Capturing faces of AIDS, photographer J. Tómas López dares people to look the early pandemic in the eye
by Alina Oswald
It all started with an Agfa 35mm German photo camera that J. Tomás López received from his father, an amateur photographer, back in 1961. Growing up in Long Island, New York, López would often travel to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where his father rented a cottage for the family, and where, as a child, the now-professor of photography at the University of Miami would use the camera and have fun taking many pictures.
But then it came time for López to go to college, to study psychology and philosophy. “I didn’t think about taking pictures,” he tells me over the phone, “and then I got drafted into the Army.” He did an internship at Bellevue Hospital, in New York City. From there, he was assigned to Moncrief General Hospital, Fort Jackson, South Carolina, where he was to treat returning Vietnam war veterans, who were still in the military but had hard drug addictions. “They all came back with cameras, Nikons and Minoltas that were very inexpensive at the PX in Vietnam,” López recalls, “and what I noticed was that they would talk only about the pictures that [they’d taken while in Vietnam, developing their film in a darkroom on the base].” Some of the Vietnam vets had had experiences so horrifying that they thought they’d lost their souls, and so their photographs became the only way through which they could communicate. “And I realized that photography [for them] became this amazing cathartic narrative,” López adds.
After leaving the Army, in South Carolina, López enrolled in an interdisciplinary program for film, video and photography, and received an MMA from the University of South Carolina. He then studied with Ansel Adams for two years, between 1976 and 1977, and in 1983 received an MFA from the University of South Florida in Photography and Modernist Studies.
“I started teaching in ’77, and I’ve been teaching ever since,” he says. “My interest in photography is how it functions in the world, in terms of creating history, being a visual diary following the rule of art, and [in terms of] the people who believe that media is our modern storytelling…that’s what I teach my students, to use photography to tell their own stories.”
He also encourages his students to photograph what they feel passionate about. The rest will fall into place. Over the years López has followed his own photography passions, using his camera to document various causes, traveling the world, to Mexico, South America and other places, to capture wars, displaced and marginalized people, or life in the subway, be that in New York City, London, Paris, Rome, Barcelona, or Madrid.
In the summer of 1990, López received a phone call from the then-director of the Art in Public Places, Art Keeble, who wanted to recruit twelve to fourteen artists to work with as many people living with HIV/AIDS, to create a collaborative project later called Faces of AIDS. The project was to be organized by the Art in Public Places together with NAPWA and TAN, or Tampa AIDS Network. López was living in Tampa, and he remembers the initial meeting taking place in a hot room, at TAN, in July or August of that year. And then, as other artists were being selected to contribute to this project, López ended up being the only photographer.
At the time he didn’t know much about HIV/AIDS. Robert Mapplethorpe had just died of the disease. People were still not sure how it was being transmitted. “It was really the early days,” López recalls. When mentioning that he was going to work on Faces of AIDS, some friends would tell him, “You’re crazy, you are going to get AIDS,” to which he would respond that if the disease were that contagious, then everybody would get it. “I got a lot of grief from people at first,” he says, “for getting involved in this project.”
But he got involved anyway. And he didn’t want only to photograph his subjects, but also to really get, understand, what his subjects were really going through, living with HIV/AIDS. To start work on Faces of AIDS, López was teamed up with one of his would-be subjects, a man called Chuck, and then he met Chuck’s partner, Jerry. Also, for about four months, López got to spend a lot of time at TAN, attending weekly meetings, every Thursday, speaking with the doctor and participants. López remembers “a gentleman by the name of Dennis,” a social worker who was HIV-positive. He had been a heroin addict, but had cleaned himself up and put himself through school. From chatting with him, López began to get a sense of the repercussions of having HIV/AIDS, to understand that the virus did not deprive individuals only of their health, but also of every social aspect of daily life. He learned the socio-economical implications of the disease, the stigma, loneliness and rejection that often (still) come with an HIV diagnosis.
López recalls Dennis explaining that basically everybody diagnosed with HIV/AIDS was going to die. And, in general, when individuals would announce that they had HIV or AIDS, people would avoid looking them in the eye. “Back when I was a child, when people had cancer, it was very similar,” López says. “Cancer was considered a punishment from God or something rather than just bad luck.”
The photographer also learned that the only treatment available at the time was AZT, and that the government would not help patients pay for their medication unless they spent all their money, to the very last cent, first. For example, Chuck’s partner, Jerry, had been very wealthy, but they had to spend all their savings before the government began to cover their AZT. As López started to become more immersed into the project, he and his wife, who’s also an artist, became friends with Chuck and his partner, having them over for dinner on a regular basis.
When it came time for López to photograph him for the project, it so happened that Chuck had shingles on his face. So the photographer used infrared film to make the shingles disappear in the photograph. And when the other participants saw Chuck’s portrait, they wanted to be photographed in the same way. “Everyone looked translucent and beautiful,” López says. Around that time, another photographer, Nicholas Nixon, came out with a photography book, People With AIDS, featuring terrifying portraits of people who were dying of AIDS. But López wanted to make his subjects look beautiful, in spite of the disease, to show that AIDS was not God’s punishment, and that anybody could get it.
So after photographing Chuck, López then captured the portraits of Kevin, Glenda, Dennis and John, among others. They all looked beautiful. And they all had a story to tell—Chuck had been a plumber and his partner an insurance agent; John became a member of ACT UP in Florida; Glenda was an eleven-month-old baby, born to heroin-addicted parents. They all had a story of social rejection that was more heartbreaking for them than the illness itself. In the exhibit López calls them only by their first name, because they didn’t want to have any links to their families.
Each portrait is haunting in its own way. Each print is larger than life, daring viewers to look the particular face of AIDS in the eye.
John’s portrait is a diptych—in one image he’s smiling, in the other one he’s not. His hands are posed as if in prayer.
Glenda’s portrait has been shown in several museums, in relation to December 1, World AIDS Day. The photographer remembers the eleven-month-old child not being able to stand on her own, and drooling. And he couldn’t really touch her to clean her up, because at the time there were still so many questions surrounding the ways HIV could be transmitted. So, they called Glenda’s mother to come to the studio, to clean up the baby the best she could. Glenda’s portrait is in particular haunting. “I think it’s probably the most shocking,” López says, “because we don’t expect an eleven-month-old girl to be dying.” After a pause, he adds, “She looks like a ghost. The infrared is part of the invisible spectrum [and gives] that waxy look. [Her face is] so smooth, [it has] sort of a haunting look.”
And then there is Kevin’s portrait, maybe one of the most powerful images. He was from Michigan, and he was a drag performer in Tampa. López had photographed him in persona. Later on, when Kevin got sick, the photographer visited him in the hospital. When it became clear that there was nothing else that they could do, doctors sent him home. He had a shunt put in, and had his medication distributed that way. One day he showed up at the photographer’s studio, because he wanted his portrait taken—naked, showing the shunt. Kevin knew that his death was imminent, and was not afraid to tell the truth about living with the disease. “I don’t want to hide anything anymore,” López recalls Kevin saying. The photographer took twenty-four shots. The one showing Kevin with his hands over his eyes was chosen by an exhibition that traveled around the world.
López worked on Faces of AIDS for about one year and a half, but was involved in the project for several years. “So many people that I spoke to referred to the alienating nature of this virus,” López writes in the artist statement. “Not just because it is contagious nor because it is thought of as a gay plague, but because when a person is perceived as dying, others are reticent to look them in the eye.”
J. Tomás López dares viewers to look Faces of AIDS in the eye. The portraits included in the project are close-ups, and large. “You must look into their eyes. [There’s] no averting your gaze; no value judgment about an Old Testament punishing God. They are just like us. They are us,” he says.
Today, those faces of AIDS are still relevant. To López it’s not so much a matter of then and now, when it comes to the history—the photographic history in this case—of the AIDS pandemic, but of “us” and “them.” For him, “the issue of HIV/AIDS is not an isolated issue. It’s an issue of fear and ignorance magnified to the point of making those who have [the disease] feel different. It’s like the difference, in linguistics, between ‘it’ and ‘thou.’
“And so, if I think of you as ‘thou’ then I respect you. But if I transmutate you into an ‘it,’ [it is as if] you have no soul.” He further relates this divide to the principles that stand at the base of slavery or the marginalization of women. It’s reducing other people to not meaning the same or as much as others. “That’s why I think that the early days of AIDS are so important,” he says. “Because for those who fought, and lots of people did, it’s like the early days of gay rights or feminism.” He pauses, and then adds, “For me, Faces of AIDS is of its time. [It] traveled the world until 1995–1996. It’s up to my students now to take it to the next step.”
The entire collection is at the Ft. Lauderdale Museum of Art. López’s last solo exhibition of the photographs showed them at 40 by 40 inches in carbon pigment Inkjet prints.
Alina Oswald is Arts Editor of A&U.