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Duane Cramer: Trailblazer, Photographer, Activist

October 25, 2011

Duane Cramer: Trailblazer, Photographer, Activist

This October, LGBT History Month, we showcased the work of a Black gay man who has participated in several Black AIDS movement "firsts" -- from being photographed for "Greater Than AIDS," the first national HIV/AIDS-awareness outreach to Black Americans, to photographing "Testing Makes Us Stronger," the first campaign targeting Black gay and bisexual men.

"This is not my campaign," renowned photographer Duane Cramer says about "Testing Makes Us Stronger," the social-marketing and HIV-testing initiative he shot to widespread acclaim for its striking portrayals of Black gay and bisexual men. The HIV/AIDS outreach measure from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has "really been an amazing team project," he insists. Still, Cramer was the genie behind the camera for the image-charged effort. Even standing outside the frame, he's central to the picture.


This August, shortly after Cramer shot "Testing Makes Us Stronger," the CDC published a numerical snapshot of the tragedy unfolding among young Black men who have sex with men (MSM) -- a shocking 48 percent increase in new HIV infections between 2006 and 2009. These dire statistics confirmed the urgency of several initiatives being spearheaded by a panel of doctors, scientists, artists and activists -- many Black, gay and/or bisexual themselves -- who are directing the CDC's outreach efforts focused on Black MSM. "Testing Makes Us Stronger" is the first such initiative. One month after the CDC released its report, the agency awarded $55 million over five years to 34 community-based organizations nationwide to conduct HIV-prevention outreach to Black MSM.

Central to capturing Black gay and bisexual men's attention? Cramer's visual aesthetic. The San Francisco-based photographer had already been the lensman behind the "Greater Than AIDS" campaign, a collaboration between the Black AIDS Institute and the Kaiser Family Foundation that promotes testing in Black communities. And he had once been vice president and principal photographer of Better World Advertising, a social-marketing firm behind "HIV Stops With Me" and other prominent outreach initiatives.

But while those previous efforts included some Black gay or bisexual men, Cramer says, this campaign would zoom in on that population exclusively. Because "most Black gay and bi men live in the Black community," they may not attract attention to themselves, he observes. Cramer knew that his images would have to stand out to this elusive, highly vulnerable and stigmatized demographic.

Out of His Father's Shadow

The Cramer family had already experienced the social stigma associated with AIDS. In 1986 Cramer's father died of the disease. Although his parents had been divorced, Cramer says, people still saw his dad as "a Black man with a beautiful wife and children, who didn't look like the people who were dying."

At that time many people believed that AIDS was limited to gay White men. While today Cramer describes his father as "same-gender loving," at the time of his death the shame of the disease had been too much to share. "My sisters and I told people he had died of cancer," Cramer says.

But the truth of his father's death and the fact that by then, Cramer was living in California helped strengthen his resolve to become an AIDS activist. By 1996 he was on the board of the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, helping to display it that October in Washington, D.C., and even showing Vice President Al Gore and his wife, Tipper, the panel that his family had sewn for his father.

Cramer remembers not feeling 100 percent that day but attributing it to nerves from his hectic public schedule. But shortly afterward he received his own HIV-positive diagnosis. The paradox wasn't lost on him: He was supposed to know better. But Cramer had lapsed into a careless moment of unprotected sex. "I never thought about this until now," Cramer says as he reflects. "I sero-converted exactly 10 years after his death in 1986."

Concurrent with his diagnosis, Cramer's employer, Xerox, awarded him a one-year paid social service leave from his marketing job to display the quilt to high school students of color around the country. As he traveled, he began to weave his own HIV-positive status into his lesson plan about the quilt. "I know that sharing my story from Loachapoka, Alabama, to New York City made a big impact on some of these people," he says, adding reflectively, "I think seeing powerful images of out, strong gay men in advertisements that are not stereotypical would have helped me."

Testing "Testing"

Which is where "Testing Makes Us Stronger" comes in.

"This campaign is saying, 'That's me, and I want to take care of me,' " Cramer says about the initiative, which focuses on increasing awareness among diverse Black MSM as well as the broader Black community.

"It's great to see people who are large, who are obviously very feminine, butch guys, bears, guys with bellies, everything," he says. "They're just regular people." A black backdrop unifies Cramer's series of nine stunning studio portraits, whose subjects stand below the bold, colorfully lettered headline: "Testing Makes Us Stronger."

Now creative director and principal at DUANE CRAMER creative, Cramer categorizes the completed campaign as "artivism," the intersection of artistry and activism. Some of the ads have already rolled out in five cities, as well as in the October/November issue of Vibe and the October issue of XXL. They will also display on such gay-identified sites as Adam4Adam and other social media. "I hope to see a really dramatic increase in young, black-MSM testing rates or treatment," Cramer says. "Whatever's required to keep Black people healthy and from becoming extinct."

You can contact Duane Cramer at

Eric K. Washington, the author of Manhattanville: Old Heart of West Harlem, is the 1995 winner of the National Association of Black Journalists first prize for his Out magazine profile of AIDS activist Phill Wilson, who went on to found the Black AIDS Institute and is its current CEO.

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This article was provided by The Black AIDS Institute. Visit Black AIDS Institute's website to find out more about their activities and publications.
See Also
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