Thursday, December 29, 2011

Warrior Within: An Interview with Award-Winning Photographer and AIDS Warrior Kurt Weston (originally published in Art & Understanding Magazine)

Warrior Within: An Interview with Award-Winning Photographer Kurt Weston originally published in A&U Magazine 
To learn more about Kurt Weston and his work as an artist and AIDS warrior, please check out Journeys Through Darkness, A Biography of AIDS

"Warrior Within" article was originally published in A&U's November 2005 issue. It received a few nice comments from readers (thank you!), allowed me to get to get to know better award-winning photographer Kurt Weston and, ultimately, led to my friendship with Weston and to writing a book on his life and art, Journeys Through Darkness

I'd like to share with you "Warrior Within," which was possible because of my discovery and fascination with Weston's intriguing, inspiring and breathtaking photography. 

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

"Warrior Within" by Alina Oswald, originally published in A&U - America's AIDS Magazine
Journeys Through Darkness
Photographer Kurt Weston works through AIDS-related visual loss to capture a portrait of the pandemic.

Photographer Kurt Weston sees his AIDS as a battle.  And he needs to be a warrior willing to fight the virus that is destroying him.   
“I never really wanted to just give up, even when I had the KS lesions.  I think part of it was the fear of dying, but I didn’t just wait for it to happen,” he says, explaining his source of positive attitude during the course of our phone interview. 

Diagnosed with AIDS in 1991, the award-winning visual artist considers protease inhibitors a miracle that literary saved his life.  But, as he was restoring his health, he was also becoming legally blind, diagnosed with CMV retinitis in 1994.

“I was devastated because here I had spent my life working as a photographer and as a visual artist and I was no longer capable of doing this… or so I thought, because I couldn’t see anything in focus.  I don’t see anybody’s face,” he says.  “I see… like, if you look at the palm of your hand.  That’s what I see of a person’s face.  So, I didn’t think I could ever photograph again.”

Fortunately, it turned out he could.  And his first challenge was finishing the 1999 calendar for the Asian/Pacific Crossroads. 

Many challenges later, after attending low vision technology studies at the California Braille Institute and experimenting with his new special equipment, Weston realized that he could, indeed, photograph.  With the help of organizations like the Foundation for Junior Blinds (now known as Junior Blind of America) and California Department of Rehabilitation, he purchased the special equipment—handheld telescope, special magnification glasses, and magnification and reading software programs like Zoomtext—necessary for him to continue his work.     

“It was scary.  A lot of times, I would take a leap of faith and do a lot of experimentation,” he recalls this learning process.

Kurt Weston is a firm believer that a person can work through a situation, no matter how extremely challenging and helpless it may seem, and use the experience to help others who find themselves in similar circumstances.  This philosophy has helped him work off the dilemmas in his own life while giving his life a deeper sense of meaning. 

His early work in the AIDS community includes the founding of SWAN (Surviving With AIDS Network) a grass-root type of organization for people living with HIV/AIDS, as well as founding the Orange County Therapeutic Nutrients Program, which assists people living with HIV/AIDS.

One of the many ways Weston helps others today is through VSA arts (the Very Special Arts), an international organization committed to promote disabled artists.  In June 2005, as a member of a VSA’s Board of Directors, he went to D.C. with a VSA contingent to advocate for the continuation of funding because “this rigid administration and our wonderful President were trying to take all the money away from arts and education.”  He finds this absolutely appalling because these funds are vital for the careers of many potentially good artists. 

From his perspective, Weston considers art a vehicle through which we can experience the nature of humanity.  In today’s society consumed by superficial realities, his art goes beyond the body and into a metaphysical dimension, connecting with the viewer on a more profound, spiritual level. 

Friday, December 23, 2011

Thirty Years of AIDS: The AIDS Alphabet--J is for (pneumonia Jiroveci) and also for Journey Through Darkness

Thirty (30!) Years of AIDS: The AIDS Alphabet--J is for (Pneumonia Jiroveci) and also for Journey Through Darkness

"Lava Fields: Journey from Crater to Ocean"

In the AIDS alphabet, the letter J is for Jiroveci, aka AIDS pneumonia, PCP or Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. PCP is a lung infection commonly seen in people with compromised immune system. PCP, otherwise known as AIDS pneumonia, usually occurs in patients with a T cell count below 200. As in the case of CMV (cytomegalovirus), the organism that causes PCP can enter the healthy human body and live peacefully in it for the rest of its life, not causing any damages. Only when the immune system weakens or deteriorates, the organism activates and can cause pneumonia. In the early days of AIDS, PCP was too often a regular cause of AIDS related death for AIDS patients. Medications used for treatment of PCP include: Bactrim, Pentamidine, Mepron (Atovaquone), and Primaquine.

"Lava Fields: Close-Up"
As a side-note, after years of using HAART regimens to keep in check opportunistic infections (O.I.s) like PCP (pneumonia jiroveci), an alarming news spread through the community--PCP is back. To find out more, check out the related A&U article.

Aside from the medical terms, J is also for Journey--the journey we all take through life, the journey individuals living with life-threatening diseases (like cancer or AIDS) take on their way to recovery. On a more personal note, Kurt Weston's image "Journey Through Darkness" inspired Journeys Through Darkness, the book I wrote on Weston's life and art. Here's a short excerpt describing the making of "Journey Through Darkness," from Weston's series of self-portraits called Blind Vision.

As always, thanks for stopping by,

Excerpt from Chapter Six: Journey Through Darkness

cover of Journeys Through Darkness a biography by Alina Oswald with photographs by Kurt Weston
Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography
The Blind Vision series is only one of Weston’s works to capture an allegorical portrait of the visual artist as he traverses through his journey. In that sense, art becomes an amazing vehicle for Weston, allowing him to use his own life experiences to communicate, inspire, inform and also to visually intrigue his audience. From his perspective, Kurt Weston considers art a means through which people can experience the nature of their humanity. Art can be silly and fun, and it can be entertaining. It can communicate a tremendous amount of information, emotion, and inspiration. In today’s society, consumed by superficial realities, Kurt Weston’s art goes beyond the physical realm of human existence and into a metaphysical dimension, connecting with the viewer on a more profound and spiritual level.
    “I think my life is meaningful,” Weston comments, talking about his source of inspiration. For him life is so fragile and it can be gone in an instant. That’s reason enough for the artist to capture his experience with disability, loss, pain and death in his visual art, because the experience defines him as a real person and also as an artist.
    Although his most recent works include digital photography and sometimes require no camera at all (just a flat scanner which he uses to scan in people’s faces and also his own face), Weston uses regular film and he prints his images on silver gelatin paper so that they can last forever. He wants future generations to be able to look at this work and say, “This was happening at this time in history and this is the impact it left on people whose lives it touched, this pandemic.”
    To Weston, black-and-white is a medium in itself in terms of representing reality. He doesn’t want color to be an “intrusion” in his work, a “distraction” from the message his art communicates to the viewer. Black-and-white offers Weston’s art a concentration of expression. And he likes that intensity, in particular in his portraits.
    Kurt Weston began creating the Blind Vision series in 2000. To represent his visual disturbance described as “pieces of cotton stuck in my eye, floating every time I move my eye,” the artist sprayed a glass with foaming glass cleaner and took a self-portrait sitting behind it. “You see my hand pushing away the foam, which is what I would love to do,” he explains, “I would like to be able to wipe away all that cotton that keeps floating in front of my eye and get a clear view of what I want to see out in the world.”     

Monday, December 19, 2011

Thirty Years of AIDS: The AIDS Alphabet--I is for Immunomodulators

Thirty Years of AIDS: The AIDS Alphabet--I is for Immunomodulators (Interleukin-2)

"The Hope Principle"
On our journey through the AIDS alphabet we find ourselves at letter I, for Immunomodulators. A class of immunomodulators is administered to patients with weakened immune systems (for example cancer patients or AIDS patients). Here's a short excerpt from JOURNEYS THROUGH DARKNESS that, I hope, sketches a portrait of life on these medications through the story of long-term AIDS survivor, award-winning legally blind photographer Kurt Weston

Self-Portrait w/ Dab the AIDS Bear
Hope you enjoy the read. As always, thanks for stopping by.
Alina Oswald

Excerpt from Chapter Seven: Seeing the Future--Life’s Crystal Ball: Life Without Va

Journeys Through Darkness
The new HAART medications have saved Kurt Weston’s life. Bringing his immune system to a level that doctors considered “safe” was another story and required additional work, time, and treatments.  When he initially started taking Crixivan, Kurt’s immune system was virtually non-existent; therefore the medication, no matter how powerful, could not be as effective as doctors would have liked. They decided to try to boost Kurt’s immune system using immunotherapy—a treatment used to rebuild an individual’s impaired immune system, usually involving the administration of several cycles of immune system stimulants, called immunomodulators. 
    One example of an immunomodulator is Interleukin-2, a substance naturally produced by the body to stimulate its immunity. When the immune system is compromised and deteriorates below a certain level, like in the case of HIV/AIDS or cancer patients, the body cannot produce enough necessary Interleukin-2 and doctors can then intervene and administer a commercial version of the substance in order to boost the body’s immunity. For AIDS patients, Interleukin-2 has the potential to halt HIV progression by maintaining the T cell count in a normal range for prolonged periods of time. Interleukin-2 can also be used for cancer treatment, to prevent the reproduction of cancerous cells.
    For two consecutive years, between 1999 and 2000, Kurt Weston had to go through several Interleukin-2 cycles as part of his immunotherapy. During this time, the photographer received the medication several times a day, five days per cycle, every other month.
    The treatment was helpful and definitely necessary, because the stronger Kurt’s immune system was getting, the better the new HAART medications could help him regain his health and allow him to live an almost normal life. But the treatment also had severe side effects, similar to the ozone therapy ones, including a hundred and four degree fevers and rigors. And because of these side effects, by the second day on Interleukin-2, Kurt started feeling very sick. On the third day, he was holding on to dear life.
    Doctors had to prescribe several medications to control the side effects and help him complete the treatment cycles. Kurt ended up taking Demoral, a powerful pain medication that knocked him out, and also various over the counter pain killers, like aspirin, for the rigors. After each Interleukin-2 cycle Kurt was going through several days of convalescence before he could start feeling better and getting on with his life again, only to resume his therapy a mere month later.
    Kurt Weston survived the treatment and, two years later, he completed all the required immunotherapy cycles. As a result, his immune system eventually started to get better and his T cell count soared from three to six hundred seventy. CMV was again inactive in his body, yet the damage the virus had caused in his eyes was permanent.
To this day, in order to maintain whatever sight he has left, the photographer has to put daily prednisone drops in his eyes. The drops burn his eyes but allow him to continue photographing and creating visual art. 

Friday, December 16, 2011

Thirty Years of AIDS: The AIDS Alphabet -- H is for HIV

Thirty years of AIDS: The AIDS Alphabet -- H is for HIV

Journeys Through Darkness

HIV: Human Immunodeficiency Virus is a human virus that causes the weakening of an individual’s immune system by attaching itself to a protein on the T cell, called CD4. Once inside the T cell, HIV uses its own genetic material to make copies of itself. The T cell is destroyed in the process.

Much has been written about HIV/AIDS. I've written much myself--those interested can check out my most recent article on AIDS conspiracy theory. Therefore, for letter H (for HIV) of the AIDS alphabet I don't really want to talk about HIV but one of the many ways it has altered people's lives. Here's an excerpt from "Chapter Four: Self-Reflections" from JOURNEYS THROUGH DARKNESS, a biography of AIDS including my own journey through HIV/AIDS. 

As always, thanks for visiting!
Alina Oswald
"Reflections" by Alina Oswald

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.
    More than fifteen years 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.
    While frequenting Test Positive Aware, Kurt was also completely taken by surprise to come face to face with people he’d known for a long time, in his pre-AIDS diagnosis existence. And he could read the same surprise in their eyes. And although it was obvious, every one would inquire what the other was doing at TPA, yet no one was willing to say anything more or tell the true reason behind their presence inside an AIDS service organization building.
    “Even in the gay community, if people knew you were infected, you were damaged goods,” Weston explains. “[They] didn’t want to have anything to do with you. It got so bad that friends I was going clubbing with, their first question was ‘are you feeling ok?’ or ‘have you been feeling all right?’”
    In general, people were attracted to the fun, the parties and the beautiful individuals attending these events. Nobody wanted to have to deal with other people’s burdens, especially when associated with HIV and AIDS. So, Weston and others like him didn’t really share their AIDS diagnoses with just anybody, but rather with only a few of the closest friends. It was a strange and at the same time sickening thing to do, but they had to constantly be aware of the aura of stigma and prejudice surrounding AIDS and those infected.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Thirty Years of AIDS: The AIDS Alphabet -- H is for HAART (December 7, 1995)

HAART: Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Therapy (or Treatment) regimens (or HAART, pronounced like “heart” and sometimes referred to as ART—Anti-Retroviral Treatment) consist of a combination of three (or sometimes four) anti-HIV drugs. Also known as “the cocktail,” HAART regimens have radically changed the progression of the disease. HAART regimens have the so-called “Lazarus effect” on AIDS patients, turning AIDS from a death sentence into a manageable, life-long disease. The new medications started being FDA approved in 1996. (Some mention December 7th, 1995, as the discovery of HAART regimens.)

Here's an excerpt from JOURNEYS THROUGH DARKNESS on HAART (pronounced like heart). Hope you enjoy the read. And, as always, thanks for stopping by.

Alina Oswald
Author of JOURNEYS THROUGH DARKNESS (now also available as e-book)

By January 1996 the photographer started to realize that he was already legally blind, but when he shared his concerns with his doctor, the HIV specialist remained sure he could save Kurt’s vision. The available solution was to try two new, experimental medications to treat the CMV.
    About the same time a new life-saving medication was coming on the market. It was one of the first protease inhibitors (or P.I.s) medications called Crixivan, and it was part of a new treatment called HAART (pronounced like “heart”) regimen, otherwise known as “the cocktail,” which was going to radically change patients’ lives, turning AIDS from a definite death sentence into the manageable disease that AIDS is today.  
    The Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Treatment was (and continues to be) a revolutionary triple-drug therapy made possible by Doctor Ho of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in New York City. HAART put Doctor Ho on the cover of Time magazine and made him “man of the year” in 1996.
    These new kinds of medications first started coming out in December 1995, so during the previous months, drugs like Crixivan were still under last, or phase three, of testing and on the verge of getting FDA approved. Because there were not enough medications for everybody needing them, some drug companies offered to give them to patients on a compassionate use basis only, otherwise known as expanded access programs.
    EAP was (still is) a program through which pharmaceutical companies distributed upcoming medications that were already in the pipeline but yet to be FDA approved to people who needed them most. This process had been very rare and extremely difficult before the AIDS years. Usually, a doctor had to call the manufacturer and then the FDA, fill out hours-worth of paperwork and wait for months to get a drug sample, enough only for one patient. And then start all over again, for the next patient. And so on.
    Fortunately AIDS has changed all that. The epidemic has forced people living with the disease and AIDS organizations to learn fast the drug industry regulations, to meet with people from the industry and with government officials and to draw proposals. But nothing really happened until people living with AIDS went out in the streets and demonstrated, literally, for their lives. A familiar example is the 1988 ACT-UP demonstration on Wall Street, New York City. [ACT-UP, or AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power was founded in 1987]
    Only then, the FDA started allowing drug companies to open trial programs as soon as they had available at least some safety information on the drug. That’s how the “drug lotteries” started in 1989. There were several such lotteries and participants had to meet several criteria.
    For example, in 1995 Glaxo provided a (then) upcoming medication called 3TC to over thirty-two thousand people in the United States. It was the largest expanded access program ever.
    Merck announced its Crixivan lottery in July 1995. The company was giving away drugs to eleven hundred people in the U.S. and an additional seven hundred fifty patients from twenty-nine countries in Europe, South America, Canada, and Australia. Merck was to pay for the drug, including shipping, and also for post-selection central laboratory tests and the urine pregnancy tests when and if needed. To be able to participate in Merck-organized P.I. lottery, AIDS patients had to meet several criteria, including to be clinically stable, to be able to follow directions and have certain T cell counts and viral loads. [Glossary to this book provides more detailed information regarding definition of terms like T cell count and viral load.]
    The lottery took place in August 1995. In Chicago, Kurt’s doctor put his patient’s name in the program. By December, Kurt’s new doctors in California received a phone call from his former physician: Kurt had won the lottery. He was one of the eleven hundred AIDS patients approved to receive the new drug. Winning the drug lottery literally saved his life. To this day, the photographer seriously doubts his ability to stay alive if it wasn’t for the new medication.
    He started treatment in January, right before he got his doctors to take out the silicone gel inserts from his arm. At the time, there was no way for Kurt, or his doctors for that matter, to imagine the powers of the new HAART regimens, to think that in just a matter of months they would be able to bring his immune system back on track and far from the dangerous zone of CMV activation. All Kurt’s physicians knew for sure was that if their patient didn’t receive the two experimental treatments fast enough, he would lose his vision for good. 
    But Kurt knew that his vision was already gone. It took him several months to get his doctor to accept the truth. It wasn’t until May of 1996 that the physician finally agreed to give Kurt a certificate stating that the photographer was legally blind. He needed it to register to the Braille Institute where he could learn how to survive in his new world of new insecurities, and darkness.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

World AIDS Day: A Look Back at 30 Years of AIDS and the AIDS Conspiracy Theories

December 1st is World AIDS Day (WAD), Reason to Take a Look Back at 30 Years of AIDS and the AIDS Conspiracy Theories

[Author's Note: This article was also published in Out IN Jersey Magazine.] As always, thanks for stopping by. Remember those who've lost their lives to AIDS today, on World AIDS Day, and every day.

Alina Oswald
Author of Journeys Through Darkness, a Biography of AIDS

Remember the movie Conspiracy Theory starring Julia Roberts and Mel Gibson? Have you ever wondered why you believed the Mel Gibson character’s side of the story and not what seemed to be the “official” version?

Truth is that conspiracy theories intrigue many of us. Our first reaction to them may be dismissal, but then we cannot help but give them that second thought. Conspiracy theories populate not only our fantasy—movies and novels—but also our reality. Take, for example, the conspiracy theory surrounding the Holocaust, moon landing or 9/11 attacks. Most of them are proven to be absolute lies. A few continue to fuel our pre-existing distrust in the official perspective on pretty much everything.

Take, for example, the AIDS conspiracy theory. We hear the word “AIDS” maybe more often this year because we find ourselves in the thirtieth year of pandemic. When it comes to AIDS, there are a multiple versions of related conspiracy theories, ranging from total denial of the existence of HIV (the virus that causes AIDS) to the existence of an available AIDS cure, which, though, is kept secret at the gain of the Big Pharma and the expense of millions of people living with HIV/AIDS.

The AIDS conspiracy theory has made the headlines, on and off, throughout the last three decades—in 2008, because of statements made by Reverend Jeremiah Wright, President Obama’s former pastor. Regarding the AIDS conspiracy theory those who tend to consider the idea of the government’s involvement are not necessarily AIDS denialists, but rather skeptics about the AIDS information (especially related to how HIV entered the U.S.) presented to them by the authorities. And maybe, just maybe, the seeds of this skepticism are based on experiences lived by the skeptics themselves or by their friends and loved ones.

When it comes to the AIDS conspiracy theory—by which HIV was man-made and introduced in the American gay society through the hepatitis B vaccine experiment of the late seventies as a biological warfare in order to cleanse the society of gays, drug addicts, prostitutes and the like—most people automatically dismiss the thought, mainly because the idea itself sounds like an impossible genocide, something nobody would be capable of. Yet history has proven otherwise—remember the Ukrainian genocide, right before the beginning of World War II, when millions of people died of starvation under Stalin’s orders; or the genocides decimating populations on the African continent, some of them in recent history.

In the U.S. many question the notion that the government allowed AIDS to happen. Many more question the truth (or falsity) of the AIDS conspiracy theory. Nobody can positively say when (or if) it can be proven with total certainty. What is proven, though, is the fact that the government allowed the Tuskegee experiment to take place. The Tuskegee experiment started in 1932 and lasted 40 years. It involved 600 black men—399 infected with syphilis and 201 not infected. Participants did volunteer but they were never told the whole truth about the experiment, nor were they cured of syphilis when penicillin became available and the official treatment for the disease. The experiment ended in 1972, only after the Associated Press broke the story.

But who’s ready to break the AIDS conspiracy story once and for all, one way or the other? The truth is that, among the experts on either side of this seemingly fragile topic, not many are willing to talk out loud about it (or reply to interview inquiries for that matter). Most medical experts dismiss it altogether. On the other hand, there are a vocal handful of AIDS conspiracy theory proponents who make their voices heard, but not many of them on the government’s involvement in the hepatitis B vaccine experiment that preceded only by a few years the first cases of AIDS in the United States.

Therefore to find the answers, those who don’t dismiss the idea of AIDS as a conspiracy theory turn to trusted people, those who’ve lived through the horrors of the dark, early years of AIDS. These warriors, long-term AIDS survivors, may not be able to certify the conspiracy theory. Yet, they can talk about true-to-life experiences they’ve lived through.

What makes it interesting is that some of these stories reflect intriguing coincidences in the larger picture of the controversy surrounding the AIDS conspiracy theory. For example, the hepatitis B vaccines were first offered to members of the gay community, in the late seventies, around 1978. Participants had to receive three shots in order to get the vaccine. Long-term AIDS survivors, nowadays, recall that they got all three hepatitis B shots, and then developed AIDS in the early and mid-eighties.

The first official U.S. AIDS casualties surfaced on June 5th, 1981, in Los Angeles, where doctors found a strange type of pneumonia, called Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, in five young gay men. Although the medical professionals didn’t know the cause of the disease, they knew it was associated with a weakened immune system. And the cause for this impaired immunity was still a mystery. The patients died within days. That same summer, an article published in the New York Times announced the appearance of a rapidly fatal form of a rare cancer—Kaposi’s sarcoma, or KS—that doctors had found in 41 homosexual men. During the first years of the U.S. AIDS epidemic, the “gay cancer” a.k.a. “gay plague” was considered an intrinsic part of the gay community, so much that it was called GRID or Gay Related Immune Deficiency.

For many members of the gay community the mention of the new “gay cancer” came as a blip in the news, during the early eighties. It wasn’t until a few years later that the “gay cancer” made headlines again, under a new name. In 1985 the Center of Disease Control announced that it wasn’t a (gay) cancer causing all the disease and suffering and death, but a virus called Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV. The CDC called the multitude of strange diseases the virus caused Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS. The Center of Disease Control also promised that a vaccine was on its way.

By the accounts of long-term AIDS survivors who’re here today to tell the story, the early eighties of the epidemic (1981 – 1985), known nowadays as the “dark years of AIDS,” were the years of silent sufferings and mysterious deaths. They were the years when a lot of people just… disappeared. One day they were around, the next they were gone, and nobody knew for sure what had happened to them. It took four years of too many silent deaths and one publicized celebrity death for AIDS to make the headlines in the U.S. It wasn’t until the disease claimed the life of actor Rock Hudson (1985) that its threat was brought home to many Americans. 

But that doesn’t mean that the first four years of loss and suffering and sickness of unknown people were forgotten. They have inspired many artists to capture the epidemic in various art forms, from literature and Broadway shows to film and photography.

Author Randy Shilts wrote about the forgotten years of AIDS and the individuals who lost their lives to AIDS during those years in his book And the Band Played On, later made into a movie. In The Band Shilts touched on what is now common knowledge—the disinterest with which the Reagan administration treated the AIDS epidemic in the United States. It is a fact that President Reagan uttered the word “AIDS” for the first time only years after the appearance of the first official AIDS cases in America and after the CDC’s announcement of the HIV discovery.

Playwright Tony Kushner also touches on the indifferent treatment of people living with HIV/AIDS by the Reagan administration in his play, Angels in America, later made into an HBO movie. The story of Angels starts in 1985, a time when HIV was announced as the cause of AIDS, a time when Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions covered AIDS patients’ bodies, almost as a sign of what an AIDS diagnosis meant in those days.

Those living in New York City at the time may remember the giant billboard posted in Times Square displaying a picture of Ronald Reagan, his face covered with purple Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions. It was a protest message capturing the Reagan administration’s response to the AIDS issue. Photographed by Italian Oliviero Toscani, the image made the cover of Colors magazine in 1994.

When it comes to the artistic interpretation of AIDS, some artists are more vocal than others. Some become activists, while others use their artwork to express their opinions. That’s how we get thought-provoking, rich in symbolism pieces of visual art, such as Dion Hitchings' "aids." 

A similar message to the one captured in Hitchings' "aids" is present in Kurt Weston’s "Anger is an Energy." The photograph portrays a gay, HIV positive, African American man. The symbolism of this image is two-fold—the tolerance and acceptance with which the African American community surrounds its HIV positive and/or gay members, and also the anger towards the disease seen as a source of positive energy, vital for AIDS patients to stay alive.

When it comes to AIDS, award-winning photographer Kurt Weston hopes that related artworks will become a testimony; that future generations will be able to look at the body of work inspired by AIDS and say, “This was happening at this time in history and this is the impact it left on people whose lives it touched, this pandemic.”