Writing with Light
Photographer Marcelo Maia Explores the Healing Abilities of Nature & Music, and Intersections of Sex and Money, Race & Power
by Lester Strong

Prometheus (cover photo for book of same name), 1994, black and white photo, 24 by 20 inches

Marcelo Maia is a man of many parts. Born in Brazil in 1959, he was educated and worked as an engineer there for ten years before moving to New York City in the 1990s to pursue studies in photography at the International Center for Photography (ICP). As a photographer, his interests range from landscape to portraits of cabaret and jazz artists to the male nude. And as a person living with HIV, he founded and runs the HIV History Project on Facebook and @HIVHistory on Twitter.

“Photography for me is a language,” he said during a recent interview. “I like to think I write with light. When I say something with my work, it’s not just admiring beauty, but making a statement. And the statement I’m making is this: We need to know who we are. We can’t live without having some serious thoughts about who we are, where we’re going, and who’s leading us there. Is this the right option? Is this the best option? Are there others?”

Not that beauty doesn’t play an important role in his photography. Anyone looking at his landscapes or his male nudes can attest to that. But the stories behind the images are equally important and intended to convey a message. Take his landscapes. “In 2001, I did a series in Milford, Pennsylvania,” he said. “It was right after 9/11. There is truly beauty in the landscapes there, which I think I captured in my photos. But the real reason I went to Milford was for a cleansing. If you remember after the 9/11 attacks, the World Trade Center buildings were still smoking a month later. It was terrible, and I think marked everybody who lives in the city. In Milford I was able to reconnect with nature and the ‘hand of man,’ if you will—the river and Delaware Water Gap, the fields, the bridges, the homes, the country stores. I do believe nature can restore people to inner peace and heal their wounds.”

Milford, Pennsylvania, fall landscape, 2001, color photo, dimensions variable

In another vein, there are Maia’s cabaret and jazz artist portraits. “I grew up in Brazil during the military dictatorship there,” he said. “Music was basically the only form of resistance there was during the dictatorship. Brazilian music is really magical. There’s a lot of meaning in the songs, which always affects me. I have a tendency to photograph things or people I like. Through Brazilian music I was introduced to jazz, and through Brazilian musicians I knew here in New York, I met many American jazz and cabaret musicians that I became friends with and photographed—Blossom Dearie, Marian McPartland, Leny Andrade, Grace Jones, Tony Bennett, Charlie Byrd, Herbie Mann, among others. Aside from the lyrics, I think music, like nature, can be really healing in times of stress or if you’re feeling down or depressed.”

Tony Bennett and Barbara Carroll, 1999, color photo, dimensions variable

For a number of years, Maia has been working on a trilogy of projects about the relationship between sex and money, sex and race, and sex and power. “When I moved to New York,” he said, “I kind of took an oath to myself not to let my photography become corrupted, by which I meant not to do photography just for the money. I wanted my work to have meaning. I was shooting a lot of male go-go dancers in gay clubs at the time. At one club, there were no separate floors, just one big space with light coming all the way down from the roof way above and spotlighting the dancers. This created a kind of magical effect, and I saw people touching them and putting money into the thongs and Speedos they were wearing. Wow, I thought, this is like people touching a deity and giving him gifts. I didn’t want my photography to be just for money, but I began to see a strong relationship between sex and money and started pursuing that idea photographically as my first project.

He continued: “Two or three years later the idea for my book Prometheus [published in 1997] came to me. In the myth, Prometheus stole fire from the gods, and gave it to the human race. For me that means he gave us a way to illuminate the unknown parts of our consciousness, and so initiated the history of ideas and consequently humanity as we know it today. The book references our modern knowledge that humanity originally came from Africa. It’s good to know and acknowledge our origins. It’s part of knowing who we are.”

It should be noted that Prometheus is also a lyrical study of the African-American male nude, and is thus a comment on the relationship between sex and race in this country.

Go Go 1 (Sex & Money project), 1991, black and white photo, 20 by 16 inches

As for Maia’s third project, on sex and power, he had this to say: “That’s the most dangerous connection there is because it often involves powerful institutions. I was raised Catholic, so there’s no way I could avoid looking at the way the Catholic Church has dealt with sexuality. Mostly the Church dealt with it by repressing and controlling it. They did that by associating sex with sin, making it something dirty, something you have to be ashamed of. Then you go into a church and see the nakedness of many of the images and statues. That causes desire, right? So you have to confess those sinful thoughts to receive absolution and go to heaven. Basically they use sexuality as a ticket to heaven. I think the Catholic Church in a way invented advertising—using sex to sell you something else. Here you have a connection between sex and power, but also between sex and money.”

Asked about the HIV History Project on Facebook and @HIVHistory on Twitter, he replied: “I was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1994, while I was working on Prometheus. There was no effective treatment then, and I felt like that book was the last thing I’d be able to do. So I concentrated on finishing it. Then in 1996 when medication became available and my health stabilized, I really started dealing with HIV. I volunteered for awhile at Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), eventually giving them around forty hours a week until it became too much for me and I quit. Then I joined ACT UP. It was during my involvement with that group that I came up with the idea of creating this Facebook page where people living with HIV could tell their own stories and where I could offer my own views and spread the news about new developments in HIV meds and especially prevention, like pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). The page gets people from all over the world. Every time I go there, I find four or five more people who want to be part of it. I do some screening—the stories have to be related to AIDS in some way, and I don’t want people who deny HIV is the cause of AIDS, who have an antigay or destructive religious slant, or who want to recruit people for their own organizations.”

Grace Jones, 1991, black and white photo, dimensions variable

In regard to Twitter, he continued: “I see the Facebook HIV History Project as a reservoir or storage place for information about HIV and AIDS. But for transmitting information to others, I prefer Twitter. It’s a great place to share new information or criticize harmful people or events. It’s very dynamic, but it’s a challenge to transmit complex information in so few words.”

Whether it’s writing with light through his photography or enlightening those concerned about HIV through Facebook and Twitter, Marcelo Maia has produced a body of work worth exploring. Especially in his photography the message he’s conveying is not always obvious, but that’s part of the fun: teasing out the meaning from what lies beneath the surface beauty. It can help us learn who we are.

Marcelo Maia’s book Prometheus was published by St. Martin’s Press, New York, NY, in 1997. Visit Maia’s website at marcelomaia.com; work by him is also on the website of Visual AIDS (visualaids.org).

Lester Strong is Special Projects Editor of A&U. Follow him on Twitter @LesterQStrong1.