Ruby Comer by Ruby Comer
“Beauty.” When I think of that word, what comes to mind, besides…moi? Well, let’s see. There’s Jungle Red nail polish, a hot Latin man with full lips, and laughing with my gal pals till my body aches. Another beauty would be Richard Phibbs.
Why? Three reasons: Richard’s photography, he works with AIDS-affected children, and, well, he’s a hunk. I must stop here though for a second. For the life of me when I hear Richard’s last name I can’t help but think of the zany episode on I Love Lucy where Lucy is dressed in a potato sack, sporting fake choppers, with her hair disheveled, and blurts in sing-songy rhythm, “P-H-I-P-P spells Phipps [Department Store].” Classic. Now back to another classic.
Born and raised in the Canadian West, Richard’s life changed about a decade ago when he began photographing Romanian children infected with HIV. He’s taken over two hundred portraits of these children, many of them orphans. He soon established a non-profit organization called Children of Nowhere to assist those with HIV/AIDS by distributing funds to cover medication, healthcare, food, and other provisions. His first book, which was released last fall, is called Chasing Beauty. His camerawork is so exquisite that these startling images soar off the page and you’ll be pondering them for days.
When I was in Manhattan recently, lecturing on (with a bow to Katy Perry) “You’re A Firework, Use It Wisely,” at an AIDS services organization, I called Mr. Phibbs who lives here. We meet at the Hotel Pennsylvania, where I’m staying. This historic place has real character and represents a slice of old New York. Plus, it’s located just below Times Square and across from Madison Square Garden. And my darlings, I love how the hotel answers their phone, singing, “Pennsylvania 6-5000”—Glenn Miller’s immortal song. A bit of trivia: The hotel has had that number since 1919, when they first opened their doors!
Richard and I chat in my junior suite on the eighteenth floor, as bustling 34th Street conducts its usual urban symphony just outside my window.
Ruby Comer: It’s such a pleasure to meet you, Richard. Do you recall when you first heard about AIDS?
Richard Phibbs: The first recollection of AIDS I had was 1982 and a stranger told a “joke” to a group of my fraternity brothers and he asked the question, “What does gay stand for?,” and he replied “Got AIDS yet?”
Gloriosky! That must have stopped you in your tracks. What comes to mind when you hear someone say, “AIDS”?
Wow. [He’s dumbfounded.] A lot comes to mind. The war of my time. A friggin’ nightmare, Ruby.
You said it best. And what impact has the epidemic had on you?
The impact AIDS has had on my life and art is beyond comprehension. There are not twelve hours that go by that I do not think of my beloved lost brothers and sisters.
How many have you lost to this disease?
Oh, dozens, too many to count. And now I know many beautiful kids who have died. After losing so many friends and having to watch them suffer, I kept thinking, “Creativity can be a healing thing.” I was being forced to see beauty again. I kept thinking about all of the amazing brothers I had lost. Was I doing what the Buddhists recommend? Was I turning poison into medicine? [He crosses his leg.] Indeed, out of great darkness, came a bright light. It formed this moment, where my life changed once again, this time for the better. It felt like this was either a gift, or perhaps, the expectation of the friends I had lost.
And of course you’re speaking about your work in Romania and your organization Children of Nowhere. How was your interest sparked in photographing these children?
I have been a full-time photographer for thirteen years. In 2001, I read an article on the front page of the New York Times. It was a story on Romania’s HIV-infected orphans. I’ve learned
life is not always fair, but this story was beyond anything. To find out that they were infected by the government giving them unnecessary blood transfusions as a “pick me up”…all with tainted blood from a port town in Romania, pushed me to take action. I wondered if I could take a picture that would make a difference for those kids, to bring attention to a cause or raise some money. What followed were several life-changing trips to Bucharest, Romania, and the creation of Children of Nowhere. I also realized, on a more personal note, this was a way to honor the legacy of my lost friends.
What a grand idea, Richard, on how to confront one’s pain. Are you involved with any other charities?
I give to many charities, but kids with HIV are my focus as well as animal rescue, anywhere in the world.
Where does your drive to help others come from?
My drive comes from the human desire to help those in need. I am blessed, we are all blessed, and you have to spread that light and share it. There is enough for everybody in this world.
I endorse your spiritual outlook. How has photographing the Romanian children affected your art?
It not only affected my art, it’s affected my life. It’s affected my head and my heart. It has brought me perspective.
How in the world do you keep your emotional distance when photographing them?
When taking a portrait, technically, you are focusing on the eyelashes of the subject, so you are looking deep into the subject’s eyes and you can see everything. [Richard pauses and looks away for a moment.] It often makes me cry, Ruby. It’s heartbreaking to see all of the pain and suffering that such a short little life has had to endure…but then again, they are so inspiring, because these little people are so full of love and hope and beauty.
I get chills just listening to your story, Richard. What’s your next project?
We have several book ideas that we’re currently looking at. All of the proceeds from Chasing Beauty go towards the kids in Romania and animal rescue, so we’re still focusing on getting it distributed far and wide.
I understand that you can get a copy on Amazon.com. Say, tell me, who are some photographers that inspire you?
The masters inspire me, like Horst, Huene, August Sander, Steichen, and Robert Mapplethorpe.
I read a quote of yours somewhere: “When I lose a bit of my breath, I know that’s the picture.” I like that. You’ve shot scads of celebrities such as Meryl Streep, Pedro Almodóvar, Beyoncé, and Jay-Z. Which celebrity has been the most fun?
There have been many. Jenna Jameson, Björk, and Hillary Clinton to name a few.
Ahh, Björk must have been a hoot. And Hillary, I admire that woman so. What notables are you yearning to shoot?
I would love to shoot the Dalai Lama, the Obamas, and Ricky Martin.
Three understandable choices! Ah, that cutie-pie little Ricky….Richard, thank you for all the beauty you have, thus far, brought forth into the world.
[He smiles politely.] One last thing, Ruby. About the epidemic, please tell your readers to: Stay vigilant and never forget.
Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected]