“Our Heroes,” a community-donated photography exhibit that chronicles the HIV/AIDS history in the District, opens at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library (901 G St., N.W.) Monday and runs through Jan. 5.
Our Heroes has been a work in progress since 2002. Nine photographers, all of whom are D.C. residents, have documented notable people and places in D.C.’s HIV/AIDS history. The all-black and white photos were displayed in 2006 in a collection of 150 photos. Now, with new pieces added, the collection totals 205 photographs. Biographies accompany the photographs and are all written in first person. It’s as if the people are speaking directly to the visitor and adds a personal connection of past to present. Organizers say it’s the only photography exhibit of its kind in the United States.
Lead organizer Wallace Corbett, a gay man who has been HIV positive since 1989, says “Our Heroes” aims to archive the HIV/AIDS journey by showing the people whose stories are being told and the places at which these monumental events took place. The variety of the photos makes for a diverse history lesson.
“We took the time to document a very long and meticulous journey,” Corbett says. “Some of the pictures are very emotional, some are self-explanatory and some are artistic. The District should be proud that they can go back 50 years from now and understand its journey and who was apart of it, especially for black culture.”
Corbett says his favorite photograph in the exhibit is of a man pushing his dead lover’s body in a coffin over the fence of the White House during the Reagan administration. Along the edges of the photo stand men wearing latex gloves who are afraid to touch the body.
“It was that man’s way of saying to the president this is what is happening in your backyard,” Corbett says. “If you can’t come to the funeral, we will bring the funeral to you.”
Lead photographer Kevin Kenner, also a gay man who is HIV positive, says the photographs were not all easy to come by. Historical photographs of those who had passed away had to be acquired from family members. There was a verification process to confirm the people had contributed to the city’s history in some way.
Some photographs were damaged and had to be replaced. Other photographs were difficult to take such as the one of Enik Alley Coffeehouse, once located on I Street. Since the coffeehouse was out of business and those who had frequented it were long gone, the iconic space that once welcomed LGBT music and literature icons like Essex Hemphill and Michelle Parkerson had been lost.
Kenner hopes the exhibit can serve as a reminder of Washington’s past and help young people shape a different future. He’s saddened that some of the people he met and photographed are no longer here. He says his own HIV experience and those of others has taught him to stop living recklessly. He wants to teach young people to be safer about their decisions.
“The journey has come a long way but still the HIV/AIDS rate is so high,” Kenner says. “I see a lot of young people acting unsafe and uncaring about their life. If you’re going to do things that are not safe than you have to be an adult and deal with the consequences that come about. We need to teach young people to be safe and hopefully people will be aware this journey is still going on and hasn’t ended.”
The exhibit will be displayed on the lower level of the library. After its run, the library will permanently own the exhibit.
“Most people have footsteps in the sand and don’t understand the importance of the footprints until the water washes over them,” Corbett says. “This way those footprints are still there and we won’t forget where we’ve been and we can hopefully see where we’re going.”