In the 1980s, HIV and AIDS were terrifying and untreatable. Whole generations became victims of the disease, and tragically they experienced a dual hardship: in addition to the terrifying diagnosis, sufferers were treated as outcasts and pariahs by our society. It was a frightening and confusing time in America’s history.
Photographer Billy Howard documented the impact of HIV on victims in Atlanta, Georgia, starting in the 1980s. His images didn’t offer judgment—at least not of the patients, though perhaps of the lack of support and understanding shown by the outside world.
Utilizing an approach pioneered by Jim Goldberg, Billy invited his subjects to write directly on the prints, providing what was truly a first-person response to their images, their mortality, and their legacies. The stories are heartbreaking, but one can’t help but keep turning the pages and reading the commentary with the knowledge that it might have been the last time the subjects recounted the story of their lives.
Despite their poor prognosis at the time (no viable treatment was available yet), the people portrayed in Billy’s photographs conveyed an astonishing courage when confronted with this terrible new unknown. As years went by without a cure, the future looked increasingly grim. With relentless drive, Billy befriended, investigated, documented, and mourned the loss of many old and new friends. Most importantly, he did not allow them to vanish without leaving a trace.
Ultimately, Billy’s project took him out of Atlanta—he photographed subjects in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and other cities around the country. His pioneering photographs were published as a book, Epitaphs for the Living: Words and Images in the Time of Aids, and are included in the Emory University archives. Billy held a position at Emory as he worked on the series.
Billy’s book brought attention to a medical crisis that merited a far greater level of support, funding, urgency and—perhaps most importantly—emotional relief for victims and their families. The book’s printing costs were funded by Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS [DIFFA], and all of the proceeds from book sales were returned to the same organization.
Photographer Lewis Hine once said that his documentary efforts functioned as “photographic proof that no anonymous or signed denials could contradict.” Billy’s book acted in much the same way: there is no denying the faces and words of the epidemic’s victims.
Billy Howard has long been one of my heroes, not only for the quality, sensitivity, and depth of his photography, but also for his continued commitment to the idea of using photography to heal the world.
Associate Professor, Photography
Director & Curator, Sol Mednick and 1401 Galleries of Photography
The University of the Arts
Epitaphs for the Living: Words and Images in the Time of Aids
Publisher: Southern Methodist University Press
Hardcover: 160 pages
Dimensions: 11.2 x 14.1 x 0.9 inches