Spotlight: The Photographer Who Coped with AIDS/HIV Through Portraiture

By David Schonauer   Wednesday December 6, 2017

In 2014, Adrain Chesser  told loved ones he had AIDS.

And then he photographed their responses.

The result was his series “I have Something to Tell You,” which was spotlighted across the web, including here at Pro Photo Daily.

“When I thought about having to disclose my illness to my friends I would panic, which didn’t make sense, because I have an amazing group of friends who are all very loving and supportive,” said the Florida-born Chesser in an interview with The Huffington Post. “I realized that these intense emotions where actually based in my childhood fear of abandonment. Growing up gay in a small town in a very religious family, the fear of being found out and cast out was always present and right under the surface. It occurred to me that if I ritualized the act of telling, that it might be possible to transform these childhood fears that were still effecting me as an adult.”

As HuffPost noted, Chesser “had long used photography as a method of interpreting and understanding his own life — a ‘spiritual practice’ — in his early life, so it should make sense that he would turn to the medium once again in a period of turmoil in his adult life.”

Below are a sample of the images from Chesser’s series. Chesser also spoke about the series in a TEDx Talk.

Now filmmakers Ben Joyner  and Dumaine Babcock  have released a short documentary about Chesser, which we feature today. The documentary project, which was crowdfunded at Kickstarter, is also titled I Have Something to Tell You, but it looks back at the artist’s entire life. Chesser recalls the conservative Christian family who wouldn’t accept him, as well as living  through the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.

The short documentary has been receiving praise. “Babcock and Joyner force us to relate to Chesser much like the artist’s work that inspired them,” noted Short of the Week  recently. Joyner and Babcock decided to pursue the project while in school at Savannah College of Art and Design. They had an advantage when they started, since Chesser is Babcock’s godfather.

“All of us also grew up in the deep south, and had gay friends who were mistreated or even ostracized,” Joyner notes at SOTW. “[A]s artists, we were moved by the notion of using one’s art to overcome immense trauma or pain.”

“Photography,” says Chesser in the film, “became my way of interpreting my life.”


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