LGBTQ+ History Month: Photographing Activists

Rainbow Balloons for JC Pride Fest. ©Alina Oswald.

Stories of Activism Told in Words and Images

While covering stories of LGBTQ+ and HIV/AIDS activists for 15 years and counting, I’ve always been amazed, mesmerized, and deeply inspired by their courage, determination, and strength. Since October is LGBTQ+ History Month, here’s to the activists who have inspired, mentored, and guided me, and who, oftentimes, gave me a reason to carry on.

Bestselling author Joel Rothschild was one of the first activists I’ve ever interviewed for A&U Magazine–America’s AIDS Magazine. In his book, Hope: A Story of Triumph, Joel writes: “There’s a very fine line between disaster and triumph. That line is hope.” His words come to mind, still, every time I find myself on that very fine line in my own life.

Hope. Bauhaus Rendering of the rainbow flag, including black and white. Photo by Alina Oswald.
Hope. Bauhaus Rendering of the rainbow flag, including black and white. Photo by Alina Oswald.

Award-winning, legally blind photographer, activist, and mentor, Kurt Weston, talks about his journey through life and visual art…a journey that, I might add, is empowering as well as inspiring. In his biography, Journeys Through Darkness, Kurt mentions that he “will always be searching for new ways of depicting his reality through his art […]. [His] art is always evolving because ‘it’s not good for anybody to remain static.’ For Kurt Weston, creating visual art will always be an ongoing, life-long process. It will continue to expand and change and show itself in different ways. Ultimately, it will remain inspirational and transforming.”

With activists Terry Roberts and Kurt Weston at the opening of Weston's show, Remember: An AIDS Retrospective, WAD 2018, at OCCCA
On World AIDS Day 2018, award-winning photographer Kurt Weston invited me to be part of a panel discussion on the opening night of his new show Remember: An AIDS Retrospective at Orange County Center of Contemporary Art.

In an article published in A&U Magazine–America’s AIDS Magazine, actor, comedian, and advocate Steve Hayes talks about Legacy and about a time before and after the AIDS crisis of the eighties. Hayes reminds us that “AIDS united the gay community.” […] “I never went to Vietnam—that was the war of my era—but I didn’t miss the war, because the [early] AIDS years were like a war. So I did everything that I could to help.”

Actor Steve Hayes photographed by Alina Oswald for A&U Magazine.
Actor, and comedian Steve Hayes photographed in studio by Alina Oswald for A&U Magazine–America’s AIDS Magazine.

For many years, actor, advocate, and celebrity host Ron B has been Breaking Boundaries with her activism work as well as with her show, No Boundaries Up Close and Personal. She always reminds us that “there are no boundaries to what you can achieve in life!”

Ron B. at MNN in NYC. Photo by Alina Oswald.
Ron B at a 2018 pre-Halloween and bday No Boundaries show, poses with the June print issue of A&U Magazine—America’s Magazine opened to a feature story about the activist and actor.

“I met [author, artist, and activist] Avram Finkelstein in person in 2014 and witnessed the artist, activist, and mentor in action. He talked about the full meaning of an undetectable status, opened my eyes to what activism is, and discussed collectives and art in public spaces. ‘Collectives are organisms,’ he’d say. ‘Our commons is an exercise in collectivity.’”

The above is an excerpt from my cover story interview with Avram Finkelstein. In the same interview, he also mentions, “Self-care or mourning or memory is an essential part of humankind. But when we confuse the personal side of loss with our communal idea of loss, we lose the ability to act. It’s important to leave room for the personal, but also bear in mind that we’re not only responsible for ourselves, but also for one another. It’s important for everyone else in the world that your voice be heard as a part of the collective voice. We need every voice there is. We can’t afford for people to withdraw from the task at hand, and the task at hand is a better world. I’m firmly convinced that we’re heading for a better world, and I’m really excited about it.”

Avram Finkelstein in his artist studio at Pioneer Works, Brooklyn, NY discusses HIV, AIDS, activism, and his artwork displayed on the wall behind the artist, a sketch for a work commissioned by The Shed for its opening exhibition. Photographed exclusively for A&U Magazine.

So, what is activism?

“…Everything about political and social engagement is a part of a process of collaboration. That’s what community and community responses are. That’s what activism is. Activism is a community response to something,” says Avram Finkelstein in a 2018 interview for A&U Magazine. “So, in a way, I feel that the collective, even if it’s a tiny collective, is a bell jar. An experiment in collectivity is an experiment in activism.”

June 6, 2019: Visual AIDS What Is 21st Century Liberation? installation – opening party at New York Live Arts. Avram Finkelstein and Rodrigo Moreira designed the What Is 21st Century Liberation broadsheet for Visual AIDS in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Photo by Alina Oswald, also published in A&U Magazine, World Pride 2019 issue, a cover story interview with Avram Finkelstein.

And here I was (bad hair day, lol!), marching in this year’s World Pride 2019, with Visual AIDS, distributing copies of What Is 21st Century Liberation, a broadsheet co-designed by Avram Finkelstein.

Marching in World (NYC) Pride 2019, distributing copies of What Is 21st Century Liberation broadsheet. Many thanks to Visual AIDS for photographing during the march and sharing the images.
Marching in World (NYC) Pride 2019, distributing copies of What Is 21st Century Liberation broadsheet. Many thanks to Visual AIDS for photographing during the march and sharing the images.

Myself, I find myself in awe of activism and activists, and their stories. They do inspire me, and I find myself craving this inspiration. It gets me, us, “fired up and ready to go.”

So, what does activism mean to you? Feel free to share.

Thank you and, as always, appreciate you stopping by and reading this blog.

Alina Oswald

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