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. 

Kurt Weston’s 2005 Unfinished Works award-winning work captures The Last Light of a dear friend.  “He had AIDS and hepatitis,” the artist explains.  “He was seeing the light of day for the last time [because] two days after I took that picture he died.  He had been a big light for many people and helped the HIV/AIDS community for many long years.” 

Peering through Darkness is part of Kurt Weston’s Blind Vision series of self-portraits that show people the physical and emotional impact that visual loss can have on an individual.  In order to represent his visual disturbance—which he described like “pieces of cotton stuck in my eye, floating every time I move my eye”—he 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.”          

Weston believes that black-and-white offers his art a concentration of expression.  And he likes that intensity, in particular in his portraits.  He uses regular film and 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 who’s lives it touched, this pandemic.”

But Kurt Weston is also concerned about today’s young generation and the impact HIV/AIDS has on it.  A volunteer in the Positively Speaking HIV Prevention program, he goes to schools and talks to students about HIV/AIDS. 

AIDS Day. Copyright Alina Oswald 2010. All Rights Reserved.
“It’s strange that people are ignorant about how they [might] get AIDS,” he comments.  “We need a lot more of [education and prevention].  Unfortunately, this [Bush] administration has fallen short in terms of discussing this issue. They basically only want people to know about abstinence.  It would be nice if young people could abstain from sexual behavior, but that’s not the reality.  The reality is that a young person with hormones coursing through the body is going to engage in sexual behavior.  And it’s to [this kind of] individuals that we need to provide safer sex messages in terms of how to do it safely and prevent getting infected.”

What about an AIDS cure?  Kurt Weston believes that stem-cell research will be an integral part of finding a cure, one that will come from some type of genetic therapy.  Until then, he reminds, there is so much work to be done.

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