Warrior of Hope: Art Project Shows Us the War on HIV/AIDS Is Not Over

Warrior of Hope (Credit: Lester Blum Photography)
Lester Blum Photography

Harvey Milk knew that, in order to succeed, you had to give people hope. Lester Blum, a New York City-based artist, has taken that message to people living with HIV. Together with his artistic partner Vladimir Rios, they have created a new art project called "Warrior of Hope" that will showcase photographs depicting hope in an exhibit in New York City's Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art.

"Warrior of Hope" is more than a photographic exhibit, however. Rios has dressed up as the Warrior on many occasions and made appearances at Pride events. The Warrior honors those who have fought the HIV/AIDS battle and offers solace to those currently fighting the war against HIV.

Blum, the photographer behind the exhibit, discussed with TheBody.com the origins of "Warrior of Hope," how he got a bunch of men to pose naked and what he wants people to learn from the exhibit.

When did you come up with the idea for "Warrior of Hope"?

The concept for the "Warrior of Hope" was conceived by Vladimir Rios around March 2014 when he was thinking of ideas for a costume to make a statement regarding HIV/AIDS for the New York Pride Parade 2014.

Can you talk about the Warrior's costume and how the look came about? What are its inspirations?

Rios and I discussed the concept in depth and then brought in Dmitry Byalik, a leather designer. The concept and symbolism of each element of the costume evolved from there.

We wanted Hope to be a warrior, but one that would evoke the ages and not just modern times -- thus, the inspiration of a Spartan warrior. He not only offers the concept of hope, but is willing to lead the fight for the causes.

Warrior of Hope (Credit: Lester Blum Photography)
Lester Blum Photography

Dmitry worked closely with Rios and myself to give meaning to the costume. It was primarily his creativity that gave symbolism to each element of the costume. The skulls of death commemorate those who are no longer with us to see the struggles continuing and any battles won. The staff of life ends with a dream catcher to filter the air for particles of hope and is topped by a raven who scans the horizon for promises of a better and just world.

The interesting thing about your art project is that there's a visual part and an in-person part (the Warrior walks around at events). How did that two-pronged art idea come about?

The original idea was to create a costume for the Pride Parade. Since I am a photographer, we decided to take some photos on the mountain top so that I would have art images, Rios would have the images for himself and Dmitry would have images for his leather portfolio.

How did you come to have a gallery show?

After the Pride Parade, the series on the mountain top was shown to the director of the Leslie-Lohman Museum. He felt that there was a strong message for a show so he presented it as a concept for the Prince St. Project Space programing administered by the Leslie-Lohman Museum.

Once we had the show confirmed, we decided to expand the story line to offer the gallery viewers a full spectrum of images of the Warrior of Hope. The images go from the Warrior's emergence out of chaos to his comforting people, to protests for equality and justice, to his departure for cures have been found and the world is in harmony.

The photos of people with the Warrior of Hope depict a wide range of body types and ages. How did you find the models, and was this intentional?

The diversity of models -- age, body type, ethnic background -- was intentional. Ordinary people were chosen (only a few had ever modeled previously) as we wanted the show to depict a reality to life. Not everyone is body perfect. That is not reality. Everyone can be affected by HIV/AIDS and inequality/injustices. The Warrior of Hope offers "hope" to ALL in need, not just the pretty boys.

Warrior of Hope (Credit: Lester Blum Photography)
Lester Blum Photography

By mixing the ages, ethnic backgrounds and body types, we also address additional issues within our community: age versus youth, issues of age, ethnic mixes, stereotypes of great bodies, etc.

A lot of the message of the Warrior is about hope. What do you mean by hope? Do you mean hope for health? The cure? An end to the epidemic?

Yes, the message of the Warrior is one of hope, for without hope, man cannot exist.

As it pertains to HIV/AIDS, this hope is for more research, a cure, health for those infected and ultimately the eradication of the disease from the world. For the social issues, the hope is for an ideal world where everyone can live in complete harmony regardless of their sexual orientation, age, race or gender.

What do you want people who come to the gallery show to come away having learned?

We would like people who come to the gallery shows to have a better understanding of the history of the disease and social conflicts; to renew their awareness of the tragedy of the 20th century -- HIV/AIDS; to recognize that with all the advances being made in recent years, the war is not over; there is always HOPE.

View more images from the "Warrior of Hope" exhibit on Lester Blum's website.

The "Warrior of Hope" photography exhibit opens Friday, July 24, 2015, from 6-8 p.m., at the Prince St. Project Space, a part of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, 127-B Prince St., New York, NY 10012. It will also be on display at the Staten Island LGBT Community Center on Sept. 12 and the Brad Bafford LGBT Center in Santa Ana, California, on World AIDS Day, Dec. 1.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Mathew Rodriguez is the community editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @mathewrodriguez, like his Facebook page or visit him on his personal website.