When I first stumbled across the work of Adrain Chesser, I was almost immediately drawn to tears. It is not often I can say that photography has this effect on me - usually it is words that capture my heart. Yet as I clicked through each image that makes up his I Have Something To Tell You photo series from 2004, it was hard not to be completely and utterly moved. I was captivated.
In that single moment, captured briefly yet indeterminably in time, Chesser had caught the rawness and essence of the human reality – the sadness, hope and desperation – the sense of understanding and, equally, lack of it. Each image holds its own poignancy, and with each click, up comes another face, another life and another story. For me, this goes beyond just the snap of a camera. It is profound artwork – and yet it all started, in essence, with a trip to the hospital.
Grace Carter: Talk me through your diagnosis of HIV/AIDS in 2004…
Adrain Chesser: I had been hospitalised and during my stay the doctor came into my room to go over some test results. After going through the list, when she came to the end, she said “Oh, and by the way, you’re HIV positive” - and then promptly left the room.
GC: What was your perception of HIV/AIDS before you were diagnosed and how did this change afterwards?
AC: I lived through what is now commonly referred to as the ‘plague years’, when a diagnosis was a death sentence and I knew too many people who died. By 2004 treatment was radically changing, so I knew that physically I was going to be OK, but I was more concerned about what it meant for me emotionally and spiritually.
GC: What scared you most about your diagnosis?
AC: Having to disclose my diagnosis to friends and family - specifically the potential for abandonment inherent in the disclosure due to the stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS.
GC: Can you explain to me the concept of your photo series I Have Something to Tell You?
AC: I have always pursued art and photography as a kind of spiritual practice - a sacred occupation - a way to understand and interpret my life. When I thought about having to disclose my illness to my friends and family, I would have these very intense emotional reactions. I felt it in my body. My hands shook. My heart raced. My breathing became shallow.
This reaction didn’t make sense because I have an amazing group of friends who are all very loving and supportive. When I felt more deeply into this reaction, I realised that these intense emotions were actually based in my childhood fear of abandonment. As a child I lived in a constant state of fear that my family would abandon me if they discovered that I was gay. I Have Something to Tell You was my way of healing this deep-seated psychological wound from my childhood, which was still having such a profound effect on me as an adult.
GC: What led to your decision to produce this photo series?
AC: It occurred to me in a moment of inspiration that if I photograph my friends as I told them about my diagnosis, I might somehow be able to better cope with the overwhelming fear and that, in the act of transforming this dreaded moment into art, I might be able to transform those overwhelming emotions within myself.
GC: What was your greatest fear about shooting this series?
GC: How did you go about shooting each image and explaining the diagnosis to each person in the images?
AC: It was never my intention to “capture the moment”. My intention was to create a ritual that would help heal a deep-seated emotional trauma, so I created a sacred space and a ritual around the telling. For the backdrop I used the curtains that hung in the living room in the house I grew up in; the curtains were a very real link to the place where I felt the fear of abandonment most intensely as a child. [pull quote] I invited my friends one at a time to have a portrait made. I put everyone through the same routine, the same gestures, which consecrated the space and ritualised the act of witnessing, inherent to photography. We sat facing each other, my hands would shake and my heart would race as I began to take their photograph. I would start by saying, “I have something to tell you”.
GC: You photographed 47 people for the project. Were there any particular choices made in whom you photographed? Did you leave any key people out the project?
AC: I photographed everyone who I had access to that I felt a connection with at the time, who did not already know my diagnosis.
GC: Which image, if any, stands out to you as the most poignant and why?
AC: Every portrait has its own poignancy. When I made the final edit, I chose the image that spoke most closely to some specific aspect of my own experience. In a very real way, they are all self-portraits.
GC: Did anything surprise you during the shooting of the images, or afterwards?
AC: Yes - about halfway through, on the 25th or 26th portrait, I had the realisation that my overwhelming emotions and physical reactions were starting to change. I was becoming calmer - things were beginning to shift in a profound way.
GC: Looking back, would you do anything differently?
AC: No, not really. Life is too short to entertain regrets.
GC: Did it teach you anything or change the way you look at your photography?
AC: It confirmed my deep hope and desire that art and photography could be used as a tool for healing.
GC: Did you achieve what you wanted to achieve with the images (or more, even, than you anticipated)?
AC: Well yes, and more. It was an attempt to heal this deep-seated emotional wound from my childhood that was still affecting me as an adult. On the last portrait, I realised that no one had said stop; no one had got up and left. Everyone was very brave and willing to be vulnerable with me in that moment. In the end, there was the profound realisation that there was no real abandonment in my life.
GC: What has changed for you between 2004 and 2015?
AC: In 2015 I will be 50 years old and physically, I am healthier than I have ever been. Emotionally and spiritually I find my life to be full of moments of transcendence - moments of such inexpressible beauty that more often than not, I am brought to tears by the heart-breaking knowledge that comes from the temporal nature of life. The knowing that life is fragile and fleeting, that one moment is always dying to the next and I am humbled and grateful for this amazing experience we call being human.
[Adrain’s first book The Return has been published recently by Daylight Books and is available to buy from Amazon, RRP £32.98]
Words: Grace Carter