The Beauty of It All
Photographer Benjamin Fredrickson uses his images and also his life story to help break down AIDS -related stigma
by Alina Oswald
I love photographing people. There’s beauty in everyone,” photographer Benjamin Fredrickson tells me on the phone. “The imperfections [only] make my subjects beautiful.”
I met Fredrickson last summer, at the opening of “Ephemera as Evidence” [A&U, July 2014], a Visual AIDS art show in New York City. Earlier this year I had the pleasure to run into him again, at another Visual AIDS event, the Postcards from the Edge preview party. And I noticed the evolution that had taken place during these few brief months—still courteous, young and optimistic, definitely a distinguished creative individual as easy to talk to as I could remember him to be, only a bit less shy….There was certainly a vibrant, inviting energy surrounding him, and for good reason. Daniel Cooney Fine Art, a gallery, had just hosted his first photography show.
Benjamin Fredrickson undoubtedly has always been an artistic, creative individual. Born and raised in the suburbs of Minneapolis, he went on to study photography at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, and also briefly in Paris, in 2001. After graduating in 2003, he had plans of moving to New York, but they were thrown off by an unfortunate accident. So, in 2005 he started a personal photographic project, capturing his “queer community from Minneapolis,” as he describes it.
In 2010 he suffered yet another debilitating incident—he was attacked. So, he left, and came to New York City for what was supposed to be a two-week visit. Instead he stayed, and never looked back. “I ditched the crutches when I got to New York,” he says, “hobbled around until my leg healed, took odd jobs in fashion and retail, and photographed on the side.”
This coming October will mark five years of his new life in the melting pot that’s New York City, a melting pot that has provided the photographer with a wide variety of interesting subjects, and opportunities, and much competition, too. But the city has also offered distractions that, in turn, could have blocked the way of achieving one’s dream. Now, at thirty-four and looking back at his journey so far, the photographer is glad that he has waited to try to take Manhattan and make it in the city.
“With all the temptations in New York, had I come here in my early twenties, I totally would have burned out, and probably gone back home with my tail between my legs,” he confesses. Instead, during the past four or five years of living in the city, he has done a lot of growing up and maturing. It hasn’t been easy, and he had to struggle to make it happen, and yet, he doesn’t have any regrets. “The struggle of making it happen, that’s part of it,” he says. “It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.”
Fortunately for Fredrickson, all his hard work has started to pay off. He started getting accolades for his work.
Also, while in New York, he found out about Visual AIDS. “They’ve been so great to me,” he says. “I’ve gone to events [hosted by Visual AIDS] and started submitting to Postcards [from the Edge] in 2012. And then Ted Kerr [former Visual AIDS Program Manager] told me about [its] members. Since then, I had the opportunity to do the Play Smart campaign, and also received a Visual AIDS grant, which was amazing. Daniel Cooney [the gallery that represents me now] found my work through Visual AIDS website.”
Diagnosed while still living in Minneapolis, Fredrickson hasn’t always been out about his HIV status. “It’s a personal thing,” he comments on coming out as an HIV-positive individual. “It took me a little time to express my views on it. [At first] I was scared and frightened, [but now] for me it’s important to share my story. I do it as a way to help myself understand it. Also, by speaking publicly about [my HIV status] and being open about it, hopefully I speak to at least one or two people who are having issues understanding [what it means to be] HIV-positive, because it’s not easy. It’s a struggle.”
But nothing about the photographer gives away that struggle. There is also no hint as to what many may still perceive as the “look” of a person living with the virus.
And speaking of today’s perceived face of AIDS, he mentions the related stigma. “A driving force behind my work is trying to break down stigma of HIV and AIDS, and within the gay community, because, as a queer man, I’ve experienced so much stigma before and after [my diagnosis].” He pauses, and then goes on to talk candidly about his feelings and fears associated with his seroconversion. “When I tested positive, I was very vain. I thought, my face was going to sink in.” But those and other fears started to subside only after his speaking with doctors and meeting others who were also living with the virus. Only then he realized that some patients have side effects, while others don’t. “There’s no ‘look’ to HIV/AIDS,” he says. “It’s not solely a gay thing. But for whatever reason that’s been stigmatized, and it’s a lot to bear. It creates stigma within the community, to the point that people don’t want to come out.”
Coming out is intuitive. It depends on many factors, and can cost someone his or her job. He has become comfortable talking about his HIV status. (It does get easier, talking about it, he tells me.) Also, as a photographer, as an artist and activist, he’s eager to share his story, to show others that there is hope, and, especially that, in this day and age, people can live a long and healthy life while living with HIV.
“It’s not a death sentence [anymore],” Frederickson adds. “That’s the beauty of it. I know people who tested positive in 1986, and they’re still alive and healthy. And that’s really inspiring.”
People, and their stories, inspire his photography, too. Starting out at a time before Grindr, he’d find models on-line or through word of mouth. What he loves about photographing creative individuals in particular is that, as he captures them on film—he still shoots film, using medium or large format cameras—he also gets to see their artwork, and learn about their creative process.
Fredrickson photographed fashion consultant and designer Andre Walker for Garmento, a fashion journal. “We did the shoot in his home, in Brooklyn,” the photographer recalls. “The best part of this shoot was getting to see his archive, because he has his archive at home. He’s a lovely and talented individual, [with] a fun personality. [He] even made us dinner after the shoot.”
[quote_box_left]“Sven was one of the very first people that I had photographed after I had moved to New York City in October 2010. We have a mutual friend or two in common and we had met on Facebook. I photographed him at his apartment in the Lower East Side. This is my favorite portrait of Sven. A very gentle and kind person—I’ve lost touch with him and haven’t seen him since this portrait was made. Some models I photograph only once while others I will keep in touch with and rephotograph over the years.”[/quote_box_left]
Fredrickson also photographed nightlife personality, Ladyfag, for Oakazine, a publication created by OAK, a New York clothing store. The photo shoot took place on the rooftop of her apartment building, in Brooklyn.
When I ask about an intriguing portrait titled Ben, the photographer explains that he had met his subject on-line. “I really liked his look and unique sense of style. I invited him over to my place, to photograph him, and he brought along the hat as a prop. I was intrigued by his butterfly tattoo. The lighting was perfect in that moment, along with his gaze and gesture of his body. I shot this with my Pentax medium format camera.”
He also photographed another nightlife personality, Melissa Burns, for PIN-UP, an architectural magazine. “I worked with the talented Marco Braca, who did the hair,” Fredrickson adds, talking about the shoot. “I was a fan of Burns in 2003, when she was in an electroclash band called W.I.T. (Whatever It Takes).” So, when the opportunity came to photograph Burns, he was excited. “She exudes this female confidence that reminds me of a gay man,” he says. “What I liked about working with her was that she’s got a beautiful woman’s body, a normal body, old Hollywood.”
One of his early New York portraits is of Sven, someone the photographer remembers as “a very gentle and kind person. I’ve lost touch with him, and haven’t seen him since this portrait was made.”
Some may call at least part of Fredrickson’s work homoerotic. “That’s a good one,” he says, when I bring it up. “I’ve always been self-conscious [about my body],” he goes on. “As a teenager I was too skinny, kind of a late bloomer. So doing that [homoerotic] project was an exploration for me, because I was so nervous about my own body, and interested in seeing other shapes and sizes, and it really helped me connect with my own self and sexuality.”
That kind of photographic self-exploration translates, at least in part, into his series of self-portraits. He finds it important, as a photographer, to be able to look at your own self through your own lens, to capture yourself through the same lens that you capture your subjects.
His photographic work also documents his journey through life before and after his diagnosis. While people always fascinated him, there are times when his own empty medication bottles become sources of inspiration. “I had been taking medication for some time,” he explains, talking about his Atripla photograph. “One day I decided to ‘customize’ one of the empty Atripla bottles that I had lying around the apartment with fabric scraps that I had found at the store. I took the updated and much more fashionable bottle to a photo shoot, and had a model pose with it.” Afterward, he began hanging on to all his empty bottles of medications, planning to use them in future photo shoots. But it never happened. Instead, he ended up recycling all the empties when he moved into a new apartment.
Looking at this photographer’s work so far, one cannot help but wonder about where the photographic journey will take him next. “I’m an HIV-positive individual who happens to be an artist and photographer,” Fredrickson answers. “My personal work, for the past ten years, has been about this journey.”
Nowadays he finds himself in a healthier place—emotionally and physically—a change that translates into a shift in his work. “I’m still going to photograph intimacy,” he says, “but maybe it will be more intense. And that’s the beauty of it. Just talking about my work, right now, I feel that everything is snowballing, and I’m happy to be able to grow and appreciate all these amazing things that are happening…and hope that they keep happening. After all, it’s not about perfection, it’s about making progress.”
For more about Benjamin Fredrickson, visit: www.benjaminfredrickson.com. The artist will be part of “Interface: Queer Artists Forming Communities Through Social Media,” which runs from May 15 until August 2, 2015, at Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art.
Alina Oswald is Arts Editor of A&U.