Aids Self-Portraits
Project info

This series of portraits was taken between 1989-1995. It was the height of the Aids crises in the Bay Area, and there was not yet the medication known as the Aids cocktail until the last year of the project. This meant that each young person infected with HIV faced the prospect of an early death in the hostile political environment of the 1990's. I was asked to come to the centers and take portraits. The situation was so charged that I needed to come up with a way to level the playing field, and give agency to the sitters. The solution was to use a view camera with Type 55 polaroid film, and an extended pneumatic shutter release. Each sitter was given the pneumatic bulb, which allowed them to operate the shutter. The self-consciousness often seen in portraits was gone. The Polaroid film produced a print as well as a negative, so that while the negs floated in a solution of Sodium sulfite, the prints were passed around the room. Soon there was a party atmosphere, with newcomers invited to look at the prints and join in.
These photographs sat in my print drawers until last year, when I decided to find a home for the series. The San Francisco Public Library's History and LGBT Centers had just received an NEH grant to digitize Aids archives including history, journals, photos , and medical research done at UCSF. The library acquired this series of portraits to be part of this project.
I never exhibited the photos until last year, and only then to test how I felt about exposing them.This may seem absurd in this time of Facebook and selfies, but I do feel protective towards these sitters. I am now looking for a book publisher for this work.

Jeannie O'Connor