our ways through yet just another crazy, chaotic day... Yet, the noise was not there. The sky was quiet and empty.
Peeking Through the Twin Towers Beams at Lower Manhattan. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
Peeking Through the Twin Towers Beams

I remember crying while driving back home, although I didn't know anybody working in the World Trade Center or New York City for that matter. I remember the first song that finally aired on the radio, days after the attacks, was the national anthem.

Later on, in the evening, I'd walk the one-subway-station distance to Harvard Square to join those gathering there, holding hands and candles. Their grim faces only punctuated the general mood.

In the wake of 9/11 of 2001, somehow, we all became an entity, a One--more like that One-ness yogis talk about, at times. We became united, more... good, to paraphrase a character from Angels in America (one of my favorite movies). People would help their fellow... people on the streets, they would be kind, more compassionate to one another.

It was an eerie time, a time sketched out by shock and disbelief, loss and mourning, uncertainty... maybe fear. In 2001, September 11th Tuesday followed the Labor Day weekend and my visit to New York City--which had included a stroll in Lower Manhattan and Battery Park. To be able to see the Towers in all their height I had had to curve my spine backwards, stretching it into a full arch, a semi-circle. I had been in owe with the majestic beauty of the World Trade Center towers and the gigantic globe resting at their feet.

Unfortunately, I never made it inside the Towers, or up on the top, to take in the panoramic view. Now that chance has vanished, forever. The Towers turned into rubble. The place where they used to stand is now known as Ground Zero. What's left of the gigantic globe at the foot of the Twin Towers rests now in Battery Park.

I moved to New York City area a few years later. I took on photography. Each year on 9/11, I go photograph the Tribute Lights--the blue infinite lights that bypass clouds and fog and rain to remind us of that day, of those we've lost in the attacks, and also of our capability of being united, kind, and compassionate.

Although each September 11th I make a point to photograph the morning ceremonies and the evening lights, I don't stop at that. I try to capture 9/11-related images every chance I get, because we should never forget--not on 9/11, nor on any other day of the year. I'm fascinated by the blue lights--by the feeling of serenity and peacefulness they evoke. I hope to capture their majestic reflection against the Manhattan skyline once again this September 11th... or at least that's the plan.

As always, thanks for visiting,
Alina Oswald
Author of Infinite Lights: A Collection of 9/11-Related Photography

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Staying Alive: AIDS Lessons on How to Kick into "Surviving Mode" When Facing Extreme Situations

The AIDS pandemic will turn thirty (30!) this year, yet it has been forgotten by almost everybody for quite a few years. Nowadays, we don't really fear AIDS or HIV anymore. We have our meds to keep us safe... (?)

Yet, there is a lot to learn, still, about the pandemic, especially from those who are still here to tell its story. AIDS takes away not only patients' health, but their dignity, their security, loved ones, bankrupting their lives at all levels. Only then, when there's nothing left, AIDS takes away their physical lives.

AIDS lessons may be priceless to those faced with extreme situations of any kind, especially nowadays, when we do face extreme financial and economical situations. I'd like to share with you a short excerpt from my book, Journeys Through Darkness, a biography that tells the story of AIDS through the story of a photographer, Kurt Weston, a long-term AIDS survivor who has lived with HIV and related sight loss for many years and who, in spite of all the obstacles, has become an award-winning visual artist.

Hope you'll enjoy the read and find Weston's story as inspiring as I did. As always, thanks for visiting,
Alina Oswald
Author of Journeys Through Darkness

Excerpt from Journeys Through Darkness. Chapter Four: Self-Reflections

[...] Learning how to stay alive required the photographer to take on some responsibilities of his own, including devotion and commitment to his life, and also a lot of time, money, and effort. These were the bases of living in a “surviving mode,” which meant focusing solely on living one day at a time, while slowing down his life to bare necessities in order to stay alive.
    A situation as extreme as a terminal illness forces individuals to stop and take time to relearn how to stay alive. Such an extreme situation starts by depleting individuals’ existence one layer at a time until reducing their lives to basic surviving needs.
    AIDS, for example, isolates and stigmatizes its victims, while taking away their social life, their connection with their families, friends, and peers. But it doesn’t stop at that. AIDS continues by peeling off layer after layer of one’s life, until there’s nothing left. While the network of familiar faces (friends and family) may vanish first, the financial layer comes next. Patients are left jobless. With their bank accounts depleted, some are forced to live on disability. AIDS also attacks the most private layer of human existence, that related to the self-images individuals reflect on themselves and on others. The disease mutilates the physical appearance of its victims to such extent that it can permanently fracture this aspect of patients’ lives. The intimate connections, the physical touches people need especially when during tough times, disappear shortly afterwards. And so do the personal and sexual lives of AIDS patients, because nobody desires them and nobody wants to be with someone whose body is deformed or who’s sick and dying.
    The actual physical death happens only after a slow and painful process during which patients are forced to experience the death of several dimensions of their existence. Those who manage to survive are sometimes left with virtually no means to do so; they are forced, therefore, to come up with their own ways of staying alive. Some do that by developing their own survival skills, like learning how to live in the moment or informing themselves about AIDS and researching various ways to stay alive even if only for a while longer. After all, they have nothing to lose.
    Through it all, staying alive becomes an art in itself. Learning this complex process is not easy and not everyone has the kind of strength or inspiration required to attempt it.
    Two decades after his AIDS diagnosis, Kurt Weston considers himself lucky to have connected with people who could help him quickly learn how to fight the disease, and who gave him the hope and strength necessary to keep focused on his surviving. The photographer believes that being around survivors at that stage in his life and his AIDS was a vital part of his winning the battle with his disease.