Celebration of Life
Lester Blum & Vladimir Rios Transform an AIDS-Themed Photo Series into Film
by Chael Needle

Serenity, 2015, Ultrachrome archival print, 12 by 18 inches

Lester Blum and Vladimir Rios, friends who have been creative partners for over a decade, have produced evocative, stylized photographic series that emphasize the power of postive transformation. “Despair” and “Invisible” both champion individuals who have been marginalized. “Warrior of Hope” and “I Still Remember” look to the future and the past, respectively, as a source of strength in the present.

Now the team (with Blum as photographer; Rios, artistic director) is working on a new project, transforming one of these visual narratives, “I Still Remember,” into a short film. Set during the height of the AIDS pandemic in New York City, “I Still Remember” tells the story of two men (Rios and Scott Reynolds) who meet and fall in love as they navigate an urban landscape, from lamplit streets to sunlit oceans. Illness abbreviates the romance. One dies; one mourns.

The film will follow the same storyline as the photographic series, maintaining its spirit and message. Blum and Rios add: “The film will be narrated in the present, almost as a dream sequence, by the sole survivor of the story, with minimal dialogue, as a reminiscence of his life during the onset and subsequent detrimental effects of HIV/AIDS, combining the moving images with still photography.”

The photographic series has been exhibited in five solo shows across the nation, several in concert with World AIDS Day. Photos from the series have also been included in two group shows. Blum and Rios plane to submit the short film to domestic and interational film festivals, as well as present it on World AIDS Day, this December.

Conversation Moment, 2015, Ultrachrome archival print, 18 by 12 inches

A&U caught up with the creative team to talk about the new project.

Chael Needle: What was your original idea for the photo narrative?
Lester Blum & Vladimir Rios:
There are life lessons to be learned from the past. When “I Still Remember” was originally conceived, too many people in the world had forgotten about the impact that the pandemic of AIDS had on an entire generation. This impact is still felt today in the memories of those who perished and those continuing to survive with the virus. Many people do not want to speak about those who died from complications of HIV. Even today, there is almost a shame attached to the subject. By visually presenting a universal story of love, loss, and remembrance, “I Still Remember” was able to give a voice, through remembrance, to those who can no longer speak for themselves, thus, perhaps, dispelling some of the stigma attached to AIDS.

The photo narrative, a compilation of the lives of many men of the era, offers a voyeuristic view of one gay man’s lifestyle, his meeting of his lover, life in the early days when HIV/AIDS was an unknown, the diagnosis of his illness, deterioration of health, waiting to die, his death, and the celebration of his life—remembrance.

It is difficult for some people to grasp the concept of keeping loved ones alive in our memories and hearts. Many feel that it is simply an unwillingness to “let go.” Yet, the person is a part of us and always will be alive in our memories.

The narrative depicts many levels of reality. From dealing with relationships to rejection by both family and friends, from “religious” individuals to the church itself, many perished alone. They had no one to remember them or honor their existence. The narrative was created to honor and remember all so that we will never forget and to teach the younger generation, who did not live through the pandemic, the history. We feel not much has changed in people’s attitudes since that time. It is important for the world to understand the past in order to address the present and move forward to a better future.

“I Still Remember” is an artistic interpretation, not actual events, designed to commemorate those who have passed from HIV/AIDS-related causes and how we can still keep them alive in our hearts and collective memories.

Working the Loading Docks, 2015, Ultrachrome archival print, 18 by 12 inches

What do you think the medium of film will bring to the narrative?
Blum & Rios: “I Still Remember” was created and photographed in a cinematic manner so that the story would unfold in the still photographs. It is a natural to present this powerful message as a moving visual for even greater impact. The film will give the story a three-dimensional breath of life.

The film will be developed as a narrative remembrance with the still images incorporated into the video. Scott Reynolds, who is an adult entertainer, will reprise his role from the photo narrative as both the narrator of the story and the main character who survives the era and lives on today. Scott relates to the different scenarios depicted in the narrative bringing authenticity to the role as he is living with HIV and a long-term survivor.

We believe that, on-screen, the joy, sorrow, and emotion depicted will have a greater impact on the viewing audience than seeing just the still images. The audience will be able to relate to the individuals in the story as real people in real-life situations not just a fantasy story. The goal would be for each person to leave the viewing with a remembrance of the past and hope for the future.

What do you hope to express about the realities of individuals who are living with HIV/AIDS?
Blum & Rios: While thousands perished during the pandemic of AIDS, thousands more survived the ravages of the disease and the devastating effects of the drugs. These individuals are long-term survivors who are living their lives to the fullest. For many, they lost friends, lovers, and/or family yet, they are still here for a reason. They are not letting HIV/AIDS define who they are. They are individuals who just happen to have the virus and are still advocating to change our world to be a better place for future generations.

Against God’s Law, 2015, Ultrachrome archival print, 18 by 12 inches

Who do you hope sees the film and what do you want them to take away from it?
Blum & Rios:
We hope that the audience is comprised of three different groups of individuals.

The older generation who were directly affected by the onslaught of the disease so that they will waken their memories and remember those who perished.

Youth, so that they will have a better understanding of what transpired during that period so, hopefully, they can learn from the past. With all the available information, medication, and support the youth have the tools to make wise choices for themselves today.

And the general population, to help erase the stigma of those affected by HIV/AIDS by realizing that they are just like everyone else except they have the virus. It should be no different than someone who is left-handed or has purple eyes or [an ability that is different from yours].

It is our hope that people can walk away from seeing the feeling acknowledging that it is okay to feel the pain of losing someone but also to recognize that by remembering they can keep the loved one alive in their minds and hearts.

A Moment, 2015, Ultrachrome archival print 12 by 18 inches

Why do you two work so well together as a team?
Lester Blum:
We have been working together on various projects for over a decade. I would attribute our success as a team to a mutual respect for each other’s opinions and ideas. Coming from different generations and backgrounds, we each have something unique to bring to the table for each project. Through discussion, compromise, and sometimes, experimentation, we are able to achieve the results that are agreed upon by both of us. Our method of collaboration works well for us.
Vladimir Rios: Lester and I have always had a great connection. Although we might view things differently, at times, we have similar goals. We want to present projects that are unique and beautiful often being a voice for those who no longer have one. To advocate, being a voice, is a concept that has been lost both in our community and in our country until recently. Out of the current chaos, people are finally beginning to speak out and advocate for others. Many of our projects reflect that voice.
We often work separately on different aspects of a project and then assemble the individual pieces as one would a puzzle. We each contribute something different, yet achieve the same goal. Because of our unique working relationship, our projects are conceived, executed, and presented to the public in a relatively short time frame. While we have encountered many obstacles in presenting our projects, we never give up. Many individuals have opened doors of opportunity for us as they comprehend the messages we are presenting to the benefit of many.

Lastly, how is your creative energy during these lockdown times?
Lester Blum: Since I generally work on my various projects in solitude, I did not experience the negative impact the lockdown seemed to have had on many acquaintances. On the contrary, the lockdown actually intensified my ability to focus and concentrate on the projects at hand without an abundance of outside diversions. For example, during the lockdown period, I began catching up on processing my photographs taken almost two years ago as well as completing the research and writing my new book, Through the Eyes of a PFC 1942–1945, which will be published this Fall.
Vladimir Rios: At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was extremely frustrated trying to cope with the new situation. My refuge was devoting my time working for my company, which was considered to be an essential operation. My concern was for the health and safety of the employees, which left little time to concentrate on any personal projects. As the situation worsened, I began working remotely and had little desire or motivation to be creative. While watching the news and seeing the comparisons of the COVID 19 pandemic to the AIDS pandemic, it dawned on me that I should expand my creativity. Many individuals who lost loved ones due to COVID-19 did not even have a chance to be with them or give them the type of burial they would have under normal circumstances. These individuals felt hopeless and lost without a voice to advocate for their loved ones. I recognized that “I Still Remember” addressed similar issues and deserved a larger visual venue to reach the masses.

For more information, visit: lesterblumphotography.com.

Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U. He interviewed the artist Orocoro for the July Gallery. Follow him on Twitter @ChaelNeedle.