By Mike Segar
The photos in this project, conceived ahead of this week’s International AIDS Conference, are not the dramatic, heartbreaking, moving sort that we have been used to seeing of AIDS patients from the ‘80s and ‘90s. What I came to quickly realize is that this story, or I should say this portion of it, is about hope – hope and recovery. Living and learning to live as best one can with a disease the world has come to know all too well as an indiscriminate killer.
Take for example the hope that I saw in the eyes of 40-year-old AIDS patient Bobby Billingsly, a man who was close to death when he arrived at Broadway House in Newark, New Jersey, with a CD4 count near zero in 2009, an indication of what is known as Full blown AIDS.
With the care of nursing, physical therapy and support staff, the latest in AIDS fighting medication, exercise, healthy diet and therapy, Billingsly is becoming the picture of hope – at least to me. He has slowly been able to raise his CD4 count to nearly 200, improving his overall health and hoping to live as long as possible with AIDS. Twenty years ago he would surely have faced a speedy death. Perhaps most hopeful is the attitude he shows of resolve and determination to move forward — something he said he had little of when he arrived. When I asked him how he looks at having AIDS now as opposed to then he says, ”With the medication, workouts, and all we do here, there is reason to believe that you can beat this thing, maybe not beat it, but not let it beat you.” That stuck with me.
Ahead of the AIDS conference, being held in the U.S. for the first time since 1990, I was asked to take a look at something related to HIV/AIDS in America. Not much direction or specifics were given, but rather more of an open palette. My first reaction was: kind of a big subject. But I decided that I would be willing to take a swing at finding out something about people living with the HIV virus in America, who some of them actually are, and try to at least put a human face on this devastating disease to see what I could learn.
After months of mostly meeting with rejection in my efforts to gain access to any AIDS care facility, or clinic, or hospital, I was becoming somewhat frustrated. When a photographer for an international wire service writes and calls trying to get the chance to photograph people infected with HIV and those suffering from AIDS in an attempt to get a glimpse of their life for our readers, it is not surprising that people would be cautious and want to protect their privacy.