NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, 1996: Photography Retrospective

I had the opportunity [with 2 million others] to attend the display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt in October 1996, which was to be the final time the quilt would be shown in its entirety at one location. The Quilt, at that time, stretched across the National Mall from the Capitol to the Washington Monument. Now, with over 48,000 panels, the Quilt would encompass well beyond the same area to reach the Lincoln Memorial.

The Quilt

I arrived early Friday to watch the setup and opening ceremony. With the final invocation, the crowd filtered into the field of multi-colored panels. To one of the sections set up for contribution I added the name of Martin Worman — my Antioch theatre professor [and former Cockette], who passed in ‘93. Walking through the panels, I happened upon several well-known names and sought out a few others. I can remember the continuous drone of names represented by the quilt read throughout the display, and the quiet, respectful murmur of conversations while among the panels; powerful speeches from the main stage echoed over loud speakers. At one point, I came across a laughably-small contingent of anti-gay, or anti-Quilt [?], protestors on the sidelines of the Mall. Coinciding with National Coming Out Day, the weekend was charged with pride, anger, sadness and joy.

Political Action and Pride

The next day, I toured the Mall again, met up with friends, attended speeches and political events. At one such event, thousands linked hands to surround the Capitol building. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence made a graceful appearance while I was on the steps at the Hands Around the Capitol demonstration. Pride flags unfurled, activists chanted in a brilliant display of solidarity.

Candlelight Vigil

Closing out the weekend, we gathered again at the Capitol building to prepare for the National AIDS Candlelight March from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. The spectacle amazed me — estimated to be over 150,000 participants. The glimmer of candles parading through the dusk and darkness of the hours-long procession was mesmerizing, beautiful and affectional. I broke down in tears once reaching the Lincoln Memorial as I listened to the stories echo over the flickering lights.

Past in Perspective

It was an extraordinary time politically and personally, empowering and at times overwhelming. I am not nostalgic for the era and loss of lives. There is a continued need for ACT UP, QueerNation and the like. Still, there exists a great need for not-for-profit healthcare and education in this country, and elsewhere. There still needs to be political action for our government to be participatory and proactive in the prevention and spread of HIV, to end the continued discrimination/stigma against those with HIV/AIDS, and fund and further assist in finding the cure. While I wanted to pull these images together in observance of World AIDS Day this year, these photos are relevant today or any day, and cannot be forgotten.

The photographic record of my journey consists of fourteen rolls of color and black and white 35mm and 220mm film. I have selected the best to be a part of this retrospective. From a technical stand point, I really enjoy the photos from the vigil. Low-light/night and extended-exposure photography had been a long-time interest. The subject matter makes them far more powerful as they are beautiful.

View my 1996 NAMES Project photo documentary series. If you are interested in purchasing prints of any photographs in this series, contact me.

Learn more about the NAMES Project and AIDS Memorial Quilt.