And So It Happened
A Photo Project by Francesco Di Benedetto Explores the Liberatory Potential of U=U & PrEP
by Chael Needle
A new photo book, And so it happened, by Francesco Di Benedetto, features images of individuals living with HIV and undetectable viral loads as well as individuals who are on PrEP. Each image is paired with a lengthy quote written by the subjects, several of which are excerpted below.
“So many are unaware of PrEP and how much medicine has advanced today. Therefore, a
lot of them are scared of me and verbally disrespect because of my status, despite my being undetectable,” shares Derek Du Jour.
Rajan notes: “I do feel much safer in having sex because of the scientific evidence this pill has propagated.”
Maria, who is undetectable, writes: “I post photos of me freely to show my face and let others know they are not alone in this fight.”
Throughout, And so it happened offers readers a panorama of different insights and experiences. Each one has a thoughtful take on how an undetectable viral load or taking PrEP has affected their approaches to sex and relationships, and the ways they navigate through the world. The photographs honor this complexity.
A new era inaugurated by U=U (a sustained undetectable viral load means an individual living with HIV is not only afforded better health outcomes but also cannot transmit the virus to another) and PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis for individuals who ongoingly test negative) energized this multidisciplinary portrait project, according to the artist statement. Di Benedetto writes: “My project highlights stories of people living with HIV and people on PrEP, because openness is key to tolerance and no one should have to hide—whatever their status. The main goal is to give visibility to these stories, in the belief that speaking openly about these issues and sharing real-life experiences can effectively help keep the discussion alive and fight the stigma.”
Currently based in Brooklyn, Di Benedetto has a degree in media studies that culminated in a thesis in Cultural and Queer Studies. A native of Italy, the artist and scholar moved to New York in 2012 and pursued advanced photography classes at the International Center of Photography and Pratt Institute. His work has been featured in solo shows and group exhibitions.
Chael Needle: Your artist statement explains the reasons why you began this project. What did you learn, if anything, in the process of creating the book?
Francesco Di Benedetto: I learned many things, probably the ones that made a bigger impression were about the first years of the AIDS epidemic. The fact the people didn’t have access to meds, all the struggles and difficulties in finding the right [treatment regimen], some of the people I interviewed had to relocate because where they lived it was impossible to find the meds. And then I learned how people were capable of going on with their life anyway. I was really impressed when I discovered that many of them described HIV as something that helped them to be a better person, to take care of themselves and others, find a purpose in life, coming out with their family and friends, overcome addictions and many other problems. This is the message I wanted to deliver in the first place, since I started the project, i.e., the fact that you can lead a happy life even with the virus, now more than ever.
About PrEP I learned how people were skeptical at the beginning but then the perception changed and made things easier. A lot of the people I interviewed (both HIV-positive and on PrEP) said that thanks to the availability of preventative medication they were finally able to enjoy sex for the first time in their life, or that it really had a huge impact in getting rid of prejudices, fears, anxiety, and stigma.
I hear this, too! I find it productive to consider what Terrance says, “I think PrEP will revolutionize the gay community again. I believe the sexual revolution of the 60’s will happen again in modern society.” To what extent does the book and its subjects have a politically liberatory dimension for you?
I think and hope that the book has the political message that I for sure always had in my mind. I believe that both at an institutional and political level many things must change in order to protect the rights of many minorities, including the LGBTQ+ community, the community of HIV-positive people, black people, immigrants, etc. I felt the need to do what was in my power to express my vision through this project. Giving access to preventative therapies is a key factor in the fight against HIV. And we should all be aware of this in order to put pressure on politicians, representatives, city governments, and the federal government, etc. I believe in the power of people fighting together for a common goal and to make our society more inclusive, open, and accepting. Especially to my fellow members of the LGBTQ+ community: we should take care of each other in the way we used to. Now there are effective tools to finally end the AIDS-related discriminations and the epidemic in itself but, if we don’t have access to them, we should demand to have it. In this sense I believe that the book and its subjects really bring forward a liberatory dimension.
What did you aim for when selecting the interviewees?
It was a deliberate choice of mine to not select the interviewees. So long as they had a story to tell, I was happy to provide a platform for it. To this date no one has ever turned away from the project or any interview has been edited.
Your photographs are stunning and quite lovingly created. What approach did you take to photography?
First of all, thank you very much for your words about my photos. For this particular project I wanted to be as neutral as possible. Meaning that I never gave any directions to the subjects. I wanted them to be as comfortable as possible in front of the camera. For this reason I usually told them that if possible I preferred to take the pictures in their living space, otherwise I would let them choose a place outdoors that had some meaning for them. A lot of the people asked me what they should wear and, again, I always told them to put on something that made them feel nice and comfortable. Some of them wanted to be barechested and others dressed up with their nicest clothes. It was a way for me to show their personality even through these small and simple details.
How does the book connect to your other projects?
The book has many connections to my previous projects. For example, in one of my first series I explored gender identity in the queer community of New York. And many of the subjects of this book are gender non-comforming and non-binary people. Since the beginning I wanted to have as much diversity as possible in the book so I tried to find subjects of all ages, sexes, ethnicities, and backgrounds. Another series that has connections to the book is the one [called] Trumpland, in which I have documented the day of Trump’s election on Staten Island and the following Women’s March in Manhattan. That series too, like this book, contains a clear political message (I will let you find out what it is).
What’s next for you?
This is the most difficult question for me. I am not that great at making plans for the future, but I can tell you what I am doing now. Because of COVID-19 I had to stop doing many things (as everyone else in this weird world). I couldn’t go out and shoot anymore, I couldn’t work, I couldn’t see my friends, etc. So, like everyone else I started cooking, I got new plants for my apartment, and also two beautiful cats (that are the only real good thing of 2020 for me) , but at one point I was going crazy. So, I decided to go back to school and I applied for a Master’s in Social Work. I started classes in September 2020 and I am now about to start my second semester. It’s going great and I would love to combine photography with this new career. I already have many ideas and I am really excited about this new chapter.
For more information about the book and the work of Francesco Di Benedetto, visit: http://www.fdibenedetto.com/and-so-it-happened/.
Chael Needle interviewed Robert Siegelman for the January 2021 Gallery. Follow him on Twitter @ChaelNeedle.