Portrait of the AIDS Generation
The Work in Progress of Photographers Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover Documents Both Positive and Negative Long-Term AIDS Survivors
by Hank Trout
Photographers Saul Bromberger and Sandra Hoover are a team specializing in photography for a variety of editorial, commercial, corporate, and nonprofit clients that include Stanford University, McKesson, Oracle, MotherJones.com, TechWomen, and Rubicon Programs. They have worked together for more than twenty-five years. While their corporate work keeps them in business, it is in their role as artists and documentary photographers that I first met the couple last year.
In the Spring of 2016, the HIV Long-Term Survivors Group on Facebook sponsored a luncheon, “Food for Body and Soul,” in conjunction with Project Open Hand, to honor long-term HIV/AIDS survivors here in San Francisco. In addition to the performances and readings at the luncheon, Saul and Sandra displayed many photographs from their series “PRIDE: Heart of a Movement—The San Francisco Gay & Lesbian Freedom Day Parade: 1984-1990.” Collected in book form as PRIDE: Heart of a Movement (True North Editions), these photographs capture the exuberance and sheer joy of San Francisco’s Pride celebrations even during the worst years of the AIDS crisis. The photos reveal hints of the crisis looming over the heads of the celebrants—a sign reading “We need real trust not a quarantine to stop AIDS,” a T-shirt reading “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom”—but mostly, they capture the community’s love of life despite being decimated by an insidious and as-yet (pre-1996) unstoppable virus.
It was at this luncheon that Saul and Sandra told me about their nascent work in progress, Portrait of the AIDS Generation, a photographic and written word project about men and women living with HIV, their families, their caregivers, and their communities—long-term survivors of HIV/AIDS who want their stories of strength and resilience told. The couple began the project in September 2015 and continue to work on it. [Disclaimer: This writer is one of the portrait subjects.]
“What a moving experience this has been as we attempt, as best we can, to tell the story of this community of long-term HIV/AIDS survivors,” the couple have written. “We feel compelled to show how supportive and important the community is here in the San Francisco Bay Area, and we are looking to do many more portraits.”
The subjects photographed for Portrait of the AIDS Generation are as diverse as the San Francisco Bay Area itself. They include a handful of gay men of various ethnicities, including an HIV-positive couple in which one man is the primary caregiver for his husband, who suffers from HAND (HIV-Associated Neurocognitive Disorder); several straight women, some married with children who are HIV-negative; an African-American transgender woman who has become a pioneering leader in her community; artists, activists, writers, musicians, educators, poets, shop-owners—Portrait of the AIDS Generation aims to be a truly representative cross-section of the long-term HIV/AIDS survivors community.
A&U readers might recognize the couple David Spiher and Ralph Thurlow from the documentary Last Men Standing [A&U, May 2016]. For me, the portraits of David and Ralph are the most poignant, the most moving among the series. In one photo in particular, David and Ralph are photographed standing in their backyard. David stands behind Ralph, his arms encircling his husband; his hands hold three eggs they have just gathered. Ralph’s hands cradle David’s, the fingers of their left hands entwined. Ralph half-smiles as he gazes outward—into an uncertain future?—while David rests his chin on Ralph’s shoulder, his eyes closed, perhaps contemplating the same uncertain future that Ralph seems to be gazing into, thankfully relishing the time they have left together. It is a deeply moving, amazing portrait not only of two men who are so obviously in love, but also of strength and persistence in the face of uncertainty. The love and gratitude in this portrait are absolutely palpable; the story it tells haunts me.
Also particularly notable are the photographs of Dalene Ingraham, a straight woman living in Sacramento who was diagnosed with HIV in 1991, after many years (she says) of drug use and unhealthy indiscriminate sex. At the time of her diagnosis, she was pregnant with a son, who was born HIV-free. She “cleaned up,” temporarily, but the trauma and stigma of being HIV-positive drove her back to the drugs. Another child, a daughter, was later born with HIV. Dalene lost custody of her children. However, clean and sober since 1996, happily back in touch with her children, Dalene now divides her time between running a curio shop in Sacramento and her role as an educator and advocate with Sacramento-based women-centered HIV groups like Sunburst and Sisters in Survival. Dalene’s portraits attest to a hard-driven life but also reveal her newfound exuberance and purpose in helping other HIV-positive women.
Portrait of the AIDS Generation is not Saul’s and Sandra’s first project documenting lives of the HIV community. In 1995 they created another documentary series entitled “House of Angels: Living with AIDS at the Bailey Boushay House” in Seattle, Washington. Bailey Boushay House (http://www.baileyboushay.org) was founded to address the housing and health care needs of people living with AIDS, particularly their end-of-life care needs. In the photographs Saul and Sandra made of the patients and caregivers at Bailey Boushay, the pain and frustration is obvious, particularly in the photographs of patients lying abed with friends/relatives attending at their sides. It is a beautiful yet emotionally devastating series of black-and-white photos.
As Saul and Sandra have gotten to know the community of long-term HIV/AIDS survivors, it has become clear to them that not all survivors of the plague are HIV-positive—they have come to realize, as has the community itself, that all of our brothers and sisters who lived through the worst pre-HAART years of the epidemic are indeed our fellow survivors, no matter their serostatus. After all, our HIV-negative cohorts lost just as many friends and lovers and coworkers, and surely suffered the same unspeakable grief, as those of us are HIV-positive and lived through the Plague Years. Thus, the couple have begun to seek out and photograph HIV-negative survivors—friends, children, siblings, coworkers, caregivers of the HIV-positive—who want to add their portraits and their stories to the project. The couple aim to make the series a true portrait of all the long-term HIV/AIDS survivors in the greater Bay Area.
Although Portrait of the AIDS Generation is a work in progress and far from completion, some of the portraits have already seen gallery walls. As I write this (June 2017), several of the photographs from this series hang as part of the “Celebrate Community” exhibit, the Harvey Milk Photo Center’s annual Pride exhibit. The couple’s ultimate goal for the series is a gallery showing—or perhaps a traveling gallery show—of the portraits along with brief biographical sketches of each of the survivors, and a book of portraits and stories. Currently they are seeking grants to finance the completion of the project and hope to have the entire project gallery-ready within a year.
I asked Sandra and Saul about their motivation for the series, as well as what they personally have gotten out of the work they’ve done. “I’ve never met such beautiful and resilient souls in my life. Our project seems to focus me—I need the portrait subjects more than they need me. These people mean so much to me,” Sandra told me. Saul continued, “We’ve met some of the most giving and compassionate people while working on our Portrait of the AIDS Generation project, especially the people who have trusted us to tell their story with our portraits. It’s been a very moving experience, getting to know them and telling their stories.”
We need more such compassionate storytellers in 2017.
If you are a long-term HIV/AIDS survivor in the San Francisco Bay Area or the Sacramento area, either HIV-positive or negative, and are interested in sharing your story—or just want to check out more of Saul’s and Sandra’s beautiful work—go to www.saul-sandraphoto.com or contact them via email at [email protected].
Hank Trout is an Editor at Large at A&U.