Retooling the Fight
In his upcoming coffee-table book, photographer Bill Bytsura captures a portrait of early AIDS activism, offering a candid visual memoir of the epidemic—and a blueprint for continuing the fight
by Alina Oswald
Extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary actions, and for people willing to go to the extremes in order to act in such crises. The crisis in question is the AIDS epidemic of the eighties; the individuals determined to do something about it, members of the ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) movement.
Today we find ourselves talking about ACT UP again, maybe triggered by its recent twenty-fifth anniversary or the AIDS-themed movies and documentaries that followed it—David France’s How to Survive a Plague, and the HBO adaptation of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart. Or maybe we return to the basis of AIDS activism as defined by ACT UP because we need an activist movement today as intense as the activism of the early eighties once was.
In many ways, ACT UP represents a blueprint for organizing, and acting in a crisis. After all, the movement defined the fight against the epidemic, and opened up new avenues that subsequently led to the progress we see today—treatment, life, and the possibility, although still distant, of a cure.
Portrayed by the media as loud, radical and unruly, at the end of the day, ACT UP members only wanted to make a statement, and draw attention
to a life-threatening crisis that nobody else wanted to acknowledge. They were the ones willing to take it to the streets, demanding a solution to the AIDS problem; the ones who, if needed, were willing to demonstrate inside the Stock Exchange building and shut it down, even if only for a few minutes…just to make a statement, and get their point across.
“Direct action from the inside,” photographer Bill Bytsura says, explaining the practices of the early ACT UP activists. “Infiltrate and use the smarts to get into these places where actually you can throw a wrench in the gears.” And he should know. He spent years, from 1989 to 1998, photographing not only ACT UP members, but also AIDS activists from across the U.S. and around the world, capturing the candid, human side of the movement, one that seldom, if ever, made the headlines. The result is a collection of 225 black-and-white, haunting portraits of activists (many of them lost to the disease), together with personal statements and photographer’s releases he had his subjects write and sign. In 2011, Fales Library acquired the collection, together with the original negatives. Sixty-five of the photographs are soon to become a coffee-table book titled, like the collection, The AIDS Activist Project.
It’s quaint to envision a coffee-table book about HIV/AIDS, perhaps as much as it is to talk about black-and-white images of death and dying associated with the darkest years of the pandemic, while sitting on a bench in New York City’s Washington Square Park, on a lovely and sunny fall day, surrounded by green trees and the chirping of birds. But here I am, listening to Bill Bytsura, mesmerized by the intense story he tells, feeling as if I’m listening to a mentor teaching a comprehensive lesson in human perseverance.
Bill Bytsura describes himself as “a regular guy” who moved from Pennsylvania to New York City in 1980. He didn’t look for ACT UP, but the movement found him. After his boyfriend, Randy, passed away in 1989 from complications related to AIDS, some friends who were going through the same kind of experience suggested that Bytsura go to an ACT UP meeting. “It was crowded, but it was really intense, and people knew what they were talking about,” he recalls. “They were arguing,” he adds. “It was loud [at] times, and I thought, this is not me.”
So he left, but then went back. After a couple of times of going back to the meetings, he noticed a flyer with information about a media committee. Being a photographer, he decided to join the committee, and take pictures for ACT UP.
And so, Bytsura started photographing demonstrations—or actions, as they were called. He also started talking to people. In time, aside from capturing demonstrations and so-called radical behaviors, he started using photography to initiate an honest dialogue about AIDS.
Using his camera, Bytsura began capturing a candid side of ACT UP. He would photograph the activists with their guard down, in moments when they could just be themselves. Most of his subjects volunteered to spend time with him, in front of his camera.
The first to photograph was Hal Haner, who was also the first to die, only a few short months after the photo shoot. “He was from Kentucky, and
had a very Southern drawl,” Bytsura recalls. “He was very sweet, and very angry. He picked out this image as his favorite,” the photographer mentions, pointing at the image on the AIDS Activist Project Web site, “[because] he liked what was going on with the contrast between Reagan’s face and his own. I last saw him at a demonstration in 1990. He would walk the picket line once or twice then take a break sitting on a newspaper dispenser on the sidewalk to catch his breath. He was weakened by AIDS, but continued to fight, and held on to the hope of a cure as long as he could. He died on July 7, 1990.”
Maybe one of the most haunting images in this body of work is Tigger. Tigger was the only name by which Bytsura knew the subject, the man demonstrating at the VIII International AIDS Conference, in Amsterdam. Tigger chose to pose with Mr. Death, the carnival puppet, because, he said, he was facing death in the face every single day.
Tim Bailey wanted a political funeral, and his casket to be thrown over the White House fence. “When we went to Washington,” Bytsura recalls, “the police were ready for us. So, when we tried to take the casket out [of the van], there were a lot of people holding it, and the cops were pushing back,” he motions, waving his hands in the air, above his head, “to the point that the casket would fall onto the ground. We couldn’t throw it over the fence. So, I think we might have driven to another place, and had a smaller funeral.”
Aldyn McKean was respected, and liked in ACT UP. He lived across the street from the photographer. One day, in 1993, he was on his way to an art opening, when he asked Bytsura to photograph him, saying, “There are no photographs of me in a tuxedo, and this may well be the last chance to do one.” He died in February of 1994.
Photographing Dene Greenough and Floyd Martin was intense.The picture is not pretty, but rather a glimpse at the human body ravaged by the disease. “Floyd wanted to show the mediport that had been surgically implanted in his chest, so that he could be hooked up to IVs with AIDS medication. You can see where he had [the mediport] over here, and then moved over here,” Bytsura explains, pointing at his own chest. “People today are not aware of what it was like back in the day….”
Bytsura also photographed Larry Kramer, the co-founder of ACT UP. “Larry Kramer was—is—very vocal,” Bytsura says, “and speaks his mind. He came [to my studio] and we did some shots of him and his dog. Larry is known for being outspoken, but I think these [pictures] showed another side of him. When I showed him the images, he said, ‘These are some of the best photos anybody ever took of me.’ As this was in the early stages of the project, it meant a lot coming from someone who I admired for both his courage to speak his mind, and call[ing] people to action.”
As Bytsura started to work on the book project, he quickly began to realize that revisiting old photographs was going to be an extremely difficult task. It’s a bittersweet kind of feeling, because, as he goes through the photographs, he also gets to spend time with them. He mentions that looking through the photographs he came across an image of a guy from Amsterdam, a reporter with an old-school microphone. He remembers the guy saying, “I want my mic in the picture, because this is what I use, this is how I fight AIDS.” Bytsura pauses, as if that particular conversation replays in his mind. “These snippets come back,” he finally says. “Some are really tough.”
The AIDS Activist Project offers a unique take on the history of AIDS—raw, unfiltered, visual, and intimate. Today, AIDS is not the killer that it used to be, but AIDS is far from being over. There are still issues, which may require a retooling of the activism of the eighties in order to be solved, in order to deal with the present-day pandemic, a present-day defined by social media, blogs, and living on-line.
But, as the photographer mentions, while in some instances social media can be used as a tool—take Twitter, for example, and its role in the Egypt revolution—“liking” a Facebook post is not the same as showing up in the street, and blocking traffic, and risking being arrested. “I think something will have to happen,” Bytsura says, “before people will rally again like [they did] in the eighties and nineties. I love that intensity.”
To find out more about The AIDS Activist Project and the upcoming crowdfunding campaign, please visit www.theaidsactivistproject.org. Also, connect with The AIDS Activist Project on Facebook, at www.facebook.com/theaidsactivistproject.
Alina Oswald, Arts Editor of A&U, is a writer, photographer, and the author of Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography of AIDS. Contact her at www.alinaoswald.com.