Photographer Lester Blum and creator and artistic director of “I Still Remember” Vladimir Rios talk about their new show opening on World AIDS Day
by Alina Oswald
When all is said and done, memories are often all that we’re left with. A granny’s voice, a mother’s face, a best friend’s smile remain forever imprinted in our minds. and hearts, there for us to tap into whenever we still need that voice, face, or smile. And as long as we remember them, they are still with us, part of our lives.
The AIDS pandemic has decimated communities, replacing hope with despair, light with blackness, leaving behind a deep and dark void, while taking away loved ones, too often, too soon. But that doesn’t mean that those lost to the pandemic are lost from our lives. We still remember them, and keep their memory alive.
“[We should still remember] because that’s the only way that we’re going to keep people [who passed away] alive,” actor and artistic director Vladimir Rios says, as I sit next to him and New York City photographer Lester Blum, sipping on tea, in a cozy coffee shop in Chelsea. “I lost my grandmother,” Rios continues. “She was an absolutely great human being, and, to me, [losing] her was a big deal. I was quite young when she died….I noticed that by keeping her memory alive, she never really died. She’s always with me.”
The idea behind their most recent photo collaboration, “I Still Remember,” is multi-fold—the desire of keeping the memory of loved ones alive, the desire of educating younger generations about the history of HIV, and, well, the result of pure chance.
Vladimir Rios and Lester Blum met a decade or so ago on the set of a photo shoot—Rios was the model, and Blum, the photographer. They became very good friends, and then started collaborating on other photography projects. And they’ve been doing that ever since.
The first project, “Despair,” is a body of work capturing an individual’s journey from the darkness of despair and back into the light, because (as mentioned on Lester Blum’s website) “[u]ntil our own darkness is understood, we can not even begin to try to understand the light.” Mentioning “Despair,” the photographer explains that it was the first collaboration, which was entirely created by Rios as the artistic director and model. The lead image of the series has been exhibited in four photography shows, and won several photography awards.
Another more recent show, “Warrior of Hope,” offers a visual representation of a fictional, but much-needed hero personifying “the concept of ‘hope’ for a better future, in a constant battle against inequality, injustice, and disease.” Blum explains, “‘Warrior of Hope’ was already scheduled for exhibit at the Pride Center of Staten Island, this fall. In discussion with the curator, he indicated that they were looking for a powerful exhibit, which could be shown in Staten Island in honor of World AIDS Day. The following week, we presented the concept for ‘I Still Remember,’ which they immediately fell in love with, and believed it was the perfect project to honor World AIDS Day.”
Blum points out that both “Warrior of Hope” and “I Still Remember” are visual narratives. One is based on fantasy, while the other, on reality. In that sense, “I Still Remember” serves as a remembrance, but also as an educational tool for the younger generations. “People who are ill always need hope, so those presented in ‘I Still Remember’ need the hope as personified by the Warrior,” Blum comments, drawing parallels between the two shows.
Conceptualized by Rios and photographed by Blum, “I Still Remember” offers a striking, riveting, a brutally honest and powerful visual narrative of a universal story of love and loss at the height of the AIDS pandemic. It tells the story of two men who meet, and fall in love. One of them, played by Rios, becomes sick. The other one, the main character of the story played by adult entertainer Scott Reynolds, lives to tell the story as he (still) remembers it. “‘I Still Remember’ captures vignettes of life—how they met, while they were together, and after one dies of complications from HIV/AIDS,” Blum says.
The photography for “I Still Remember” actually started in the fall of last year, with another project called “Encounters.” It just happened that some of the images from “Encounters,” showing how the two characters met, ended up part of “I Still Remember.”
The show touches on every facet of life as it was, in turn, touched, directly or not, by HIV during the eighties and early nineties. Every image included in the show visually and vividly captures a facet of that reality. Each character brings his or her own uniqueness and experiences to the story, in turn, enhancing the reality of the story.
Rios, himself, brings his own experience to the show. The Puerto Rico native worked in New York City as a social worker for many years, helping, among others, people living with HIV. About ten years ago Rios moved on to pursue other interests in life, but his experience as a social worker, especially related to HIV and AIDS, has influenced his very own view and interpretation of “I Still Remember.”
“We didn’t want to hold back anything,” Rios explains, talking about the importance of expressing the reality of those years, as shocking as it might be. “[We didn’t want to] soften the visual imagery that we would present to the viewer. We wanted to show the reality of that era, with real subject matter.”
He starts flipping through several sample images that Blum had brought along. Both the photographer and artistic director comment on each of the images, finishing each other’s thoughts, making sure that they cover all the details, their voices filled with passion…and also pride. There is the drug scene photographed in the Meatpacking District featuring a few real drag queens, members of the Imperial Court of New York. There is also the sex club segment “made possible by the generosity and project support of Hunteur Vreeland of HandsomeNYC.com,” Blum adds.
There’s a scene of an actual doctor actually drawing blood from Rios’ arm. Years ago, Blum was looking for a new family doctor. Somebody suggested Dr. Arthur Englard, who’s also an allergist. As HIV started to spread, the doctor also specialized in HIV. He agreed to be photographed for the “I Still Remember” show.
A poignant image portrays Rios’ character on the beach, reflecting on his diagnosis. Some of the most striking images come at the end of “I Still Remember.” They capture the memorial of Rios’ character, showing the surviving partner surrounding by friends, holding his lover’s ashes. The box he holds in his hands contains actual ashes, those of one of Blum’s friends, Louis F. Petronio, who died of AIDS-related causes in the early nineties.
“Everything that we have done is as real as it can be,” Rios reiterates. “We [also shot] a series in which the friends [of the main character] are disappearing, one by one. This is symbolic, because not only he lost his boyfriend, but he did lose his friends, [too]. So, there’s a very powerful sequence [of images] that we captured on the beach, with five friends walking on the beach, and then there’re four, and then three, two, and then he’s alone. Because [in those days, people kept dying] of AIDS, and kept disappearing.”
There are several images showing individuals laughing and having a good time. That’s because Rios and Blum wanted to project not only the sad moments, but also the lighter ones. “They did have fun,” Rios says. “They did have friends. They did enjoy life. That’s why the memories are so important, because no matter the cause of their death, they were wonderful people. They were great people to be remembered. Whether you’re in approval of their lifestyle or [of] who they were or what they did, it doesn’t change the fact that they were in our lives. They were people who were loved. So why wouldn’t we remember someone who was a good human being, whether they did drugs or were sick or had a wild sexual life. Why not remember these people and [cherish] the good memories that they gave [us].”
To start working on “I Still Remember,” Blum and Rios put out several postings, looking for individuals who’d want to participate and be photographed for the show. Photo shoots took place in Manhattan, Staten Island, and also on Fire Island. A final photo shoot capturing the bedroom scene shows Rios’ character being sick, in bed, succumbing to the disease. In addition, the show also captures segments focusing on controversial religious beliefs as well as family rejection associated to HIV and AIDS.
“I Still Remember” is not only an eye-opening, powerful work of art, but also an educational tool. “The [Pride Center of Staten Island] saw it as an educational tool for the new generation,” Rios explains. “It was the best compliment that they gave us.”
Discussing the educational aspect of “I Still Remember,” Blum adds that the show “is a reminder for the existing generations that either lived through [the height of the epidemic] or came right after, [as well as] an educational tool for [today’s young generation]. Right now there’s so much hype on things like PrEP,” he says. “People don’t know [enough] about it, yet they’re taking it.” He and Rios point out the socio-economical divide that PrEP might add to the already complicated, yet still unsolved equation of HIV and AIDS. That’s because, while many health insurance plans cover PrEP, others don’t. And then, being on PrEP or not could become an issue of class and social status, of who can afford it and who cannot.
Blum adds that today’s youth should know what those that came before them went through—how the epidemic affected not only their health, but also their entire lives, on so many levels. “I know people who’ve had the virus for thirty years now,” he says. “Their lives were affected in many, many ways. [Even right now] the disease is pretty much controlled for a lot of people, and yet, it’s much more than just a disease. And I think that the younger generation that didn’t live through this…they need to know this.”
“I Still Remember” opens on December 1, World AIDS Day, at the Pride Center of Staten Island, and will run, tentatively, through mid-January. There will be thirty to thirty-five images in the show. There are also possible plans for the show to travel nationally and internationally.
“I think it’s important for people to remember their loved ones, to keep them alive in [their] hearts and minds. I want people to walk away [from the show] knowing that. It’s the most important thing to me, other than [“I Still Remember”] being an educational piece of [artwork],” Rios concludes.
“I would like a two-fold experience for people,” Blum adds. “One is to not only remember the individual, but also to remember what happened to our society as a whole during this timeframe. And somehow [that] memory to make a difference today, to encourage more research, more safety measures, because just like I said with the Warrior [in “Warrior of Hope”], the battle is not over. So much more still needs to be done, and education is a big facet. I want people to understand that.”
Learn more about “I Still Remember,” “Warrior of Hope,” and Lester Blum’s photography work at www.lesterblumphotography.com.
Alina Oswald is Arts Editor of A&U.