HIV/AIDS doesn’t make the headlines these days as it once did. It has largely slipped under the radar because medically, the disease is now managed successfully.
But in 1993, in the middle of the AIDS epidemic, medication wasn’t available and people everywhere were terrified of being overrun by the virus, like a mysterious octopus associated with gay people. That was when South African photographer Gideon Mendel went to London and asked to enter a ward treating desperately ill AIDS patients and take pictures of them. Most were young gay men.
Of course the hospital said no, but after reassurances about sensitivity and confidentiality, and explicit consent from the patients, permission was granted. Mendel said it was to help combat the stigma against them. He was allowed by Middlesex to go into the wards of four dying AIDS patients – John, Ian, Steven and Andre – and photograph their treatment and ward life, including the intimate way their partners, staff, patients and families related to each other. They died soon after the pictures were taken, just before medication became available.
Being gay was still frowned on in many places, and aside from the lack of successful medical care, the AIDS stigma was gigantic. Nurses treating patients didn’t tell their own families; AIDS wards in hospitals were hidden; even the plaque marking the opening of the AIDS ward at Middlesex by Princess Diana was covered by a painting. In an attempt to penetrate the wall of silence, in the United States in 1987 a gigantic AIDS Quilt was shown on the National Mall in Washington DC, created from panels with names of people who had died of AIDS. Many funeral homes refused to handle their remains.
Now, 25 years later, Mendel has assembled a poignant collection of those photographs in a book called The Ward. Its cover picture shows a grief-stricken, healthy man draping himself over and kissing the lips of his sick male friend lying in a hospital bed. You can tell from their body language that they had once had a joyful, loving life together. It is heartbreaking.
Attitudes have changed and the furor seems alien now, with anti-retrovirals allowing HIV-positive people to live full, healthy lives. But in 1993 it took nerve to do what Mendel did.
In South Africa, satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys began travelling around South Africa in 2000 with his AIDS-awareness show “For Fact’s Sake!” to educate people. He visited over 1,5 million school children, reformatories and prisons. Public figures such as constitutional court judge Edwin Cameron and musician Bryan Schimmel declared their HIV-positive status. The Treatment Action Campaign approached the constitutional court to force President Mbeki, accused of AIDS denialism, to initiate anti-retroviral treatments immediately. December 1 is still called World Aids Day.
What’s the lesson for today? The AIDS denialism of those days is similar in its impact to today’s climate change denialism. Leaders of the most powerful countries – such as US President Donald Trump and leaders in India and China – continue behaving as if there’s lots of time, while the earth shakes. Our future is bleak unless major action is taken on climate change very urgently. Already the seas are warming and the icecaps are melting, and scientists hope we can limit the rise in global temperature to only 1.5 degrees, rather than the 2 degrees which would eventually kill us all. Global greenhouse gas emissions must be at zero by mid-century.
We need climate change activists of the sort who tackled AIDS, or most of the planet’s civilisations are doomed, and the Gideon Mendels of the future will come and photograph the ruins.
- Read independent arts critic Robyn Sassen’s review of the