Veils & Visibility
In Their New Photography Show, Lester Blum and Vladimir Rios Help Shed Light on Individuals Living with HIV & Others
by Alina Oswald
Only days after the shooting at the Pulse club in Orlando, I find myself at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Center in Manhattan to meet with photographer Lester Blum and talk about his new show, “Invisible.” I arrive at the Center a few minutes early. Looking around, I notice a police van parked right in front of the Center, flanked by two police officers, who were dressed in what looked like full body armor. I point that out to Lester Blum, as he arrives a moment later, and we walk by the officers and greet them. They greet us back, and even smile at us. We conclude that they’re there for protection, to keep an eye on things, as they say. From the look on Blum’s face, it seems to me that he has much more to say about Orlando, and we hurry inside to talk about that, as seen through the prism of his new show, and much more.
While many of us are familiar with the work of Lester Blum and Vladimir Rios through shows like “Warrior of Hope” and “I Still Remember” [A&U, November 2015], with “Invisible” we have the chance to rediscover these amazing artists, and to be introduced to a new facet of their work. “Invisible” is a multilayered documentary that takes on the topic of invisibility in our society. (Opening night is August 13, at the Pride Center in Staten Island, which is also planning several educational events around the event.)
When I spoke with Vladimir Rios later, I learned that the idea for the show started with a simple conversation Rios had had with a man in a wheelchair on the beach at Fire Island. At the time Blum and Rios were still working on the “I Still Remember” photography narrative. The man, Bruce Paul, thanked them for taking a moment to chat with him, commenting that usually people didn’t acknowledge him, let alone talk to him, and thus making him feel invisible. And so, Rios decided to make his story visible. The man in the wheelchair ended up being the first (out of a group of up to twenty people) to be interviewed for the new project.
“He planted the seed in my head about doing a project about people who are or feel invisible in our society,” Rios emphasizes later, when I catch up with him. “Of course, I took the opportunity to learn more about him,” he adds, “and immediately felt that I wanted to present this concept [of invisibility] in an artistic manner,” to offer not only a way to learn about these individuals, but also to learn how to make a difference in their lives.
“Having been a social worker for many years,” Rios adds, “I was aware of individuals who suffered from [feeling invisible]. The encounter with Bruce brought the subject, which we tend to ignore, back to the surface. I was very curious to learn how someone who felt invisible actually felt.
“The initial thought about this project was strictly to present people with obvious physical challenges and disabilities. When Lester [Blum] and I actually began [working on] the project, we quickly learned about the variety of causes that were not necessarily [related to] physical disabilities.”
While working on the project, Blum and Rios have encountered many other facets of invisibility, either because of an HIV status or being considered “different” in society—being born with HIV; bullied as a child or adult because of being gay, small in size, not athletic or overweight to name only a few; being sexually abused; aging; living with mental illness; and many others. And they noticed that all stories had a common thread—they were all related to feeling damaged or not belonging, or related to anguish, depression, and even suicidal tendencies.
“The project is different from others,” Blum tells me. “[While] the others were primarily fictionalized stories, based on actual things—‘I Still Remember’ was a combination of so many people’s lives from that era [the beginning of the AIDS pandemic]—‘Invisible’ is a multidimensional documentary combining still photography [portraits], written testimonials, and documentary style video. It is about actual people’s lives, their feelings and emotions.” Blum was in charge of the photography and videography, and Rios, the creator of “Invisible,” interviewed those who wanted to share their stories for the show.
Invisibility comes in all shapes and forms. Some are more subtle than others. Hence, individuals interviewed for the show cross all walks of life. While some find hope again and become visible in society, others choose to become invisible as a defense mechanism, hence they project to the world only a facet of themselves accepted by society.
“The other side to that is Orlando,” Blum comments, explaining that those killed in Orlando might become invisible because they’re not alive anymore. “We have to give them a voice,” he adds, emphasizing the importance of keeping them visible, remembering them. “Since the tragedy which occurred in Orlando,” he adds, “we [Blum and Rios] feel even stronger about the message of the project and the educational aspect that the project entails. Those who perished no longer have a voice. ‘Invisible’ [marched] in NYC’s Gay Pride Parade to emphasize that we, as a community, are no longer invisible.”
Rios also adds, “In today’s world, being gay [still makes] many of us invisible in society. Many of us choose to stay invisible to be safe. For many, the attack in Orlando re-emphasized the necessity of staying invisible, [while giving others the courage to become visible]. While not affected directly by the recent Orlando massacre, everyone in the LGBT community and throughout the world was greatly affected by the tragic event. What’s most relevant is that the entire world basically unified in showing support, compassion and love for the victims, families, and friends. We cannot afford to let anyone feel invisible. We are all part of the same world. In memory of the Orlando massacre victims, I refuse to ever be invisible.”
What both Blum and Rios discovered while working on “Invisible” is that invisibility is multi-layered. At some point in their lives, many individuals have experienced some deep-seated feelings of being invisible. The artists also found out that everybody deals with the issue of invisibility in different ways.
Although each story is unique and relevant, some stand out more than others. So is the story of Raymond Scott VanAnden, a man living with HIV who has been abused in multiple ways during the time of his last relationship. When interviewed, Scott says, “Sometimes the feeling of being invisible keeps us safe from life’s issues of abuse or neglect or disease…it can be the comfort from life’s issues.” Rios says, “What makes his story remarkable, is that he turned his life around and now works as a counselor at an HIV center, helping others.”
There is also the story of Andi Poland, who lost two sons to suicide within a short two-year time period. “After her loss,” Rios says, “this amazing woman has chosen not only to help herself, but also [help] others by learning about mental illness and suicide. She hopes that society becomes educated about the subject, so that no one else will have to suffer [losing] a loved one to suicide.”
But not all “Invisible” stories are sad stories; quite the contrary. Some offer hope and the possibility of becoming visible again. Some highlight that very dim, but present silver lining or the light at the end of the dark tunnel of invisibility, while others help us reach inside ourselves giving us a chance to touch base with our own humanity.
For example, artist and activist Robert Ordonez has become a staple in the New York City scene and
beyond for his work behind and in front of the camera. “Sometimes I want to be very honest about who I am, and that scares people,” he says. “My attitude in life is [to] go for your dreams, no matter how many people or what obstacles try to slow you down.”
John Chamness comments that being born with HIV, as he was, “is like being born with green eyes, completely out of the child’s control. But it’s a birth into stigma, in the strongest sense. I have spent my life not being able to let people see or know all of me, just part of me.”
There are also stories of compassion and unconditional love, such as the story of Caroline Loevner and her dog, Beau. See, Beau is a formerly abused, beautiful (indeed) Alaskan husky, who now is a therapy dog. Beau and Caroline work together, and they make a great team, helping people, “bringing hope, love, and compassion to those in need,” Rios explains. “What they do is something to be admired and perhaps, emulated.”
Beau is a busy dog. His “steady gigs” include weekly stopping by Rivington House (founded by James Capalino in 1995, at the height of the AIDS crisis, to help a community in need; nowadays the facility is only partially full); Beau also stops by Terence Cardinal Cooke Health Care Center, Beth Abraham nursing home, in the Bronx, and also the Ronald McDonald House, offering comfort to children living with cancer and their families. “Maybe we can learn something from [dogs like Beau] from what we consider ‘lower species,’” Blum says, showing me a few pictures of Beau, by himself, giving Rios some love or posing for a portrait with Caroline.
Art is a powerful tool to tell in particular this kind of stories. “In ‘Invisible,’ the visual and verbal go hand in hand to convey the full story,” Blum comments.
HIV is present in each and every one of the visual narratives he created together with Rios. HIV is present not as an isolated issue, but rather as part of a bigger story. And I have to ask why.
“That’s a complex question,” Blum answers, “because the answer is multifaceted. I think that the main answer is the fact that HIV is a part of our world today, and it’s not going away anytime soon. People are affected. New people are getting sick, whether they’re from the LGBT community or the general population.” He adds, “With treatment, people are living longer, but I think that it’s important that people keep being made aware of HIV, AIDS, and not falling into the fantasy that taking PrEP is going to be the cure-all. And even in the medical community, they’re talking about the same thing. [PrEP] is not the miracle pill.” He believes that this ongoing HIV and AIDS awareness is important as a reminder for older people, for those who were around during the eighties and nineties, but in particular for younger people, so that they can “think about [HIV] and think about what they’re doing.”
The “Invisible” feature image, Lifting the Veil, defines the message, the mission of the show itself. “That’s what we want society to do, to lift this veil, so that the various and diverse issues faced by people are no longer invisible, giving others the opportunity of [more] understanding. We must become more accepting of each other,” Blum says. In speaking with the participants, Blum and Rios realized that by giving those individuals the opportunity of talking about their issues, they also helped these individuals suddenly become visible, at least to a degree.
To which, Rios adds, “The goal of ‘Invisible’ is to create a forum where people can have a voice where they can be heard and not hurt. [The show] is an educational piece that will hopefully help people to respect others, accept them for who they are, and welcome them as part of our society.”
Find out more about Lester Blum’s photography work by visiting him online at http://lesterblumphotography.com/. Find out more about the “Invisible” show at https://www.facebook.com/photographyinvisible/.
Alina Oswald is Arts Editor of A&U.