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Doing it 'Wright': Photographer Takes Aim at Community
by Danielle Braff
2003-11-01

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His camera flashed hundreds of times as he photographed men, women and children living with HIV who would soon be exposed in a traveling Midwestern exhibit featuring people living with the virus. But his cheerful mood didn't dim, even after capturing their pain with his lens.

Forty-nine percent of Chicago-area AIDS cases reported in 2001 resulted from men having unprotected sex with men. As a gay man, Israel Wright, 49, of Rogers Park has seen more than his share of friends die from AIDS. He said taking photographs of strangers living with HIV was nothing compared with watching the physical disintegration of those he loves dying.

'I've been involved in the AIDS crisis for years,' he said. 'By the time this [ assignment ] came along, this was just another person with the virus.'

Wright is one of three photographers who embarked on the project to take photographs of Midwesterners living with HIV. He worked in conjunction with the other photographers and writers to tell the verbal and physical stories of about 100 people living with their illnesses. The pictures were combined with the stories, and currently appear in two books in addition to traveling in exhibits throughout the Midwest.

Wright calmly flipped through the pages of one of the books and candidly told the stories of the people he was hired to photograph.

'That was the best I could get from her—she didn't want to smile,' Wright said, pointing at a Faces of AIDS photograph he took of Debbie Mata, 24. Mata's young, pudgy face challenges the viewer to look past her glare and into her sad eyes.

Mata said she thinks she was about 18 when she contracted HIV from her first boyfriend, who moved to Mexico without a goodbye after she told him that she had the virus. She agreed to let Wright photograph her because she wants people to see how easy it is for anyone to contract HIV.

'Being a Latina background, I thought it would be a good idea—so they could see that I'm young, and it could happen to anybody,' Mata said.

The exhibit 'shows that this affects people from all walks of life,' said Roslyn Davis of Rogers Park, who appears in the exhibit although she does not have HIV. However, her son, Bryan Keith Davis, died of AIDS in 1996 when he was 31. 'Maybe one of these days people will get over the fact that it's not about who you are,' Davis said. 'It's about what you do to put yourself at risk.'

However, some people in Faces of AIDS did not put themselves at risk. Anne Hummert of St. Louis was a virgin before she was gang raped the night before her 27th birthday.

'When I'm alone at night, and it's just my cat, I'm a coward. I can't hide the tears, I can't hide the anger, I can't hide the frustration. My poor cat has to see it all,' Hummert said in one of the Faces of AIDS books.

Doug Birkenhuer of Lakeview was assigned to take the photograph of Hummert, a large woman with a small AIDS ribbon limply hanging from her chest. Birkenhuer was accustomed to taking headshots for actors before he was hired to do one-third of the photographs for Faces of AIDS.

'Illusions are what my photography had been about,' he said. ' [ Faces of AIDS ] was about making it real rather than the illusion.'

Wright never had the opportunity to let illusion be a part of his photography or his life.

The second oldest of 10 children living in Ohio, Wright had always wanted a camera, but his family could not afford him the luxury. So when he was 11, he saved promotional Bazooka bubble gum wrappers and eventually traded them in for a camera.

He loved his camera, but did not devote his career to photography just yet.

Wright began studying at Ohio State University, but ran out of money after just one semester. He got a job at a factory to make enough money to return to school, but he ended up getting his arm tangled in one of the machines, leading to the amputation of his left arm.

Shortly after, he followed his minister father to Chicago, where he got another job at a factory. But he realized that things were not going to be easy for him.

'I would go to companies for a job, and they would tell me that they didn't want me 'cause I was disabled,' he said.

Eventually, Wright got various jobs in banking, a field he stayed in for the next 20 years, which he described as 'the most thankless jobs that I've ever experienced.' While working at the banks, he took night classes at Loyola University, where he eventually got a degree in managerial accounting.

It didn't help. Wright finally gave up and returned to his first love, his camera, and started shooting for the Outlines [ now Windy City Times ] newspaper. Many of his favorite photographs are events dealing with sexuality, such as the AIDS Walk and the International Mr. Leather competition.

'My mother says I came out when I was four. I guess I've always been gay,' Wright said, speaking proudly about his sexuality. While both his parents are ministers, Wright prefers to stay away from religion because he said that religions look for a way to 'cure' homosexuality.

'I never went to a homosexual training school,' he said sarcastically.

For more information on Israel Wright, visit Israelwrightphotographs.com .

The Faces of AIDS exhibit travels throughout the Midwest. For more information, visit www.ci.chi.il.us/Health/FacesSchedule.html, or e-mail Jim Pickett, project manager for Faces of AIDS at TheFacesofAIDS@aol.com .

The 'Faces of AIDS Book' is available through the Chicago Department of Public Health.


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