New Book to Feature a Decade of Early AIDS Activists' Portraits

Robert Garcia (Credit: Bill Bytsura)
Dene Greenough and Floyd Martin
Bill Bytsura) Moises Agosto (Credit: Bill Bytsura) Saundra Johnson (Credit: Bill Bytsura) Hal Haner (Credit: Bill Bytsura) Alan Contini (Credit: Bill Bytsura) Aldyn McKean (Credit: Bill Bytsura) Mona Bennett (Credit: Bill Bytsura) Robert Garcia (Credit: Bill Bytsura

A simple flier at the crowded literature table at ACT UP New York meetings made the offer: "Donate your face to ACT UP her/history."

The entire collection of 225 portraits, personal statements and negatives has been archived in the Fales Library and Special Collections at New York University (NYU).

But much of Bill Bytsura's collection of large format photographs of a decade of AIDS activists -- from the well-known to those never publicly recognized, from those who have survived to those who lost their lives soon after the photos were taken -- has not been published.

Now, Bytsura is launching a fundraising campaign to produce a high-quality book with many of these stunning images. I spoke with Bytsura about the memories and emotions that have arisen as he prepares the photos for publication, and his hopes for how the AIDS Activist Project will affect a new generation of viewers.

(Full disclosure: I was one of many photographed for the series at the International AIDS Conference in Berlin in 1993.)

In a snapshot, so to speak: What is this book about?

This book is 10 years of my involvement in ACT UP and photographing AIDS activists, trying to give a different perspective. Back in the day, I remember coming home and they were talking about quarantining people with AIDS. There was really a sense of fear, you know? Thinking like somebody could come to your door and then you're hustled off. Or tattoos, and stuff like that.

But sitting in the [ACT UP] meetings, with people like Aldyn [McKean], Ann Northrop, David Robinson in his dress, it was fun. So, I thought, let's try to give a different perspective of that.

I started with medium format film because I wanted to make big prints, 16" x 20". I wanted detail in the images. I wanted to treat them, the activists, photographically as a very substantial and important thing.

Through the process, using medium format film, making larger prints, people could really see the wrinkles, really take notice when people were sick -- really see the effects of AIDS on their faces.

I thought, "This has to be a way of me saying these people, this movement, was really important and should be treated with all the respect that I can do, process- or material-wise." And now, with the book, it's using nice paper and a good printer.

What were the specific 10 years that you captured?

The first person I photographed was in 1989, till about 1998. There may have been one or two people after that may have been in ACT UP that I did still photograph, but the majority was in those nine or 10 years.

As you go back to the photos for pulling the book together, do you see different things in them, or have different thoughts about them, now that time has passed?

I started a Facebook page. The first image I put up was of Hal Haner, who was the first person I photographed, and the first person I knew, other than my boyfriend Randy, who died.

He came to my apartment. He was going to Beth Israel for radiation for his KS [Kaposi's sarcoma], and he said they would only treat three lesions at a time. I photographed him in December of '89, and then the following January or February. He died a few months later.

And then Alan Contini. I saw him one time at an ACT UP meeting, after his health had deteriorated quite a bit. It was like, I don't want to be an opportunist, but this is what this project is for. And I went up and said, "Look, I'd really like to photograph you again. You've changed a lot."

He was like, "Absolutely."

So, then, remembering that and a few other things -- seriously, last week, I had a day where I just stayed in bed and cried. I just cried, going back. I always knew it was there in boxes at NYU, or in my spare room in New York. But now that I'm really going back and revisiting it, some things are really hard.

Like Aldyn [McKean]: There's a photograph of him with a tuxedo.

I had photographed him once when he was on dialysis. He came to my studio, and he had a tube into his stomach. He was all about, "I want people to see this." So he pulled his shirt up. He was waving it around and stuff. It was kind of funny. I mean, back then you were immersed in all this stuff. So even laughing about that was a release.

And then, a while later, he called me up and said he was going to an opening at, I think, the Museum of Modern Art. He said, "There are no pictures of me in a tuxedo. This will be the last chance for me to do one."

So I set everything up real quick. He lived across the street, so he came over and we took photographs of him in his tuxedo. He died not long thereafter.

The photos cut across different sets of people in ACT UP. Did you intentionally try to get a very diverse group, or people who worked on different elements? How did you select who you were taking pictures of? Or was it just who you were encountering through your work and living in your neighborhood?

I joined the Media Committee as a photographer. That was my first entrée into really getting some friends in ACT UP. You know, ACT UP was pretty scary at first. Like, people screamed.

There used to be a media table at the back of the room, so I made a flier. Jay [Blotcher] actually did it for me. It said, "Donate your face to ACT UP her/history." And then it briefly told a little bit about what I was doing. We just put it out and then whoever wanted to do it, we did it. I didn't pick and choose.

Because within ACT UP there were the more vocal people, the more visible; but then there were a lot of people who showed up for the demonstrations, added their body and maybe weren't so loud who were just as important. So I just did it that way. Anybody who called me, we did it.

And then I did the same thing at the [International] AIDS Conferences. A few people I did go up to, to ask. I think I coaxed Larry Kramer to do it, and Ann Northrop, and Maxine [Wolfe], and the Latino Caucus. But I'd say 90% of it was all voluntary.

I didn't want to pick and choose. Everybody was sick. So I was trying to get them.

What do you think could happen from the book being out there?

What the images are and what they represent is important. And part of it will be to say to people, "Here's a blueprint for you to pick up the activism again, the work."

ACT UP changed a lot of things. Had ACT UP not formed, things would have been a lot different. God knows where we would have been if ACT UP never existed.

There's How to Survive a Plague and United in Anger that are very good films, and other things. But photography brings another perspective and it's more personal. People wrote statements or a little story to go with the images. You can sit there and look at the picture and read it, and then look back at the picture. I think that will bring a lot of the more personal and emotional connection to it.

Part of ACT UP was that community that you had every Monday night. Maybe if you didn't have something to do, or if you were feeling well, you'd go to the workspace and do something. It was like a community, as well, but it was face to face. It was camaraderie. I think there was a lot of love. Even though people yelled at each other and called people names, it was still a common cause that everybody was around. So it was like family.

I hope it's a look back at the whole thing. And maybe a little acknowledgment of the individual people and this activism work.

It's fun, it's empowering and you make a difference. It sounds like a cliché, but you know, it's empowering. You make a difference. Whether you want to protest the shopping mall going in down the street -- get together, form a plan, do five actions in the same day. And dress up like ladies, or clowns.

I do hope people appreciate the photographs. I remember processing the film at home, in my apartment. It was great. It was my job to do that.

I think it can be a look back that says, "This worked, and through it all, there were good times we had."

The AIDS Activist Project will be published in spring 2015 with funds raised through a Kickstarter campaign.

Julie "JD" Davids is the managing editor for and