Sunday, June 5, 2011

Iconic Sunday: Two Images of AIDS

Ken Meeks by Alon Reininger, 1986
Today, June 5, marks what public health historians consider the 30th anniversary of HIV/AIDS. As this absorbing piece from Wired explans, it was on June 5, 1981 that the first bulletin describing a case of HIV was published in any medical journal.

In the years that followed, HIV/AIDS came to be called “the gay disease” and was largely overlooked by the public. Rock Hudson’s death in 1985 put a famous face to the disease. A year later, Life magazine published a picture by Contact Press Images photographer Alon Reininger that presented HIV/AIDS in an entirely new way. No one could think dismiss the disease, the pain it caused, and the threat it represented any longer.

Reininger, who had covered the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and political unrest around the world, learned about HIV/AIDS through his acquaintance with playwright and AIDS activist Larry Kramer. “When 50 or 80 people started to [die], it became apparent that something was going on. [Kramer and I] spoke about it, and then tried to figure out how I would climb into it,” Reininger told Photo District News a few years ago. Research led Reininger to an AIDS patient named Ken Meeks, whom he photographed. Three days later, Meeks died.

One of photos Reininger got that day showed Meeks bent into a wheelchair, stick thin, his arm spotted with blood-colored lesions. But it is Meeks’s face, his eyes in particular, that gives the image meaning. The eyes, to me at least, cry out. They want to be heard. They want to tell a story that until 1986 had been ignored.

David Kirby's death, by Therese Frare, 1990
In 1990, Life published another photo that captured the human cost of HIV/AIDS. Taken by a journalism graduate student named Therese Frare, it showed a dying young man, David Kirby, surrounded by his family. The image became another icon of the disease, and, later, a controversial one when it was used in an advertisement for United Colors of Benetton created by the editor Tibor Kalman. Some AIDS activists decried the commercial use of the image, while other groups were concerned the ad marked a mainstreaming of homosexuality. Such is the ambiguous nature of photography. Life later included Frare's image as one of the 100 photographs that changed the world.

No comments:

Post a Comment