In November, I was gratified to learn that I was named one of the winners in the first ever National Press Photographers Association Short Grants Competition. NPPA president Sean D. Elliot informed me that my story proposal on women with AIDS in Washington, D.C. was one of five projects awarded grants. Sharing the honor with me are Mark Ovaska, Matt Eich, Gabriela Bulisova and Victor J. Blue.
It is not the first time I have done a project on AIDS and it is a very heart-rending subject for me to revisit.
Back in the 1980’s, the AIDS epidemic was a frightening new reality in San Francisco, the city of my birth. At first, I watched the epidemic unfold in media reports and then witnessed the devastation first-hand as I helped document the public-health disaster as a journalism student at San Francisco State University, (SFSU).
I remember the controversy surrounding the closing of gay bathhouses as a way to stem the infection rate and how such policies created a climate of shame, discrimination and fear in a time when a positive HIV diagnosis was nothing short of a death sentence. At that time, I lived in a flat in the Castro district with some of my journalism classmates. Walking down Noe Street one Saturday, we passed a couple of men holding a sidewalk sale of a young man’s wardrobe. When my roommate, Audrey, asked why everything was so cheap, the two men glanced at each other and told us, “we just have to get rid of everything quickly”. There were lots and lots of sidewalk sales in the Castro in those days.
In my photojournalism class, taught by Professor Ken Kobre, we were assigned a semester-`long project entitled “Helpers in the War on AIDS, A Community Responds to an Epidemic”, during which each student documented the compassionate support system that had risen up in San Francisco to respond to the needs of those suffering with and dying from AIDS. I documented Project Open Hand, a meal delivery service for people with AIDS.
I remember coming home from an afternoon photographing volunteers with their clients and realizing that I had just photographed 10 dying men.
I also documented “Pets Are Wonderful Support”, (PAWS). PAWS looked after the pets of men who were sick or had died from AIDS. I photographed Cappi Patterson who looked after 17 cats and 11 dogs in her tiny Castro district apartment.
In 1987, Cappi said in a New York Times interview, ”A pet is never going to fire you from your job, throw you out of your apartment, turn on you or just simply not be there, which is what happens when people find out you have AIDS”.
My classmates were all moved by the way the city of San Francisco had come together with such generosity and compassion to look after their own and we thought that response could be a model for the rest of the nation. We found that our stories were overlapping as our subjects appeared in each other’s stories. I witnessed one of my subjects in the PAWS story die in the photographs of a fellow student’s project.
It wasn’t long before the epidemic became very personal, as my dear friend Douglas Bowling was cut down by the virus.
You see, AIDS touched us all in those days.
Our final project, “Helpers in the War on AIDS”, won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award in 1989.
Then I was flabbergasted to learn that, 27 years later, with the progress in both medical treatment and prevention education, that our nation’s capital, Washington D.C., has the highest rate of HIV/AIDS infection in the United States and even more alarming; according to Nicky Goren, president of the Washington Area Women’s Foundation, the District “has an AIDS rate for women that is 12 times the national average and rivals sub-Saharan African countries”.
While documenting the AIDS epidemic in Washington, D.C., takes me back to a painful time in my life, it is now, as it was then, a public-health crisis that must be kept in the public eye. It is the least I can do for Douglas.
In loving memory of Douglas Bowling, 1956-1988