Record of Empathy
Photograpaher Suzanne Poli Talks About Documenting the History of LGBT Struggles from Stonewall to AIDS
by Lester Strong
The June 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City’s Greenwich Village…the gay liberation/gay rights marches from 1970 on…the AIDS protests, demonstrations, and marches over the years: Photographer Suzanne Poli (herself a resident of Greenwich Village) has documented a huge swath of lesbian/gay/bisexual/transsexual (LGBT) history over the last five decades, and in so doing has rubbed shoulders with some remarkable people.
Poli, a Brooklyn native, moved to an apartment building on Christopher Street in January 1967, while still in high school. “I came from a strict Catholic immigrant family,” she said when interviewed recently, “and I was considered the rebel in our family. Being a freedom fighter has always been my approach to life. I’ve always felt a sense of injustice about things wrong in the world, particularly about the innocent who find themselves mistreated through no fault of their own.”
Poli would talk to her father—in Italian—“about all these worldly things and kind of challenge him,” in her own words. “But my mother was always concerned that I was hearing everything and hearing too much. As a result, I learned to keep my thoughts and feelings to myself. I also think it took away my voice. I had a very big voice inside my head, but I learned I should be quiet. My outside voice should be quiet.”
It was perhaps this family dynamic that contributed to her love of photography. “I remember in second, third, or fourth grade, I would like to walk in an abandoned building near where we lived and spend time with diverse types of children. At dinner I would create mental pictures and graphic images from my day in the abandoned building. I had an incredible imagination and lived mostly in my head, as perhaps many artists do. I was also the family photographer, even when I was little, right through my college years. So apparently I was interested in documenting things.”
At the time she moved to the Village, however, she was more involved with painting. “My apartment was in the front of the building, facing Christopher Street,” she explained. “It was on the fourth floor, with a northern exposure. I had my easel in the living room in front of a window that had no fire escape, and I painted with my back to that window. I don’t remember looking out the window so much as staring at the canvas on the easel as I painted the images in my mind. I loved the vivid images I carried around with me, and my dreams were always colorful, vivid, full of motion. My painting came from my mind. I think of it as seeing from the inside rather than the outside.”
But her life took a different turn one night in June 1969 when she heard a loud racket outside her window. The event would soon be labeled the “Stonewall riots” or “Stonewall rebellion” after the name of the gay bar on Christopher Street at Sheridan Square (two blocks away from her apartment) raided by the police and during which gay men and lesbians for one of the first times in American history put up a fight for their right to congregate in peace. It was a direct precursor to a new gay liberation movement that soon spread not just nationwide but worldwide. A year later the first Christopher Street Liberation Day March (later renamed Heritage of Pride) was held, and Poli photographed it from her apartment window. A new vocation was born.
Although not herself a lesbian, Poli felt an immediate empathy for this group of people who could never feel safe in a bar, let alone on the streets, could be arrested for same-sex dancing, could be harassed for holding hands or kissing in public—in other words, were unable to live their lives with any feelings of safety doing many of the things most people could do without thought, without feelings of self-consciousness, without fear of retribution. So she set about documenting their cultural activities and especially the political actions they undertook to liberate themselves from the many constraints placed on their lives by an ignorant and often bigoted society and legal system.
Then came AIDS. By 1981 when the first whisper of what would become the nightmare avalanche of the AIDS epidemic was heard, Poli had lived in one of America’s premier “gay ghettos” for quite a few years, and was every bit as devastated emotionally by the advent of the disease as her gay friends and neighbors. Poli recalled: “I [and eventually her husband Bruce, whom she married in 1989] lived in the heart of the AIDS crisis throughout the 1980s and 1990s. All night, especially in the summer, people were screaming out their agony in the street. Everyone came to Christopher Street looking for compassion. It was a theater of despair. I saw people feeling abandoned and in terror. It was a social and psychological force impossible to escape. They became my family and my passion, and I responded with my camera.”
In 1984 Poli became photo editor of The Fire Island Tide Newspaper. “I visited Cherry Grove and the Fire Island Pines, and there was a pervasive sense of distress and death. Then in 1985, the newspaper covered an AIDS fundraiser featuring the Australian-born performer Peter Allen [who himself died of AIDS in 1992]. It also featured Dr. Mathilde Krim [A&U, December 2001], the great AIDS medical researcher and advocate. Little did I know this was one of the initial events for the creation of The Foundation for AIDS Research [amfAR]. I can still remember standing next to Mathilde, with people all around her, and looking at her as a savior. My work became a record of empathy, and my feelings of intense sadness and fury guided my camera.”
Aside from her photography, Poli has been active on the AIDS front in other ways. In 1984, the Polis and other neighbors formed a block association that became heavily involved in community projects and with other community groups, including Manhattan’s Community Board 2, which encompasses Greenwich Village among other parts of the borough. “AIDS, of course, became a major topic,” said Poli during the interview. “It was pervasive and unavoidable.” She and her husband are also friends with and supporters of Brent Nicholson Earle—“a precious and very special individual, a loyal and trusted, wonderful friend,” according to Poli—who is an AIDS activist and created the American Run for the End of AIDS (AREA) in the mid-1980s and produces the annual Out of the Darkness World AIDS Day vigil and ceremony every December 1.
Over the years Poli has photographed in black and white, and in color, almost always with film, little if any in digital format. Interestingly enough for someone who describes herself as “reclusive and shy,” she’s an urban photographer, stating, “I just cannot work in a setting that is only beautiful and has a picket fence. I may love a country setting, but I have to be able to speak for some place that speaks to me and I feel has something I need to say about it. It needs to be a powerful place that I can melt into and put my heart and soul into. Urban settings provide that.”
Given that many of her professional images are of marches, protests, and demonstrations, they are understandably dynamic and forceful, conveying moments of high passion and, when appropriate, high spirits. But even her portraits of individuals—for example, transgender rights and AIDS activist Marsha P. Johnson—almost jump off the page, grabbing one’s attention with their forceful dynamism. In her ability to capture within a single photo the emotions and feel of often hours-long tumultuous events, she is truly one of today’s premier documentary photographers. And she has used her empathy and her camera to bring attention to some of the defining issues of our time, thereby providing a gift for all future time. Quite a wonderful legacy.
On May 3 Suzanne was honored for her social activism and photography by the Ali Forney Center’s Aqua 2018 New York City Gala, titled “Aqua Party: A Benefit for the Ali Forney Center & the Water Project.” The Ali Forney Center’s focus is helping protect and provide housing for homeless LGBT youth; The Water Project’s focus is helping communities in sub-Saharan Africa secure clean water supplies.