The "New Faces" of AIDS
An agile rock-climber - young, white, and male - stands proudly on the top of a mountain and gazes across an open vista. A young black woman leans forward on the handlebars of her sports bike, smiling directly into the camera. An interracial gay couple in tuxedos exit a church amidst an exuberant flurry of confetti. These are the new "faces of AIDS" that circulate in publications dedicated to particular niche markets, such as gay men and African Americans, and occasionally in mainstream publications like The New York Times Magazine. One encounters these images in print advertisements for Zerit, Viracept, Combivir, and Crixivan, the various anti-retroviral drugs that make up the current combination therapies used to combat HIV and AIDS. If you happen to skip or miss the accompanying text to these images, you might mistake them for advertisements promoting anything from life insurance to allergy medication. The glossy banality of such images signals the prevailing normalization of AIDS in our current time.
This normalization of AIDS in the West is occurring in the way the epidemic is understood both in social and individual terms. On a social level, normalization does not herald "the end of AIDS," rather its reduction from a crisis to just another "chronic ill" pervading Western societies, like homelessness, poverty, and drug addiction. On an individual level, normalization involves a transformation in the common understanding of the disease from being an "inevitable death sentence" to becoming a "chronic manageable disease," a shift that frequently obscures the issues that continue to render it a major social problem.
After two decades in which mainstream AIDS representation has figured the person with AIDS as "victim," "pariah," "killer," "carrier," and "hero" - the Other against which the normative "general public" may be posited - people with AIDS are, as Gregg Bordowitz argues, now invited to join the "general public" as a targeted demographic through the consumer address of such advertising (4). Summarizing his analysis of these images, Bordowitz concludes that "The figure of the AIDS consumer is merely the latest addition to a growing collection of portraits, hung in the gallery of the Diseased, found in the wing of the Other, exhibited in the Museum of Modern Identity" (9). The image of the person with AIDS as consumer that is produced by this advertising discourse has now entered the shadow archive of popular representation. It is placed alongside its close relation, the gay man as consumer. Unlike most earlier mainstream representations of homosexuality and AIDS, this emergent iconography of the person with AIDS and the gay man as consumers does not figure them as a phobic "Anti-Body." In their invocation of an affirmative, well-regimented "lifestyle," these figures are in fact barely distinguishable from the normative "Body" of contemporary fitness culture.
Should we thus accept these images of people living with AIDS, now understood as a chronic manageable disease, as precisely the kind of affirmative representation that AIDS activists demanded in 1988 in response to Nicholas Nixon's pathologizing documentary images of people dying from AIDS? Are these the "PWAs who are vibrant, angry, loving, sexy, beautiful, acting up and fighting back" that were called for by ACT UP? Hardly. While this iconography certainly undoes some of the phobic aspects to the "spectacle of AIDS," namely the specter of the emaciated dying homosexual, it continues to individualize and privatize the AIDS pandemic. As Bordowitz points out in his analysis, these advertisements offer only images of individuals or couples, never a group of people who are living with AIDS, since the purpose of these advertisements is to stimulate the private consumption of the companies' pharmaceutical products. Furthermore, addressing people with AIDS as consumers affirms only those who can afford the health coverage that provides access to such medications. A great many people with AIDS in the West have little or no access to these combination drug therapies. Moreover, the number of people similarly disenfranchized elsewhere in the world is infinitely greater. Over the last decade, the discursive construction of "African AIDS" as the foreign Other to the AIDS epidemics in the West has been supplanted by "global AIDS" due to the eventual spread of the pandemic to every country in the world during this period. As in the case of "African AIDS," the dominant iconography of "global AIDS" continues to revolve around the figure of the impoverished "AIDS victim" which has long been normalized within the existing discursive framework of the "Third World" with its supposedly intractable poverty, its chronic hopelessness, and its recurrent human disasters. A January 2001 cover story in The New York Times Magazine demonstrates this reliance on such iconography (Rosenberg). While the title and the content of the article performed a competent analysis of the fundamental commercial and geo-political issues, particularly international patent rights, that are preventing the global South from gaining affordable access to effective anti-retroviral medications, the accompanying visual discourse persisted in a singular focus on the person with AIDS as hopeless, poverty stricken victim. The magazine's cover presented a shadowy monochrome photograph of a gaunt African PWA lying in a decrepit hospital bed. Inside the magazine, this iconography is multiplied 20 times through images of emaciated "AIDS victims" from different specified nations. In replicating the iconography of the isolated hopeless victim of "global AIDS," this photo-spread elides any attempt to visualize the tenacious local AIDS activism and the progressive institutional initiatives which the article describes.