Printed large and tacked directly to the wall is a quiet portrait of a young white woman, her head bent in quiet focus. Shot on 35mm film, the print has been enlarged to produce an exaggerated graininess, obscuring her face and much of the photograph’s background, an indistinguishable interior. But details are still discernible: the ribbing on her turtleneck sweater and on her sleeve, pushed up to reveal a tight strap above her elbow, and the ribbon of blood in the chamber of the syringe she holds in her right hand. She readies the push into the top of her wrist, her fingers bent gracefully around the plunger’s tip, the receiving hand curled in a fist, at rest atop what might be her own flexed knee. Around her head is a whitish, scribbled cloud: scratched into the negative and burned in the darkroom. What might be a halo is foremost a reminder of a moment made, and not simply captured.
Woman Using a Clean Needle Provided by Liverpool Needle-Exchange Program, Liverpool, England was shot in 1988 by Brian Weil, a New York-based photographer and activist. Weil, who used heroin intravenously near the end of his life, died of an overdose in 1996 at the age of forty-one. At the time, he had publicly ceased to make photographs, and was dedicated full-time to AIDS activism and the establishment of needle-exchanges in New York. Weil’s trip to Liverpool eight years earlier was one of a number of research trips to learn from and document local and international responses to the AIDS crisis. With funding from the Academy for Educational Development in Washington, DC: he also traveled to Haiti, documenting the activities of traditional healers in response to HIV/AIDS, and to various ACT UP actions across the US. At that time, he was three years into what would be his most personally meaningful and publicly well-known series, The AIDS Photographs: a photographic project which, early in his activism, he never intended to begin.
In 1985, Weil began volunteering with Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), the world’s first non-profit community organization dedicated to HIV/AIDS support services and advocacy. In 1985, GMHC employed a range of member-driven tactics and programs. In the organization’s language, Weil became a “buddy:” an advocate navigating available social and medical services for hospitalized AIDS patients all but ignored by diffident social workers focused on more morally upright and less terminal clients. His first photograph in the series, Flavia, age 2 (1985) was made at the request of her mother, a Brazilian graduate student permanently separated from Flavia’s father by US immigration laws prohibiting travel to the US by people with AIDS. Weil chronicled her family in and outside of Sloan-Kettering Memorial Hospital, and made portraits of other patients, most of whom had, by then, become friends.
The AIDS Photographs comprised a group of portraits that attempted to create a more comprehensive, systemic picture of the crisis than a litany of images of dying patients. The series includes depictions of the intimate moments of people’s lives: the first birthday of Maria’s second daughter, and her first swim lesson; ACT UP demonstrations at City Hall and the National Institutes of Health; portraits of safe-sex instructor and sex-worker advocates in Chicago, Bangkok, and Santo Domingo; traditional healers in Haiti and Zimbabwe; and homosexual “mine marriages” among seasonal miners in South Africa. The AIDS Photographs, in both book and exhibition formats, operated through multiple strategies to avoid contributing to the media tropes that British activist and historian Simon Watney called “the spectacle of AIDS” in which affected queer bodies (and, I would add, the bodies of intravenous drug users) are portrayed only in extremis: physically deteriorated, near the point of expiration and societal disposal, appropriately corporally humiliated and punished before finally collapsing into a statistic. As Watney notes, “The displacement of epidemiology by a moralized etiology of disease” also ironically likely spread the virus further and faster, distracting attention away from the well-proven means of blocking its transmission.
Watney wrote primarily about the violence implicit in media images, but two exhibitions focused on photographs of people with AIDS also stood out for their similar tropes of representation in 1988, the year following the publication of his essay. The late, singularly influential art historian Douglas Crimp wrote on the protest by ACT UP of Nicholas Nixon’s Pictures of People at the Museum of Modern Art, and on Rosalind Fox Solomon’s exhibition at the Gray Art Gallery, Portraits in the Time of AIDS. Both series of portraits emphasized the physical manifestations of illness with little or no context around their subjects’ lives, communities, or desires, much less the structural conditions of transmission and treatment. Nixon, in particular, was unapologetic in his own descriptions of his photographic process, pushing through his subjects’ anxieties about participating in a photo shoot with a combination of exasperation and outright disdain, and emphasizing his own tenacity and ruthlessness of artistic vision, stating “I know how cruel I am, and I’m comfortable with it.”
The task of working against the violence of photography (both real and symbolic), as well as the self-valorizing image of the artist (Weil habitually referred to the group of Magnum photojournalists, which included Nixon, as the “white boys’ parachute club”), seems to have been the guiding ethos of The AIDS Photographs. Weil strove to make the viewer aware of the structural interconnectedness of the epidemic on an interpersonal, communitarian, and global scale. His strategies of physically mediating his images—scratching and over-developing his negatives, blowing up his prints to exaggerate the inherent graininess of 35mm film, and manipulating the visibility of his subjects—were intended to help achieve a non-reductive view of its most at-risk subjects, despite the fact that a number of them were photographed weeks, days, or hours from death. Accompanied by lengthy, descriptive titles and texts which oriented viewers to both the immediate and systemic conditions under which the images were produced, the photographs embodied a kind of refusal of the idea that photography alone could impart critical information about the epidemic and its exacerbation by a myriad number of seemingly unrelated factors (homophobia and transphobia, global inequality and economic exploitation, racism, US immigration law, and addiction stigma, among others).
Moral Arcs and “Injection Chic”
A critique of the image of the gay male body, if not widely or fully articulated at the time, surpassed that of the image of the intravenous drug user, which has received little critical attention. However, precedents had already been set for depictions of intravenous drug use, in the museum and in popular culture. Two decades earlier, in the summer of 1991, the film The Panic in Needle Park was released, based on a reportage by photojournalist Bill Epperidge and with an adapted screenplay by Joan Didion and John Gregory. Eppridge’s two-part LIFE magazine article, appearing in 1965, moralistically presented a couple’s gradual demise—theft, imprisonment, and a near-fatal overdose—after instantaneous enslavement to their drug addiction, and it followed this bleakness with the hope of redemption for similarly affected American youth through the promise of drug rehabilitation facilities. In contrast, Panic eschewed both this markedly moralistic tone and the promise of salvation and reintegration into respectable society. Instead, what many have characterized as the first mainstream film to present intravenous drug use—using cinéma verité and on-set nurses to consult on the authenticity of scenes depicting injection—it presented its protagonists’ “dope-ravaged lives” as an endless slide into depths of deserving depravity and a tragically hip image of corrupted youth.
The image of the junkie that Panic presents resonates with the near-simultaneous public exhibition of Larry Clark’s Tulsa at the San Francisco Art Institute. Tulsa, which would be printed shortly after the exhibition as Clark’s first photobook, chronicled the lives and deaths of a group of Oklahoma methamphetamine addicts in the 1960s and ‘70s, a group of which Clark himself was intermittently a part. Over three chapters of images (titled “1963,” “1968,” and “1971”), the photographs create a narrative that begins with two seemingly clean-cut, young white American men, introduces other characters in images illustrating the highs and lows of drug use, and reaches a crescendo of domestic violence, gunshot wounds, the beating of a police informer, and a pregnant woman shooting up, followed by an image of her newborn baby lying dead in a coffin. The series of images ends not with the finality of death, but with a depiction of member of the next generation of Tulsa’s drug users (in one image, a young man is slender and shirtless, gracefully bent forward as he searches for a vein). Both Clark’s work and Jerry Schatzberg’s film presented the culture of using as an opportunity for voyeurism, but also as banal and cyclical—a now-inevitable fixture of human culture wedded to the decline of the American city in the 1970s.
Clark’s exhibition in San Francisco (prior to the release of Tulsa as a now-iconic photobook) garnered varied responses from critics, their opinions often at odds with one another. One of the first to be published referred to the images as “anguished”: the other, far more distressing to Clark personally, contained the assertion that the subjects looked “no more in the grip of a lethal addiction than so many baseball fans drinking beer.” Later reviews overwhelmingly positioned the work as harrowing and emotional in its depiction of lives intensively lived in the constant presence of death, and heralded Clark as a successor to Robert Frank and Diane Arbus (who had committed suicide only shortly before Tulsa’s book release) in the avant-garde firmament of American photography.
Clark, a participant-observer with close relationships to his subjects, was one of the few photographers Weil openly admired (he was also a fan of Diane Arbus). It should be noted that Weil disdained most of his fellow faculty at the School of Photography at the ICP, deriding even esteemed career photojournalists like Capa as belonging to “the white boy parachute club.” Clark and Weil came to know one another in New York in the early 1980s, becoming friends and acquiring one another’s works. Still, their styles, their methodologies, and their relationship to the practice and the purpose of photography were profoundly different. Unlike Weil’s ethereal and quiet portraits of people in the midst of using, Clark’s images are a tumult of detail: track marks, black eyes, greasy hair hanging limply over tattoos, bodies writhing on unmade beds. There is ambivalence, but no ambiguity: his subjects are squarely and unapologetically situated in the material conditions of their own lives. And unlike the painstaking statistics and epidemiological details accompanying The AIDS Photographs, Clark’s ancillary text for Tulsa is limited to the briefest of preambles: “i was born in Tulsa Oklahoma in 1943, when i was sixteen i started shooting amphetamine. I shot with my friends everyday for three years and then left town but I’ve gone back through the years, once the needle goes it in never comes out.” In the absence of facts (aside from the stark evidence of violence and death), the viewer is swept along by affect, rendering the narratives of users and their families wide open to personal interpretation—or to collective identification. Critic A.D. Coleman, profoundly affected by Tulsa after its first publication, asserted that “in the midst of all this death the characters are in life; and harrowing and painful though Clark’s images are, the very involvement they create and the intense emotionality they extract from anyone (and everyone) who encounters them are affirmations of the viewer’s own life-urge.” Clark framed his subjects as modern primitives, ruled by pure id, chasing the highs of sex, violence, and drugs until they can no longer outrun their repercussions. And for all of Weil’s admiration of Clark’s photographs, representing drug use during a pandemic required a radically different approach.
The AIDS Photographs
Weil considered the The AIDS Photographs his most important group of works, having previously gained some art world recognition for his immersive photographic projects on BDSM, homicides in Miami, and New York’s Hasidic communities. But the photographs themselves began (or, rather, continued) to be less valuable to him as a product or a practice, than as a useful corollary to his activism. Weil referred to photography as his “excuse”: a way to garner funds for travel and research, to grow his activist networks, and to more fully understand the entrenched conditions that activism was facing. Weil also saw photography as an opportunity to circulate more complex images of AIDS to the World Health Organization and other nonprofit bodies, and to facilitate activist and youth education-focused dialogues within arts institutions. Over the course of the project, he ceased his pediatrics work with GMHC, and joined and then left ACT UP (over internal political tension, including the organization’s divided positions on harm reduction strategies). Eventually, the majority of his time went into the grassroots efforts to establish and legitimize clean-syringe exchanges in New York. With friends and fellow activists, Weil would distribute more than 4,000 sterile needles and bleach kits in Harlem, the South Bronx, Brooklyn, and the Lower East Side. Purchased in bulk from a diabetic buyers’ club, they were encoded (in late-night group painting sessions) with borough-specific stripes of nail polish. With an eye on demonstrating the need for and undeniable results of harm-reduction work, it was a crude means of tracking the distance one used needle could travel within disparate communities of users.
A photograph Weil made in Chicago in 1986, Men Sharing a Rented Needle at a Shooting Gallery, provides one image of the conditions of transmission. It shows us an older man seated on the edge of an unmade bed, his forearm being injected by a person to his right, while in apparent conversation with someone outside the photograph’s frame. The text preceding the photograph in The AIDS Photographs catalog (as well as in the exhibition’s didactics) informs us that one IV drug user in the gallery, a diabetic, receives several clean medical needles a week and rents them out to hundreds of other users: a means of affording his habit. Weil describes watching people sharpen a needle, dulled from extensive use, on the edge of a matchbook; he then notes that while caring for one person with AIDS in a city hospital costs New York City between $60,000 and $150,000 over the course of their illness, and that Liverpool’s entire needle-exchange program is run on $75,000 per year.
Women Using a Clean Needle was accompanied by two other Liverpool portraits in the exhibition, all made in the same 1988 visit. The subject of Man Using a Clean Needle, performing a version of the deft manual acrobatics that injectable drug users can be adept at, moves his clothing aside to inject himself near his groin: at first glance, he appears to be tenderly cradling something precious in his arms. Young Sex Workers Injecting Drugs depicts the same female subject as Woman Using a Clean Needle: here, she displays a similar focus while injecting a colleague in the forearm, while another person prepares their own injection in the background.
The placidity of the Liverpool photographs may have represented to Weil and others an image of harm reduction that was nearly utopic in its pragmatism. Exchanges in Liverpool, originally in place to minimize the spread of hepatitis among IV drug users, grew into a model of harm reduction (the “Merseyside model”) that, after legal struggles, eventually became part of mainstream drug treatment protocols and that attracted activists and policy makers internationally. The city held the first International Harm Reduction Conference in 1990; in the same year, New York City’s sole legalized needle exchange program was shut down by the newly inaugurated Dinkins administration (which publicly opposed the “encouragement” of drug use through the distribution of “paraphernalia”). Weil’s images, through repeated depictions of the moment of injection, whether alone or assisted, also seem to suggest (if not indexically record) a harm-reduction goal that has yet to be achieved in either the US or the UK: the legal availability of safe and controlled injection sites for drug users. This remains a lifesaving goal for harm-reduction organizations, including CitiWide Harm Reduction in the South Bronx, the still-extant needle exchange that Weil founded in 1995. On a tour of the facility by the organization’s director in 2013, I was shown a room that would be dedicated to on-site injection, held ready for the moment that the practice would become a legal part of harm reduction services.
Inasmuch as the Liverpool photographs represented a legal goal and an activity abhorred by US legislators, they were never the object of outrage on the part of viewers or the gatekeepers of the museum. That ire was reserved for Safe Sex/Images Created To Eroticize Safe Sex For Educational Purposes (1987), two photographs shot on the set of a porn film focused on eroticizing condom use between men: an effort to combat the seemingly intractable cultural resistance to the use of condoms in sex work. The images each depicted a pair of men, engaged in erotic posing and masturbation, rendered in Weil’s characteristic grainy, high-contrast style. Before The AIDS Photographs opened at the ICP, director Cornell Capa threatened to fire the show’s curator if the Safe Sex works were not pulled from the show. Weil reacted by approaching the director himself, threatening massive repercussions by way of activist protest, and daring Capa to “please do it: it will give the show way more attention”). Ultimately, no one was fired, the photos remained uncensored, and neither they nor the injection photographs caused a scandal. However, reviews that mentioned the injection photographs tended to note the ideological conflict between Weil’s activism around needle exchange with the federally sanctioned “Just Say No” approach to education on drug use.
Drugs on View
Since Tulsa and The AIDS Photographs, a number of photographers have created books and exhibitions about communities of drug users. To uneven degrees, they have absorbed the extensive critiques of documentary and photojournalistic practice put forward by Martha Rosler, Allan Sekula, Susan Sontag, and other artists and theorists in the 1970s and 1980s. Put very generally, those critiques argued that documentary photography needs to adopt more rigorous strategies: that representations of conflict, violence, and inequality must account for systemic and structural forces even (or especially) when the viewers themselves become implicated in that accounting. Eugene Richards’ Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue (shown at the ICP in 1994), a series of photographs of three neighborhoods (North Philadelphia, East New York, and the Red Hook projects) marked by drug addiction, was roundly criticized for its lurid depictions (including an image of a woman preparing to exchange oral sex for drugs, a toddler strapped to her back) and insinuation (through its narrow focus) that drug use was solely the province of poor, black, inner-city communities. While the book version included multiple first-person accounts from Richard’s subjects, which made clear the systemic inequality and socioeconomic forces that force them into desperate circumstances, his images portrayed them as indisputably othered. Wild-eyed and ruthless as they count piles of seized cash and grip syringes between bared teeth, they are served up to middle-class, museum-going audiences as a handy conflation of poverty with depravity; a thrill ride through places best avoided by those ostensibly making good life choices. Richards’ project was conceived and produced in the years after mandatory minimum sentencing laws were enacted—legislation that devastated black communities while sparing scores of affluent white users. In his own defense, Richards has pointed out that his project was not “a treatise on all drugs and drug users in America,” and indeed, it was never meant as such. But the politics of drug use and the political instrumentalization of drug users is singularly driven by an image economy in which parts stand in for wholes, and the social crisis engendered by the crack epidemic of the 1980s and early 1990s raised those representational stakes exponentially.
In marked contrast, the 2009 project Righteous Dopefiend took those stakes seriously. In their twelve-year anthropological and photographic study of two dozen injectors and crack users in the US, Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg remind their readers that “‘letting a picture speak its thousand words can result in a thousand deceptions.” They insist that their images (which overwhelmingly emphasize their subjects’ relationships to family and to social and medical services, rather than moments in the pursuit or use of drugs) are inseparable from their supportive text: an exhaustive analysis of the structural forces that create the conditions for addiction, and produced an intractable shelterless population within one of the world’s wealthiest nations. Righteous Dopefiend, which also traveled as a museum exhibition originating at the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology, took the position that any serious look at drug use in America had to critically examine the failures not of individuals, but of systems, including structural racism, unchecked capitalism, and aggressive gentrification, as well as an ultimately irrational lack of housing and counseling services (which could be made available to at-risk populations at the fraction of the cost of the American public’s preferred expenditure—mass incarceration).
Photography and Complicity
French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of symbolic violence is useful in thinking about the ways in which inequality and domination are perpetuated and naturalized. Symbolic violence concerns the ways in which hierarchies of power are tacitly maintained by both dominated and dominating groups.  Present in legislation and policy, in popular opinion and in cultural norms, symbolic violence upholds and reproduces dominant social systems over time, and works to legitimize actual violence, such as mandatory minimum sentencing and other legal pipelines to mass incarceration. Recent sociological research based on the lived experience of public injecting has shown that the stigma associated with routine public exposure of one’s injecting status (as well as other forms of public shaming) contributes to an environment of risk for users, which increases vulnerability to HIV. In laying out the processes of symbolic violence, Bourdieu uses the term “misrecognition”—a phenomenon that works through culture, anchoring taken-for-granted assumptions about the rituals, actions, and motives of oppressed groups, and legitimizing unequal structures and social inequality. To misrecognize communities in pain—including drug users and people with AIDS—through habitual ways of looking, speaking (or photographing, for that matter)—is to diminish their political representation entirely. It is to, consciously or unconsciously, swap a complex assessment of structural oppression for a moralistic rhetoric of individual responsibility, or an operating logic of dehumanization.
For Weil, like Bourgois and Schonberg, the struggle against this process was waged in part through information—didactic materials that stressed the interconnectedness of the AIDS epidemic with systemic poverty and global systems of oppression. Citing the enormous complexity of studying “a molecule [the virus] within a culture,” the series connected Bangkok shooting galleries to American sex tourists in the Philippines to long-term contracted miners in South Africa to the HIV+ wives of transfused leukemia patients. As Weil told ICP curator Willis (Buzz) Hartshorn in 1991, “To document AIDS is an amazingly presumptuous thing, because the scope of the epidemic is so complex and diverse. [...] When people say that the scope of this project is incredibly broad, I know I’ve just barely scratched the surface. I’ve been confronted with an impossible task. What I have done is try to make little notations on how this disease manifests itself in different cultures.”
Weil’s struggle with the impossible was made evident on the photographic surface—a site that was scratched, blown-up, overexposed, or underdeveloped. To stand at a distance is to be compelled to see them up close, to see more—and yet, upon examining the images closely, for that desire to be thwarted. The exaggerated grain—conventionally seen as an undesirable mark of amateur and unskilled photography—becomes a shifting, pointillist landscape, in which hard contours of differentiation become impossible to discern, dissolving from one into the next. His portraits were a simultaneous offering and a withdrawal: for viewers, there could be no illusion of knowledge or evidence, no unearned experience, no false recognitions or damaging categorizations. Despite the didactics, the complexity resolves itself as paradox: we can see, read, and learn a great deal in the museum, but there is only so much we can come to understand. Through grains of silver, a child disintegrates, a woman glows from within. We will never know them, but we have our own work to do.
Stamatina Gregory is a curator and an art historian, whose work focuses primarily on the interrelationship of Photography and politics. She has organized exhibitions for institutions including The Cooper Union, FLAG Art Foundation, the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, and the Santa Monica Museum of Art. Gregory was the curator of New York photographer and activist Brian Weil’s retrospective at the ICA, Philadelphia, and she was the Deputy Curator of the inaugural pavilion of The Bahamas at the 55th Venice Biennale (2013). She has taught art history, critical theory, and writing at New York University, The New School, the School of Visual Arts, Purchase College, Sotheby’s Institute, and the University of Pennsylvania.
1 With a group of other ACT UP activists, Weil founded the Bronx/Harlem Needle Exchange, later incorporated as New York Harm Reduction Educators; he later founded the Bronx-based CitiWide Harm Reduction (now BOOM! HEALTH) which still houses a needle exchange bearing his name and image. Roberta Smith, “Brian Weil, 41, Photographer Who Founded Needle Exchange,” The New York Times, February 8, 1996.
2 Simon Watney, “The Spectacle of AIDS,” October, vol 43, AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism (Winter 1987): 71-86. 80. Watney also wrote the introduction to Weil’s exhibition catalog for The AIDS Photographs, Every 17 Seconds: A Global Perspective on the AIDS Crisis. (New York: Aperture, 1992).
3 Douglas Crimp, “Portraits of People with AIDS,” in Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002), 58.
4 Bill Eppridge, “John and Karen Two Lives Lost to Heroin,” LIFE Magazine, February 26, 1965, 66-9
5 James Bell, “Love and Other Drugs,” Sight and Sound 21:10 (October 2011): 84.
6 Alfred Frankenstein, “’The History of My Life’: Romanticism to Reality,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 17, 1971, 46.
7 A. D. Coleman, “Latent Image: The Life-Death Drug Paradox,” Village Voice, September 16, 1971, 24.
8 For more on the comparison of Eppridge and Clark’s photo essays, see “The Moral Issue of a Pregnant Woman Shooting Up” Photo Review 16:1 (Winter 1993): 2-9. Marshall calls Clark’s images “repulsive, voyeuristic facts that has taken us this far in Tulsa as an exact and part symbol of the drug we are craving.”
9 Artist interview with Willis (Buzz) Hartshorn, 1991.
10 Todd Purdham, “Dinkins to End Needle Plan for Drug Users,” The New York Times, February 14, 1990.
11 Yoav Gonen, “De Blasio commits to opening four supervised injection sites,” New York Post, May 3, 2018.
12 “Picturing AIDS: Photos show stories of courage, conflict,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 19, 1992, 21.
13 Philippe Bourgois, Jeffrey Schonberg, Preface to Righteous Dopefiend (Berkeley: UC Press, 2009).
14 Bourdieu discusses symbolic violence in the context of gender in Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron, Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture (London: Sage Publications, 1977): “The imposition of a cultural arbitrary by an arbitrary power” (p. 19).
15 Rhodes, et al., “The Social Structural Production of HIV Risk Among Injecting Drug Users,” Social Science and Medicine 61(5) (Sept. 2005): 1026-44. Epub 2005 Mar 19.
16 Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (London: Routledge, 1979, 2013), 388.