The Archives: Cataloging the Dead

by themusingsofabohogirl

The intersection between illness and photography has always fascinated me. Seeing pictures of cancer patients offering the photographer a weak smile while receiving chemotherapy feels voyeuristic, we’re meant to feel something. Sadness? Hope? The point is we’re meant to feel an emotion that evokes us to do something. A visual image that reminds us one day we could be receiving chemotherapy and wouldn’t we want the best drugs possible to save our lives. The intentions vary, but there are always intentions. The photography associated with the AIDS epidemic is different, even the images from professional photographers reflect a desire to be seen. Each picture attempts to capture a vanishing body and those fleeting moments before death. In the last few days, I’ve combed through images only to realise that everyone pictured was dead; each photo became a visual obituary of the young and ailing.

It’s surreal to write more than 25,000 AIDS victims had died before President Reagan said the word AIDS in a speech, but this fact puts the photography in context. Imagine being sick, but the government wouldn’t acknowledge the illness; everyone is dying and you’re dying too, but no one knows how or why. A documenting your demise is some form of proof that this disease is real, even though the government refused to listen. There’s no real explanation for the lack of response to the disease; although it is implied the victims deserved AIDS, actually Pat Buchanan said it was “nature’s revenge on gay men.” Photographs of once beautiful young men fading away was a visual counterargument; perhaps they were attempting to change the AIDS narrative from the public’s image of sexually promiscuous homosexuals to a human being. I wonder if they were attempting to reclaim their identity before death. Isolated from an uncaring public, it’s understandable that these images may have been a tool to force the public to truly see their suffering.

Photographers attempted to humanize the epidemic for publications, they seemed intent on educating readers but the preconceived notions surrounding AIDS were persistent. David Wojnarowicz offered the public deathbed photos of Peter Hujar. It’s as though he wanted to imprint death upon us. He wanted us to remember the parts of Hujar that mattered: his face, hands, and even his feet. Maybe Wojnarowicz wanted to share his personal loss or perhaps this was his way of screaming through the mainstream media’s silence surrounding AIDS.

The numbers are staggering. The art world lost painters, photographers, street artists, etc. Peter Hujar’s only book was published in 1976. Susan Sontag wrote in her introduction to Portraits in Life and Death that “Peter Hujar knows that portraits in life are always, also, portraits in death.” It’s an exceptional book, Hujar perfectly captured his subjects. His landscapes possess a raw beauty. So many artists died during the epidemic, it’s hard not to think of who we’ve lost.

I’m scared to answer one question, what does it mean when the living discard their dead in trash bags? What does that say about American society? Because that’s how US hospitals disposed of AIDS patients. Funeral homes refused to take their bodies. I imagine some people would attempt to justify this behavior as fear… the very real fear that they, too, could contract this deadly disease, but American culture hasn’t changed. If the living no longer possessed intrinsic value, how could society extend respect to the dead? By refusing to acknowledge AIDS, the government sent a message that not all life was sacred. It’s a message that persists, not just with AIDS but with the United States’ casual approach to military action in developing nations that would invariably displace families and vulnerable people; once coupled with the fact that this is a country with gun-related murders higher than any other developed country, it’s hard to argue this is a society intent on preserving life. The public’s silence surrounding AIDS was a symptom of a society that no longer valued human life, it was a precursor to all that exists now.

Recommended reading:

Peter Hujar’s Portraits in Life and Death (Introduction from Susan Sontag). You can see Peter Hujar’s work here.

New York Public Library. Gay and Lesbian Collections – AIDS/HIV Collections

Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphor. You can find it here.

David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration. You can find it here.