The Faces of AIDS

A Bronx Family Album: The Impact of AIDSSteve HartAn interactive CD-ROMPut A Bronx Family Album in your CD-ROM drive, and all of a sudden there's a family living inside your computer -- seven years of life, of pain, joy, sorrow and anger captured by photojournalist Steve Hart. That said, I was a bit skeptical about the merits of a computer disc to communicate the specifics of a genuine mortal experience -- for many of the same reasons I scoff at "online relationships" and "cybersex", that there's only so much about the sincerity of human interaction that can be aped on a computer screen.But here, with his choice of medium, Mr. Hart is able to capture the trials of his adopted family in a wholly unvarnished way, allowing the experiences of his characters to speak for themselves, and to communicate the way that AIDS shaped those experiences in a fashion that is completely devoid of commentary.Ralph and Sensa are a Puerto Rican couple who, when they meet Mr. Hart in 1990, are both HIV positive. They live together in the Bronx with four girls, aged between two and thirteen. Three of the girls -- Christina, Jessica, and Sensita -- are Sensa's daughters from previous relationships. The fourth -- Rosa -- is Ralph and Sensa's child. In all likelihood, Ralph got the virus from his brother from shooting drugs together, and he passed it on to the mother of his child. Sensa is a hopeless crackhead, turning to prostitution to support her hunger. She becomes pregnant again, and dies resulting from complications. Christina, the oldest, leaves home and bears a child of her own. Ralph's new girlfriend Lucy, moves in with the family; she is HIV-negative, but she is determined to bear Ralph's child. When she does become pregnant, she picks up the virus, and eventually miscarries.It's absolutely a tragic story in all the ways that the power suits complain about the "breakdown" of the American family. Yet despite the considerable odds, this is a tight household. Ralph, Sensa, and the children love each other madly. You know because you can see it in their eyes when they're looking at each other. You know because they grow as close to Mr. Hart as they are to each other, and allow him to see them and photograph them with their guard down. He takes his immediately familiar subjects and continues to present them in ways that capture each new emotion in a surprising way.The central presentation is a twenty-minute-long slide show, narrated by the photographer, putting each picture into its historical place. The pictures link to snippets of interviews with his subjects, to provide context for Hart's remarkable photos. The interviews in their audio entirety -- as well as transcripts -- are available on the CD, hours with the principals, as well as with health care professionals. A family tree provides geneological perspective. Also included is a database of non-medical AIDS resources nationwide. An overview of the presentation allows the user to scan the chronological sequence of the photographs. All of this is idiot-proof-easy to navigate; none of the technology crap gets in the way of the power of the story.In the end, however, it seems that AIDS is not what ultimately defines this decidedly non-traditional family. Neither Ralph nor Sensa have jobs; they subsist on welfare. Ralph spends most of his time at home with the girls, smoking cigarettes, watching TV, and sleeping. Sensa prostitutes herself for several months to support her drug dependency -- a frightening thought in itself -- but it's Hart's stubborn refusal to allow even a hint of morality to seep into the narrative that makes her desperation alarmingly real and not a cartoon foil for right-wing demagoguery on the curse of the welfare system.He is detached from his subjects almost to a fault; there is one picture of Ralph dozing off with a lit cigarette in his hand, resting on his shirt, while Sencita tugs on his arm, attempting to wake him up. He says as much as part of his own interview, included on the disc: "As a documentary photographer I had been trained to tell a story. But when I began photographing Ralph and Sensa it all changed and it became about emotion and expression. I didn't bring judgement, I brought only my emotions."What he's doing is he's keeping it real, yeah, and it's really not up to us, his consumers, to fault him for it. As a photo-documentarian, he is thorough and sensitive to the ways that his subjects open up to him. As an interviewer, Hart is best as a listener, getting his subjects started, then allowing them to explain the world as they see it. They talk about AIDS, and about how to deal with living with HIV, but they talk about their hopes and their dreams and the same bullshit all of us think about every day: the new loves in their lives, the 13-year-old friend who's blackmailing her step-father, the frustration and heartbreak of trying to raise young children.But it's the titling of the package that is, in the end, a bit deceptive. It's the title that would have you believe that the problems of these star-crossed lovers and their loved ones grow out of the virus, that Sensa's persistent drug use, Ralph's tendencies towards violence, their reliance on welfare, Sensa's whoring, her children's eventual trek through the foster-care system, are all resultant of the entrance of AIDS into their lives.Mr. Hart meets his subjects after the HIV virus does, but we know that AIDS does not put a crack pipe in anybody's mouth; both were using before their infection. AIDS does not compel Ralph to use his hands when he gets angry. AIDS does not cause Ralph's new girlfriend to smack Jessica with a Walkman, nor does it compel the child welfare department to remove her and Sensita from Ralph's home as a result.What the truth is, is that these are the faces of AIDS. These are the populations, the urban populations, the uneducated, the minority; without reciting the statistics, it's uncomfortably quick to the truth to say that Bronx tenements and urban underbellies are America's HIV petri dishes. It's the new paradigm. We figured out years ago that AIDS is not really the gay man's plague. And it's unfair to hold on to a Magic Johnson or a [have somebody here] as the "new" face of the HIV-positive crowd. The prominent, recognizable personalities have the resources to forge ahead on the front lines of AIDS treatment, and it's ultimately dangerous to rely on their encouraging progress as public trend.The people who are affected worst by the AIDS growth rate don't have access to expensive therapies and won't get better. When Steve Hart expounds on the "Impact of AIDS" he's talking about the children, the four girls who will soon be orphans, and the thousands upon thousands of kids like them who will be left parentless before the end of the decade. Behind each of those children is a story like this one, and it's easy to let the stories be obscured by the overwhelming numbers.


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