Activism through the Lens

Photographing for a Cause: Photographing HIV-and-AIDS-related stories, and LGBTQ Activists

In photography, TTL (or Through The Lens) metering determines the flash exposure by measuring the amount of light coming, you guessed, through the lens. Through The Lens is also the name of an article I wrote for A&U–America’s AIDS Magazine, America’s first HIV magazine, about award-winning photographer Gerard H. Gaskin.

HIV and AIDS, as well as LGBTQ+ rights, have been two subjects dear to my heart. I’ve been interested in covering them–and did cover them–for years, and hope to continue doing it for many more years to come. The reason I mention this is that, in an attempt to improve our skills and better ourselves at whatever we are doing to find that one thing–one subject, cause, story–that we feel the strongest about, and cover it. Attempt to become good at covering that particular subject. That subject or story that speaks to us and draws us in might be different from one photographer to another, from one writer to another. But I think it does help to find something that really brings us to life, as creatives.

For me, that “something” is HIV and AIDS, and LGBTQ-related stories. Speaking of HIV and AIDS, and LGBTQ+, while recently being, yet again, on Ron B’s show, No Boundaries, Ron B. asked me why I always cover these kinds of subjects and stories.

The simple answer is, well, simple. Because I’m drawn to these subjects and stories. Because of them, I found my purpose in life–that is writing and photographing something I feel deeply about.

Over the years, through my lens and words, I’ve covered many individuals who make a difference in the fight against HIV, as well as in the fight for equal rights and LGBTQ rights. They also make a difference in my life. They give me, they give many of us, hope.

I look up to these individuals and learn from their stories of survival and perseverance. They don’t only give me hope, but also provide the necessary fuel, energy, that fire inside oneself, to move on and strive to become a better person, “more good,” to borrow a line from Angels in America.

Why bring this up? Because something you feel deeply about does fuel your passion for your work and gives your work life.

I’ve learned a lot from advocates I’ve photographed and interviewed over the years, from award-winning author, Joel Rothschild to the inspiring Nancy Duncan, the most recent one as of writing this post.

Here are only a few portraits of advocates I’ve taken over the years:

  • HIV Activist Maria Davis photographed by Alina Oswald for A&U Magazine.
  • LGBTQ/HIV advocate, Athelete Ally & Vietnam Relief Ambassador Amazin LeThi photographed by Alina Oswald for A&U Magazine.
  • HIV activist Ken Pinkela photographed for A&U Magazine by Alina Oswald.
  • U = U and HIV/AIDS Activist Bruce Richman photographed by Alina Oswald for A&U Magazine.
  • Men Portraits & Editorials. Photo by Alina Oswald.
  • Dominique Drakeford. Fashion & Editorial Photography by Alina Oswald.
  • Pastor William Francis for A&U Magazine
  • Bishop George at St Francis Church
  • Activist Jennifer Flynn Walker photographed for originally for A&U Magazine by Alina Oswald.
  • Rev. Stacey Latimer, photographer exclusively for A&U Magazine by Alina Oswald.
  • Ron B. at Celebration of LGBT Pride in NYC
  • Actor and Comedian Steven Hayes, TOQ at the Movies. Photographed for A&U Magazine by Alina Oswald.

I’ve also created several images and composite images that ended up in the Fresh Fruit Festival annual art show, at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art.

I called the image posted below, “Facing the Law.” It’s a composite created with the help of a dear friend and wonderful model, MJ. It was inspired by the activist artwork of Avram Finkelstein.

NY celebrates marriage equality. Image by Alina Oswald. Fresh Fruit Festival. Leslie-Lohman.
Facing the Law. Image by Alina Oswald. Fresh Fruit art festival at Leslie-Lohman.

Also, I created the next image to celebrate marriage equality in NY state. It’s a composite. Finding the perfect title for this image is an ongoing process. This image started out as my personal rendering of the classic image of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square, at the end of WWII–the famous V-J Day Kiss photo–for an assignment called Homage.

I called the image below “Identity.” Like the above images, “Identity” was also part of one of the annual Fresh Fruit Festival art shows, at Leslie-Lohman, in NYC. I took this image when covering an AIDS Day event in 2007. I became aware of this particular shot only after the show when browsing through my images on the computer screen.

Identity. Photo by Alina Oswald.
Identity. Fresh Fruit Festival/Crossing Boundaries, Leslie-Lohman, NYC. Photo by Alina Oswald.

Other images:

Hope: A Bauhaus Rendering, created for a Bauhaus photography assignment.

Hope. Bauhaus Rendering of the rainbow flag, including the color black.
Hope: A Bauhaus Rendering. The rainbow flag, with the rainbow colors, including black (and also white, for peace).

ACT UP and Rise Up to HIV bracelets:

Rise-Up to HIV Bracelets. Photo by Alina Oswald.

Idea City, with the one and only Avram Finkelstein, the staff of Visual AIDS, and members of the Undetectable Flash Collective. We stopped people on the streets of Manhattan and asked them to write their answers to the question “What is undetectable?” on bright red balloons.

What is undetectable? Write down the answer on a red balloon.

Covering the opening of the AIDS Museum in 2006, at Seton Hall University, in NJ.

Covering NYC AIDS Walk every chance I have:

AIDS Walk NY 2014. Photo by Alina Oswald

And also the NYC Pride.

Covering the New York City Pride March on June 26, 2011
As well as Jersey City Pride Fest. Here, performing artist Lovari performed in front of the Jersey City City Hall building.

And also, “(re)Presenting AIDS” in A&U Magazine every chance I get.

Press preview day at the New York Historical Society for the AIDS in New York: The First Five Years show. Children With AIDS Spirit and Memory photographs by Claire Yaffa, accompanying exhibit. Photo ©Alina Oswald.
Representing AIDS Bags. Photo by Alina Oswald published in A&U Magazine–America’s AIDS Magazine.

Backbone. The featured image for my 2008 solo photography show, Backbone.

Backbone solo show (opening 08/08/08 at 32 Jones Gallery, Jersey City, NJ)

Here’s a bts (behind-the-scenes) iPhone image from my photographing the HIV Warriors prevention campaign in NYC, a few years ago.

HIV Warriors - behind the scenes at the photo shoot
Dab the AIDS Bear (and my then camera) at the photo shoot. Bts shots during the HIV Warriors photo shoot. Photo by Alina Oswald.

Why cover these kinds of stories? Because, personally, I feel strongly about them. And because I think it is important. Because, again, using light and/or words to tell the stories you’re most passionate about will give purpose to your creative work and help you use your work to make a difference.

As always, thanks for stopping by!

Alina Oswald


    1. Hi Dab 🙂 Thanks so very much! How could I not include the Bear? Thanks for your kind words! Thanks for all the good work that you’re doing, and for your ongoing support.


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