Bill Bytsura’s The AIDS activist project is a series of portraits and stories from AIDS activists around the world (PHOTOS).

The Faces and Stories of AIDS Activists

The Faces and Stories of AIDS Activists

Behold
The Photo Blog
Dec. 11 2015 10:33 AM

The Inspiring Stories of AIDS Activists 

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Robert Garcia, New York, 1990. “I would whisper to myself as I was marching, shouting, demonstrating, fighting back: ‘Robert, every step is a tear you don’t want to cry, every arrest is an act of hope.’ I don’t know what ACT UP represents, a little order in this chaos we know as the AIDS crisis.” Robert died in 1993 at the age of 31.

Bill Bytsura

Bill Bytsura went to his first ACT UP meeting in 1989 after his partner Randy died from AIDS-related complications. At first, he was overwhelmed by the intensity of the meetings and wasn’t sure how he would be able to fit in.

“I always felt I was more of an observer than an active participant,” he said. Because he was also a photographer, Bytsura joined ACT UP’s media committee and started to take portraits and document the stories of the activists. He calls the work “The AIDS activist project: Portraits & Stories, 1989–1998” and is hoping to turn it into a book; his Kickstarter campaign to help fund it ends this Saturday.

“I was listening to presentations by these people who had become my family, these intelligent, brave and heartfelt people,” he wrote in a statement. “It struck me that the media and public did not see them as I did, preferring to call them sinners, lawbreakers and disease carriers. I wanted the world to see these people as I did: Heroes fighting for their lives, putting their bodies on the line, searching for a cure.”

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Aldyn McKean, New York, 1993. “As I was photographing him, he pulled up his shirt to show me the tube he used when he hooked himself up to the dialysis machine. Then a year or so later he called me as he was leaving his apartment for an opening at MoMA. He told me, ‘There are no photographs of me in a tuxedo and this may well be the last chance to do one.’ ” Aldyn died on Feb. 28, 1994.

Bill Bytsura

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Larry Kramer, New York, 1992. Kramer is a founding member of ACT UP, a playwright, and author. Photographed with his dog Molly.

Bill Bytsura

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Mona Bennett, Atlanta, 1992. “I photographed Mona in Atlanta, Georgia, in March of 1992. She was the office administrator of ACT UP Atlanta. She was very helpful in getting in touch with many of the activists in the Atlanta area. The banner hanging in the background was used in welcoming fellow activists at the airport in 1991. The activists convened in Atlanta for a protest at the Centers for Disease Control.”

Bill Bytsura

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Moises Agosto, New York, 1991. “Moises was a member of ACT UP New York and worked on issues concerning people of color. He said his first ACT UP meeting was ‘like a religious experience.’ He helped found ACT UP Puerto Rico and is currently living in Washington, D.C., and is the director of research and treatment advocacy at the National Minority AIDS Council.”

Bill Bytsura

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Bytsura didn’t limit his work to New York and traveled around the United States, Europe, and Mexico. Since there was no social media or regular email use in the early ’90s, Bytsura would put up fliers saying he would be hanging out at specific locations for a day hoping to attract participants. In the end, he made 225 portraits of the activists. Due to his other work and the cost of developing and printing the film, Bytsura stopped working on the project in 1998, eventually putting all of it into storage.

More than a decade later, Bytsura was contacted by Marvin Taylor, head of New York University’s Fales Library and Special Collections, who had seen one of his portraits and was interested in looking at the entire collection; they ended up acquiring it and adding it to the Downtown Collection, which was founded to document New York’s downtown arts scene during the 1970s through the early ’90s.

Bytsura hopes that having the work in the collection will provide it with a larger audience. For him, the stories subjects tell are the heart of the project and the black-and-white photographs are just a bonus.

“It was about the people and who they were and what they did. I just happen to be a photographer; that’s what I do.”

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Hal Haner, New York, 1989. “Hal was the first person I photographed for this project. A few weeks after we did the shoot, he came to the studio, and I showed him the contact sheets. He picked out this image as his favorite. He said he liked what was going on with the contrast between Reagan's face and his own. Hal died on July 7, 1990.”

Bill Bytsura

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Tim Bailey, New York, 1992. “Bailey was a member of the ACT UP New York affinity group, ‘The Proud Marys.’ Before his death, he told his friends that he wanted a political funeral and asked that his body be thrown over the White House gates. Tim died on June 28, 1993, of complications from AIDS.”

Bill Bytsura

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Resi Kompier, ACT UP Amsterdam, July 1992, at the eighth International Conference on AIDS in Amsterdam.

Bill Bytsura

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Dene and Floyd, ACT UP Atlanta, 1992. “This was an intense shoot, of a couple dealing with AIDS. Floyd wanted to show the Mediport that had been surgically implanted in his chest, so that he could be hooked up to IVs with AIDS medication.”

Bill Bytsura

David Rosenberg is the editor of Slate’s Behold blog. He has worked as a photo editor for 15 years and is a tennis junkie. Follow him on Twitter.