Where We Are Now
Photographer Gene Rigler Creates Stunning Portraits of Long-Term Survivors
by Hank Trout
When photographer Gene Rigler woke up one morning last year with the idea of creating a photographic essay of portraits of long-term survivors of HIV/AIDS, the notion seemed so natural, so right to him. “I instantly started wondering,” he told A&U, “where are the long-term survivors now? What are they doing? What do they look like? Most importantly, I wanted to show that there are survivors from the first AIDS generation.” Thus began a months-long endeavor to locate and photograph long-term survivors in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Gene describes himself as “a self-taught photographer learning through the lens of experience.” Born seventy-three years ago in Plainview, a small farming and ranching community on the High Plains of West Texas, he grew up on a small dairy farm with three sisters. That area of Texas is, he said, “as flat as a tabletop with absolutely nothing to break the line of eyesight. You can see so far that it hurts your eyes,” he joked. After graduating from Texas Tech University in Lubbock with a degree in political science, he joined the Peace Corps, “both to avoid the Vietnam war draft and to satisfy my itch to explore the world and in some way help make the world a bit better place. The biggest benefit of the Peace Corps to me was that it exploded my worldview. I lost my provincialism pretty damn fast.” After returning to the U.S. from Nepal, he continued working with the Peace Corps as a recruiting officer in San Francisco, a Desk Officer in Washington, D.C., and as Director for the Eastern Caribbean.
When his father gave him an old Brownie camera, “Oh man, that was magic to an eleven-year-old boy. I took photos of our farm life, the dogs, the milk cows, the cotton, corn and hay fields, and my relatives, etc. Sadly, I don’t have access to those photos anymore but I sure wish that I did.” Upon graduation from Texas Tech, he received a newer, better Nikon F Photomic camera from his father to take to Nepal with him. “I was shooting blind, so to speak. Film had to be sent back home for developing. Knowing that the film would likely be stolen out of the mail, I didn’t have any of it developed until I got back home. I was quite surprised at the results.” In Nepal, he was constantly impressed with the beauty of the people and the Himalayas. On an excursion to Mt. Everest, he met a journalist from the Times of London who had been dispatched to meet and interview an international team of climbers who were coming back down the mountain after a failed attempt to reach the summit of Everest. The journalist persuaded Gene to take a roll of pictures of the climbers. “Apparently,” he said, “the story was published with one of my photographs. I know this because months later, I received a check for £50. I was a little dumbfounded. Sadly, I never got a copy of the newspaper nor the printed photograph that was used.”
The more Gene experimented with photography, he learned that “your eye is your biggest asset. Even the very best camera is not going to give you a great shot; you have to see the shot in your mind’s eye first before shooting it. A camera is just a tool to help you capture the shot. The rest is up to your creative eye and how you use your camera.”
Among Gene’s many achievements, he is most proud of his work persuading Visa, Inc., his long-time employer, to start sponsoring employee participation in charitable events. “The first company-supported employee charitable event was the AIDS Walk in the mid-1990s. At the peak of my involvement, I organized walk teams of over 500 employees and raised $60k annually in support of a variety of ASOs.”
When Gene decided to use his camera to make portraits of long-term HIV/AIDS survivors, his reasons were largely person. Partnered for ten years now, both he and his partner are HIV positive, making them both “acutely aware of living with the virus and how it affects our everyday lives.” The pandemic had devastated his social circle, claiming ten of his closest friends, two of whom he had actively supported before their demise. “It’s an unspeakable ache and void when someone who is close to you dies in the prime of their life. It hits harder to think that we all shared incredible coming out journeys together. The losses are quite like losing a family member.”
“Being a long-term survivor myself, I feel extremely fortunate and grateful to still be here.” This series of portraits is one way that Gene has shown that gratitude. As of this writing, he has photographed seventeen long-term survivors and hopes to add many more to the collection. Of those photo sessions, Gene said, “Each one has been a small journey for the survivors and for me. Generally, I like to open a conversation with the person about their experiences before I take out my camera. It’s important to me to establish a rapport with the person beforehand and to set the mental framework for the shoot.” He purposely chose to shoot the photos in black-and-white, free of any distractions due to colors that can grab the viewer’s eye away from the main focus. “This project is a formal exercise to tell a story. The black-and-white format connotes a seriousness that color doesn’t. I felt that black-and-white photos would command the viewers’ attention better than color photos.”
Patti Radigan is among the subjects whom Gene has photographed for this series. Patti has been a client as well as a volunteer with the Shanti Project, an ASO in San Francisco; she also conducts a weekly “soft yoga” class for members of Let’s Kick A.S.S. (AIDS Survivor Syndrome), founded by activist Tez Anderson, another of Gene’s subjects. A&U asked Patti why she consented to be part of this project. “I wanted to do this because there aren’t a lot of women, or women that look like me, who are long-term survivors or who want to admit it,” she said. “I’m a sixty-two-year-old woman and a twenty-eight-year long-term survivor and a recovering heroin addict. Almost from the moment I was infected I’ve wanted to put a face to HIV/AIDS. I wanted to let people know that this is what a long-term survivor looks like. You don’t have to be a gay man or a person of color to contract HIV.” In addition to her volunteer work with Shanti and LKA, Patti is also a proud mom. “People say I look like a soccer mom, and I kind of am a soccer mom. I got pregnant after I was diagnosed positive and raised a beautiful HIV-negative daughter. I hope that seeing me in these long-term survivor portraits gives people hope that they too can get out of a bad place.”
Although prior to beginning the project he hadn’t heard about AIDS2020, the biannual conference of the International AIDS Society scheduled for July 2020 in San Francisco and Oakland, Gene has been working with Tez Anderson and others to arrange an exhibit of the portraits at the Moscone Center during the conference. However, now that AIDS2020 has morphed into “AIDS2020: Virtual,” those plans are very unsettled to say the least. With California’s shelter-in-place order set to expire at the end of May, organizers of the conference hope to have at least a few in-person meetings and cultural exhibits, including Gene’s project. But no matter whether that exhibit happens, Gene hopes to share these portraits with the world at large. “My hope,” he said, “is that the general public will gain a renewed awareness that long-term survivors are still here and still face a multitude of health challenges living with the virus. Long-term survivors struggle with a plethora of survival issues related to medication regimens, unexpected metabolic changes to the body, premature aging, social isolation, and, of course, the financial burden. Being a long-term survivor doesn’t come cheap or easy in our essentially broken healthcare system.”
Lofty goals indeed for a self-professed untrained amateur photographer from the High Plains of West Texas. But considering the beauty and power of the photographs in the series, those goals appear to be well within Gene’s reach.
For more information, log on to: https://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/sets/72157713232901761/.
Hank Trout, Senior Editor, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a forty-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his husband Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.