Photographer Scott Pasfield Finds Inspiration in the Stories of Gay Men
by Lester Strong
In the Preface to his recently released book Gay in America (Welcome Books, 2011), photographer Scott Pasfield writes: “Ever since I can remember, I’ve known I was more interested in boys than girls. It has always been part of who I am—it was never a decision or choice that I made. I also believed from a young age that it was entirely unacceptable. So I hid those feelings and tried my best to be straight. Nothing is worse than the self-hatred you feel when you are taught that something so integral to you is wrong.”
The stories of the 140 men featured in this book, accompanied by their photographic portraits shot by Pasfield himself, go a long way toward showing that these days in all fifty states—even in places like Laramie, Wyoming, notorious for a past brutal gay bashing incident—gay men are living out-proud fulfilling lives. Although not specifically about HIV/AIDS, the book also shows that gay men living with the disease are leading happy lives as well.
When contacted about the book, Pasfield commented in regard to AIDS: “I’m part of the generation that came along a bit after the initial wave of so many people getting sick, unlike my partner Nick, who’s seven years older than I and had many friends who died. But that doesn’t mean the disease hasn’t affected my work. When I started studying photography, for example, I became aware of photographers who used AIDS extensively in their work as a tool to effect change in the world. In particular, I remember the photography of David Wojnarowicz, which moved me greatly.
“When I started to work on Gay in America, placing ads around the country for subjects to photograph, it became very clear to me how many men wanted to share with me their stories of AIDS. They had conquered major issues dealing with the disease, and had reached a point of acceptance and love in their lives that earlier they had questioned they would ever be able to achieve.
“The aim of Gay in America has been to make a positive contribution to the perceptions about gay people in our society and help eliminate the injustice and inequality that still linger despite all the progress we’ve made in the last few decades. Throughout my work on this book, Dan Choi and his courageous stand against the military’s discriminatory Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy have been an inspiration to me, which is why I put him on the cover. But anyone who’s successfully dealt with the health and discrimination issues surrounding HIV/AIDS is also an inspiration. I’m glad to have been able to tell some of their stories in my book.”
During the interview, Pasfield described his artistic aims as follows: “I have other photographic interests besides portraiture—landscapes and flowers, to name just two. But in portraits, I’m looking first and foremost for an emotional reaction. I want to capture the souls of my subjects in some way. The challenge is to get the subjects to feel very relaxed and comfortable, to forget that I’m there with a camera and accept me more like a friend they’re spending time with. I have a degree in architecture, and surroundings are very important in my work. I use variations in light and architectural details to make my portraits more interesting. I’m not looking just for a face, but for an environment.”
The following portraits, accompanied by the men’s own words about their life histories, present a moving picture of three individuals living with HIV/AIDS. One of them notes: “I have HIV; it doesn’t have me.” Definitely an encouraging message about turning the burden of being HIV-positive into an attitude that is life-positive.
Neoboy, Albuquerque, New Mexico
A resident of Albuquerque, New Mexico, Bobb Neoboy Maestas [A&U, July 2000] is a visual artist, poet, and performance artist. His visual art has been exhibited all over the United States, and as far away as Japan, and is in many collections around this country, as well as in France. He was diagnosed in 1996. As the following comments indicate, HIV/AIDS has had an important impact on both his personal and professional lives.
The most important aspect of living with AIDS for me has had to do with my relationships to family and friends, and its impact on my life as a visual artist and an artist who works in other mediums.
My family is well informed of my status, and everyone has accepted it well, except one niece with whom I have issues. I’m working on that, as I don’t want to cause any more problems in my family. Both my parents have passed. They knew I had AIDS and were supportive, although I had a difficult relationship with my father. I’ve also worked on that. My father came back from the Korean War very troubled, as did the dad of my friend Anna Domino, a singer who with her husband Michel Delory make up the band Snakefarm. Anna and Michel have both been very supportive of me. In a kind of collaboration, Anna recorded a song on Snakefarm’s latest album my halo at half-light [released last September] about a soldier who goes off to war, is injured, comes back with shell shock, and gives up both his wife and child, while I did a piece of art called Johnny, incorporating pictures of both our fathers and words from the song. The song and the art piece were very healing for both of us, and we were able to forgive our fathers for the very difficult experiences we had as their children.
Over the years I’ve also done art commemorating individuals who have died from AIDS: singer Klaus Nomi, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and some personal friends of mine. Currently I’m working on introducing the work of Philip Core to American audiences. He was an openly gay artist who lived in London and died of AIDS in 1989. I’ll be curating a show of his work at a gallery in southern New Mexico next spring.
One of my biggest challenges is finding a partner. I’ve had difficulty meeting men, and difficulties with those I’ve met. AIDS has definitely been a big part in the rejections I get. But I hope one day to have a happy, healthy, and long relationship with another man.
William, West Palm Beach, Florida
As the following comments from Gay in America indicate, William has conquered some inner demons in the last quarter century, and in the process has built a good life for himself. Some of those demons had to do with AIDS. But as he notes below, some of them had to do with hepatitis C.
I live in West Palm Beach. I’m quiet, suburban, sober, and have been HIV-positive for about twenty-five years. I work for an architect, and live alone, quite happily, I might add. Most of my free time is spent helping others in Alcoholics Anonymous. Life is rich, but not terribly complicated.
I came to West Palm Beach after spending about thirteen years in New York City. I was born in Hartford, Connecticut, and raised here in North Palm Beach. I went to college in Florida and then Columbia University for graduate study.
I was out by the time I reached New York. I believe I became HIV-positive within the first two years of being there. Like many others, I became depressed over the years from seeing so many friends and lovers die. Unfortunately, I couldn’t seem to cope with anything except booze. Life became increasingly difficult, as my self-esteem slipped away. Totally defeated, I moved back to Florida in 1995 and got sober a couple months later.
It turned out to be a good move. Through going to meetings I have met the large and varied number of friends I have today. My family is all here. Life is low-key, and while I was away West Palm Beach has grown into a lovely town.
Today, I don’t modify my behavior to meet someone else’s expectations. This positive attitude always keeps me in good stead—I’m grateful for the life I live.
I should also note that I’m hep C-positive and although these days I’m undetectable with this and with HIV, I developed liver cancer as a result of the original hep C scar tissue. Apparently this is common twenty years after the onset of hep C. Because I have my health checked so regularly, this was caught super early and I was able to have a liver resection that is available for about ten percent of patients with this diagnosis. The cancer was cut out, and no further treatment was needed.
Paul, Phoenix, Arizona (now living in San Francisco)
When contacted by Scott Pasfield about Gay in America, Paul was living in Phoenix, Arizona, already on the way to coming to terms with his life as a person living with HIV/AIDS. But as he explains below, participating in Scott’s book project spurred him to make some much-needed changes in his life, especially in regard to his medical care. Today, he lives in California’s Bay Area.
I have HIV; it doesn’t have me. Ironically, I owe HIV a debt of gratitude, because it could have very well saved my life—from me. As a young gay man I lived the fast life. I was always told I could go anywhere, do anything—the sky is the limit. In fact it was. I had no boundaries, no commitments, no requirements, and after coming out, no expectations. It started to seem as if I no longer existed. My quest to find acceptance brought me to havens at night that would never be associated with my life by day. Two lives, one person.
By day I was an achiever, friendly, funny, entertainer, cowboy, horseman, trainer, instructor, corporate climber and, more interestingly, I worked for the medical examiner’s office on the humanities cleanup crew, collecting dead bodies off the highway after accidents. Talk about coming face to face with your own mortality! But the higher I flew by day, the further I fell by night. HIV is humbling. It made me aware of who I am and how precious life, love, and longevity really are.
My favorite quote and most important message is: “You can never touch someone so lightly as to not leave a mark.”
After my introduction to Scott and his project, I decided to face some fears that had accumulated during my health crisis over HIV, and was inspired to follow some of my dreams. I wasn’t satisfied with the healthcare I was receiving in Phoenix, and couldn’t believe I had allowed myself to become so squelched by fears of self-exploration and advancement that I had left all my medical decisions in the hands of one medical professional I considered inept. So I took the opportunity to move to the Bay Area to seek better care. I came here with only friendships to rely on, but it paid off. My care is excellent, and I’m feeling connected to life once again.
Gay in America is on sale in bookstores nationwide, as well as on Amazon.com; 224 pp.; Introduction by Terrence McNally & Tom Kirdahy.
Lester Strong is Special Projects Editor of A&U.