Nicholas Nixon has devoted a significant portion of his long career — which stretches back to the 1970s — to taking portraits of people who are sick and dying.
“I think I was interested in mortality before I even knew it,” he says. “Something drew me to life being short and sweet and sad early on.”
|Robert Sappenfield and his parents by Nicholas Nixon. Photograph: Nicholas Nixon|
“This was 1987 and the number of gay men in America who were closeted was huge, maybe 80 or 90%. Faggot was a common expletive. And this was before good drug therapies. Aids was like the plague: when you got it, you died. I never saw anyone who lived more than five years after they got the virus.
“The people you saw with Aids in newspapers or on television were very gaunt gay men near death. It was easy for the public to say: I don’t use drugs, I’m not gay, I don’t need to care. And no one was writing about the humanity of these men, how they’d been oppressed. That seemed shabby to me. I thought, arrogantly, that a book of pictures of individuals might soften people’s attitudes. It would be a record of their place in life, right up to the end if they wanted. The gaunt picture would be preceded by images of them in better health.
“I became very close to three or four people. Bob Sappenfield, pictured here, was one. He was smart, a graduate student at the Kennedy School in Harvard. We talked about books, everything under the sun. He wanted to work in public policy, not just on gay issues, but human rights. He believed that if you got to a high place, you could change things from the top.
“His parents came up from New Orleans: his father was a doctor, his mother a nurse. They were kind, lovely people. Bob had a thing called toxoplasmosis, an eating away of the brain. He thought it was ironic that the thing that was going to get him had to do with the mind, whereas a lot of the pretty boys would get Karposi’s sarcoma, ugly tumours on the skin. I used a big electronic flash and one time Bob asked if I’d let him put his finger in the socket, to kill himself. I couldn’t. But such signs of desperation were pretty rare.
“There was a protest about the photos: to some people, any portrayal of a person with Aids that wasn’t positive was wrong. Their slogan was: “Living with Aids, not dying with Aids.” I really understand that: I’d want anyone I loved to have as positive an outlook as possible. But their job was to protect their circle of friends and loved ones. Mine was to make the best picture I could. Everyone wants to matter – and I think everybody does.”
(via The Guardian)