Live With Hope

Jim Wigler

It’s challenging for someone who didn’t live through the early AIDS epidemic to truly grasp the terror it caused. To listen to 2020 Live with Character award recipient Jim Wigler tell it, it was fear of the unknown in its truest sense: people got sick, displayed some telltale symptoms, and died, often very quickly, and with no explanation as to what was killing them.

In the early 1980s, the death rate from AIDS was close to 100%. Jim puts it succinctly: “It was a time when everything was a catastrophe,” he explains. “Every bump on your arm or spot on your face wasn’t somebody overreacting… it was a legitimate concern. It was well before there was a test to see if you were HIV-positive, so every time I had a night sweat I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is it.’”

Jim felt sad, scared, and driven to help however he could. Fortunately, he had a unique way to lend a hand. He got hooked on photography in late 1970s New York City, where he took on grunt work for his friend, an assistant to famed fashion photographer Frances McLaughlin-Gill. He moved to San Francisco in 1979, sold everything he owned to buy a camera, and began shooting for gay magazines and newspapers – the beginning of a decades-long professional photography career.

Amid the climate of fear, loss, and stigmatization of the early ‘80s AIDS epidemic, Jim wanted to shift the narrative. By 1983, he had conceptualized a photo series of close-up, black-and-white portraits of those afflicted by HIV/AIDS. He would capture his subjects’ fundamental humanity and dignity; he resolved to portray strength and happiness instead of weakness and despair.

Key allies soon emerged to help – Tom Nolan, President of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, Adolph Gasser of Gasser Photography, and Rand Castile, Director of the Asian Art Museum all provided financial assistance or donated materials. Over time, Jim slowly homed in on the right look and feel for the exhibit, hanging portraits in San Francisco coffee shops and other businesses as the project evolved.

By 1986, the 107 portraits of Faces of AIDS were complete. Subjects facing almost certain death – Jim knows of only two subjects who are still alive today – were portrayed with a radiant, deeply moving warmth. The first exhibition took place at the San Mateo County Fair, moving to Grace Cathedral, the Moscone Center, and finally on a national tour with the Names Project Quilt, inspiring raw, emotional reactions at each stop along the way.

Jim is proud of creating such a lasting, impactful work, and the legacy of the epidemic and Faces of AIDS remains with him to this day. “I’ve been [HIV-]negative from the beginning, but… there’s not one person – negative, positive, or a long-term survivor – that doesn’t have PTSD from the experience [of living through the AIDS epidemic],” he says.

Fortunately, so much has changed for HIV-positive people since the horrible days of the 1980s and 1990s. An HIV-positive diagnosis is no longer a death sentence – with modern treatment, an HIV-positive person can live a fulfilling, normal life. “It’s a complete 180,” says Jim with amazement.

Jim was inspired to celebrate that reality with a new project – a bookend of sorts to the first. Jim will be photographing new HIV-positive subjects of different genders, races, sexual orientations, and walks of life in vibrant color for a series called The Face of AIDS Today. Like Faces of AIDS, it’s a way to celebrate the humanity of his subjects and destigmatize their condition. Each portrait will feature an accompanying quote from the subject about their lives – a testament to their place in a world that now knows how to help and support them, much like Jim did to the best of his ability in the 1980s.

Jim will use his Live with Character winnings to help fund the initial proofs for the project, to be displayed in coffee shops and stores until there can be a full exhibit. The prospect of creating a new work that embodies the modern perception and outlook for someone with HIV excites him. “I like to believe I can capture a person, not just take their picture,” he says. The essence he reveals in his subjects today looks markedly different than it did in 1983. Their spirits possess an especially vital new ingredient – hope. It’s a development Jim is especially grateful for, and will never take for granted.

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